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Loss Leaders

by Ross Douthat

A review of Inside Llewyn Davis and All Is Lost.

To movie obsessives, the Oscars are fascinating, frustrating, riveting, infuriating — a spectacle we love to hate and love to love. To normal people, though, they’re something much more basic: a handy guide to which non-blockbuster, non-superhero movies they should grace with their time and hard-earned dollars.

This means that to make an Oscar-ish motion picture is to enter a world of “bimodal” box-office possibilities, as a new paper from UCLA’s Gabriel Rossman and Oliver Schilke puts it. The scholars looked at a quarter century’s worth of movies with “Oscar appeal,” as determined by a complex algorithm designed to weigh plot points, stars, and pedigree, and found that award-bait movies are an all-or-nothing commercial proposition — with “super-normal returns” for those that actually get a nomination and “large losses for snubs.” (The most Oscar-bait-ish movie ever, the algorithm reported, was a snub: 1990’s Come See the Paradise, starring Dennis Quaid as a movie projectionist drafted to fight in the Pacific while his Japanese-American wife and daughter end up in internment camps back home.)

Those “super-normal returns” mean that, notwithstanding the inherent silliness of the season, there’s something infuriating about watching a movie that’s Oscar-engineered but lousy grab a Best Picture nomination, because you know it means that lots of innocent moviegoers are going to decide that it’s worth seeing. (From Chocolat to The Reader to this year’s Philomena, Harvey Weinstein has a lot to answer for in this regard.) And it’s equally disappointing when a movie that actually merited the “super-normal” outcome ends up getting snubbed, because what’s lost isn’t just a chance at a golden statuette but the viewers the film deserves.

As a partial remedy, then, I urge you to defy the bimodal rules and seek out this year’s two most striking Oscar snubs — Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen brothers’ recreation of the 1961 Greenwich Village folk scene, and All Is Lost, in which Robert Redford holds the screen alone as a yachtsman stranded in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

The two films have something in common: They extract brilliant performances from their male leads, while heaping a cascade of misfortunes upon their shoulders. There was a lot of misfortune-heaping in this year’s Best Picture nominees — characters are enslaved, diagnosed with HIV, marooned in space, captured by pirates, forced to visit relatives in Nebraska — and maybe Academy voters finally ran out of patience. (Or maybe, in the case of All Is Lost, they decided that they could nominate only one picture about an American in peril somewhere off the east coast of Africa, and Captain Phillips had already claimed that slot.)

But suffering is the seed of drama, and both Llewyn and Lost offer distinctive portraits of men nearing the end of a rope. The rope for Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac, a little-known Latino actor playing an outer-borough striver) is his career as a musician, which has delivered him to a life spent sleeping on couches in Manhattan while he tries — after the death of his musical partner — to make a go of it as a guitar-strumming, folk-crooning solo act.

This being a Coen-brothers movie, it’s not surprising that the universe deals him a bad hand — death, an unplanned pregnancy, a shared ride to Chicago that ends with a drug overdose, even a lost (and found, and lost again) orange cat. But, unlike some Coen protagonists, Llewyn is less an undeserving Job figure than an expert in self-sabotage — a bad houseguest, a careless womanizer, a singer of real talent (the music alone makes this movie worth seeing) who wears his sense of superiority too obviously on his sleeve. Like most of the people around him, we’re exasperated with Llewyn even when we sympathize with him, and root for his success while recognizing the extent to which his own choices, and not just the caprices of the universe, make his failure seem foreordained.

In All Is Lost, the universe’s caprice looms larger, and the story is more about stoicism than self-sabotage. Perhaps Redford’s character — “Our Man” in the credits, with no real backstory supplied beyond a wedding ring and the wealth and skill required to take a solo yacht trip — makes some mistakes after a drifting container punches a hole in his vessel, flooding his radio equipment and leaving him at the mercy of a storm. I’m not seaman enough to judge his choices. But what we’re watching is clearly a Hemingwayesque parable, not a study in proper crisis management: The weathered man against the weather, the human being reduced to his bare, forked essence, the existential facts of life thrown into stark, storm-backgrounded relief.

Redford’s near-wordless performance is one of the best he’s ever given, and the director, J. C. Chandor, does everything he needs to do without making the direction a distraction from the stakes. Alas, Oscar snubs are becoming routine for Chandor: He made 2011’s Wall Street drama Margin Call, another men-at-the-moment-of-crisis movie that’s still the best film made about the financial crisis, but that likewise didn’t make the Best Picture cut.

I’m not sure what he needs to do to impress Oscar voters, but his next movie, next year’s A Most Violent Year, stars none other than Oscar Isaac. So if Chandor and Isaac stay true to their Lost and Llewyn form, the Academy will soon get a chance to right two wrongs at once.

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