Naomi Watts’ “Impossible” Odds

Much to my delight, Naomi Watts has once again been recognized by the Academy, earning her second Best Actress nomination. Much to my chagrin, she won’t win. Much to my post-chagrin delight, that’s fine by me. She shouldn’t win. Not now. Not for The Impossible anyway.

There is nothing wrong with the movie itself per se, just as there is nothing wrong with Watts’ performance. On the contrary, The Impossible is just about the best film about the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami one could hope for (even if the backlash against director J.A. Bayona’s decision to focus on the ultimately triumphant story of a vacationing British family instead of its broader devastation does warrant some pause), and I wouldn’t necessarily have cast another actress to play Maria Bennett, a severely wounded mother trying to locate her husband (Ewan McGregor, who has a moment in the film that may be his finest) and two of her three children (the extraordinary child actor Tom Holland plays the son she’s able to keep by her side) among the wreckage.

But, despite effects so terrifyingly real your chest will tighten at the sight of mountain high waters rushing at children playing in a pool, The Impossible is pretty much everything you expect and little else, hampered by a melodramatic score and a fairly by-the-numbers plot. And, as a friend pointed out after the screening, Watts, the ostensible star of the film, is literally unconscious for more than half of it. When she’s awake and doing her thing, we’re too distracted by the missing chunk of thigh that oozes gore as she sloshes through dirty water or by the giant gash in her exposed breast to pay much mind to the nuances of her facial expressions or the way she takes breaths as telling as any dialogue. In other words, interiorly, there’s surely a great performance embedded there, but what translates onscreen is a rendering too often overshadowed by what surrounds the actress rather than what emanates from her (frankly, if you want to see Watts do a bang-up job portraying a mother fighting for her child’s life in horrific circumstances, you’re better off revisiting The Ring — but not The Ring Two). The cynic in me would dismiss the performance as “Oscar Bait,” but the Watts loyalist in me would much rather accept it as the universe (okay, the Academy) assuring Watts to hang in there, that she’s on track, and she’ll climb the Best Actress ranks when the time is right.

I must confess, though, that I worry Watts may never turn out a performance quite as challenging or unique as the one that announced her arrival as a formidable talent. As both Betty and Diane in David Lynch’s 2000 masterpiece Mulholland Drive, Watts effortlessly does double duty, channeling light and dark in the kinds of extremes and in-betweens most actresses can only hope to explore over the course of an entire career, let alone over the course of a single film. Even though Mulholland is now some 13 years old, to spoil the context and particulars of Watts’ transformation is to rob the unfamiliar reader/viewer of the chance to witness for himself something so fine and so rarely captured on camera.

Following her near-unanimous praise for that role (though not from the Academy), Watts’ choices were mostly smart ones, earning her first Oscar nomination for the acclaimed downer 21 Grams, landing the role of leading lady in Peter Jackson’s ambitious King Kong remake, chewing the scenery in I Heart Huckabees, and mastering the complexities of cold-bitchery in the criminally under-seen Mother and Child. The snoozy period piece Painted Veil and Fair Game the Hollywood retelling of outed American spy Valerie Plame’s ordeal do have a vaguely off-putting, awards-seeking air about them, but Watts is talented enough to balance, if not overcome, that atmosphere—precisely what she achieves, for better or worse, with The Impossible.

While Watts undoubtedly still has an auspicious career ahead of her—she is, after all, currently filming Diana, playing the beloved, titular Princess of Wales, which could potentially cinch an Oscar for her if the film follows the tried and true formula that delivered Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep their recent trophies—she need be cautious that she doesn’t fall victim to the crisis-of-choice that has crippled many a great, nominated actress post-loss. Case in point: the lovely and versatile Julianne Moore, a four-time nominee, doubly snubbed in 2002 for both Supporting Actress in The Hours and, more egregiously, Best Actress for Far From Heaven (losing the latter to her Hours co-star Nicole Kidman’s prosthetic nose and pout-fueled Virginia Woolf impression). Moore has struggled to regain momentum following that loss, making wayward film choices that seem to betray some anxiety about which role might potentially bring her closer to Oscar; though incredibly prolific over the past decade, she’s only recently begun to leave an impression again, most notably for her dead-on interpretation of Sarah Palin in HBO’s Game Change. How or if that performance will propel her back to the top of the big-screen critical food chain remains to be seen.

So, this is a crucial period for Naomi Watts, and it would behoove her to continue to insert herself in challenging films unconcerned with mass appeal. That independent spirit has served her well in the past and elicited unselfconscious, intuitive work on her part. Though far from a Hollywood blockbuster, there’s a pandering, awards-hungry fog that hangs over The Impossible, one that not even Watts can separate herself from. What results is an unshakeable realization that we’re watching Watts pretending to be someone else rather than experiencing the convincing immersion into character we’ve come to expect from her. If by some long shot, Watts emerges victorious on Oscar night, I’ll celebrate, of course, and I’ll giddily, exuberantly ramble that it’s long overdue. But, in the end, 2013 doesn’t seem poised to be her year, and that’s a good thing since an actress of her strengths deserves to be honored for her capabilities, not her competence.