Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Can "The World's End" Do the Sci-Fi Comedy Category Justice at the Oscars?

Top to Bottom: Paddy Considine, Simon Pegg, and Martin Freeman
There is this weird disconnect between Academy Awards and comedy that seems unfair. While it has improved slightly in the past decade, stories that deal with less conventional methods are most likely reduced to little or no awareness at all. Even with director Edgar Wright's latest film The World's End planning to hit the scene in America this Friday, there is little chance that it could break the mold and become one of the first British comedies not named Four Weddings and a Funeral or The Full Monty to get into the Best Picture race. Of course, summer blockbusters in general don't stand a chance, though they seem more forgiving in the Best Original Screenplay categories.

As I have stated at the beginning of summer, I am really looking forward to The World's End. I have a strong fondness for Wright's previous efforts and feel that while he has become a cult phenomenon in the states, his success unfortunately seems like a thankless task. Despite now being one of the great comedies, Hot Fuzz barely made a mark here and his first attempt at a studio film, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, managed to capture the zeitgeist and connected with fans in a bold and refreshing new way, but the box office receipts suggest that Marvel is daft to let him make an Ant-Man movie if they plan to seek a profit, even if he is visually one of the most interesting directors currently working.

The sad part is that there is a good chance that he will never be taken seriously on a blog focusing on the Oscars. While blockbusters have always had a shot at the big leagues like past winners Gladiator or Titanic, it seems like they are reserved for veterans. Even if The World's End is actually more comedy than big budgeted flare, I don't see why it should be disqualified. As stated in the opening remarks, British comedies have fared well in the past, though in a more crowd-pleasing sort of way. It is hard to say that a film about male strippers is exactly crowd-pleasing, but it had depth.

Which brings me to The World's End. While I haven't seen it yet, it has been promoted as this film about alcoholism and trying to chase the past. These themes are perfectly acceptable in any narrative. The Lost Weekend was the most notable Best Picture winner to be about alcoholics, which suggests that either the times have changed and our acceptance of this behavior has changed, or that shouldn't be so much of a detractor. In fact, Denzel Washington just got nominated for Best Actor in Flight for playing just that type of role. Is it because the film is a comedy, or more specifically a sci-fi comedy, that is making it hard to take seriously for some Oscar love?

I'll admit that the Academy has warmed up to sci-fi a little bit in the past few years. While it doesn't fare well at winning, films like District 9 and Avatar suggest that it can happen. I really hope the upcoming Gravity is capable of joining these ranks, but that is yet to be seen. Even the argument that it is a comedy shouldn't be detracting anymore. While the success of Bridesmaids was largely thanks to the strong influence of producer Judd Apatow, it is still an odd triumph that a film featuring crass toilet humor and women behaving badly landed a Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress nomination for Melissa McCarthy. Whether or not those were deserved is up for debate, but is just the first of many clues that the Academy should recognize comedy more.

Sacha Baron Cohen in Borat
Many have forgotten that comedy does rather well in the screenplay categories. Along with Bridesmaids, recent entries include Moonrise Kingdom, In the Loop, and probably the most baffling is Borat. While Borat was a cultural phenomenon that exposed America's underbelly of problems, it still seems odd that the vulgar comedy that actually features a scene with a bear in an ice cream truck actually made it to the finish line. Just being nominated is a triumph for comedies these days, yet this oddball of a story set the bar for standards of what could pass as a comedy nominated for screenplays. I admit that I am a fan of the film, but if a highly improvised story that meshes reality and fiction can make it, then my argument can only be strengthened.

While sci-fi comedies are another story and have never reached a screenplay nomination, there is still the possibility that it could happen. While The World's End is technically part of an unconnected trilogy of films that features Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, it is actually capable of a Best Original Screenplay nod. The trailers sell this as a hilarious look into British alcoholism and corporate powers changing everything. The thing about a Wright film is that they tend to be heavy with subtext, which the Academy tends to favor. It worked for Borat in most likely more racist and crass ways, so why not here? 

I feel it could partially be because of the subject matter. There looks to be aliens attacking alcoholics, which doesn't immediately grab the interest of the Academy. Like numerous points of arguments I have made, the Academy tends to skewer towards older topics. They are often safer bets. Also, even if you go based on the small collective of potential nominees, I feel like the money for comedy right now that stands a chance in the screenplay field is Frances Ha for Best Original Screenplay. Despite initial concern, the buzz has been steady around it and if it holds up, it could manage to make it to the finish line. Also the subject at the center is more focused on relationships and less aggressive topics. Also, director and co-writer Noah Baumbach is already a familiar name to the Academy, as he was nominated for Best Original Screenplay for The Squid and the Whale

The closest that Wright ever came was with director Steven Spielberg's The Adventures of Tintin, which he co-wrote with Steven Moffat and Joe Cornish. The film failed to make a splash and eventually copped out with only a Best Original Score nod for John Williams. Of the many issues of this underrated film, it was that it was also excluded from Best Animated Feature for being based largely around the motion capture technique. This was largely thanks to the Academy placing these rules into practice once Avatar came out and did similar methods, but with live action interactions. The one benefit is that the film won a Golden Globe for Best Animated Feature, though you know how I feel about the Golden Globes. The bright side is that Spielberg was courteous enough to give them a shout out during his acceptance speech.

Left to right: Freeman, Considine, Pegg, and Nick Frost
I can theoretically figure out why Wright's past efforts wouldn't make the cut. Shaun of the Dead was a zombie movie and too small of a film to be considered at the time. Hot Fuzz was too much of an action movie. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World makes less sense, as it should have been up for Best Editing or Best Visual Effects at very least. It was a technical triumph, even if you have issues with the pacing or story. However, The World's End at least feels like it could stand a chance because of its subtext. I am not sure if it is going to be witty or interesting enough to qualify for Best Original Screenplay, but as critics aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes will argue, it currently holds at 94% (subject to change), which is rather impressive. If it can get the buzz that has been built around Frances Ha (currently holds 92%), then maybe it stands a chance. 

We are very close to things heating up with the Oscar Buzz. We technically started with Fruitvale Station and The Butler, but September is the official launch of prestige titles. While August films haven't usually fared well with winning, they at least are late enough in the year to get proper consideration. There's something about this time of year where things are taken more seriously. Admittedly, comedies aren't a serious category in principle, but they should be able to stand more of a chance than what they usually have. Along with the idea that this is just a great ensemble who have always managed to make authentic and fun films, I am rooting for these guys to hopefully get Wright into the race, even if Frances Ha and Blue Jasmine are probably going to steal it.

Is comedy an underrated competitor at the Oscars? Will sci-fi comedy ever be as accepted as the sci-fi genre itself? Will Edgar Wright ever get the chance to be nominated in general?

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