Friday, December 23, 2011

Brad Pitt Vs. Brad Pitt: Which One Should Get the Best Actor Oscar Nomination?

As usual, Brad Pitt is in an enviable position.

This time, it has nothing to do with being one of the richest movie stars on the planet, one of the sexiest men alive, or having to choose between Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie. He's in the enviable position of starring in two movies in one year which are both ending up on pretty much every best-of-2011 list: The Tree of Life and Moneyball. When the dust settles, he'll probably be in that, yes, enviable, and rare position of headlining two Best Picture Oscar nominees as well as being a Best Actor contender.

Here is the part where I reveal that I was disappointed by both movies. I think my problem with Moneyball might have had as much to do with the subject matter as the film itself. I'm not a big sports fan, and I can't imagine ever being truly moved by a sports film unless there is some great emotional off-the-field story arc at the center. (I'm about to watch Warrior, and I'm hoping for the best.) Friday Night Lights was a TV series based around football, but it was the detailed character study and the small-town drama that made it one of my favorite TV shows of the past decade.

I'm definitely more into baseball than football, but Moneyball was too much about love of the game. That said, there's no denying Brad Pitt's performance in it. Ridiculously charismatic and a bit of an asshole, he reminded me a lot of Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire, a movie I enjoyed partly because there was so much more going on in it than football. I would have loved to have seen more than two Moneyball scenes with Robin Wright, who appeared once in the flesh and once via telephone, and more father-daughter bonding might have pulled me deeper into Moneyball.

Pitt got lots of family time in The Tree of Life. And although I liked that film even less than I did Moneyball, I was more moved by Pitt's performance in it. He's getting all of his precursor awards and nominations for Moneyball, but this is the film that should win him that long-elusive Oscar in February (just as Revolutionary Road, not The Reader, was the 2008 film for which Kate Winslet should have snagged her Best Actress honors -- and for those who say Pitt was supporting in Life, so was Winslet in The Reader). My gripes with The Tree of Life are numerous, and I won't delve too deeply into them here.

As a whole, I found it to be both pretentious and boring, which is a deadly combination. The existential question at the center -- grace vs. nature -- is a creaky one, and the film didn't pose it in a way that I found to be fresh, compelling or fully coherent. The Creation scenes were my favorites of the movie, and I sort of wish they had taken up the entire two hours and 15 minutes running time. (I could spend hours watching dueling computer-generated dinosaurs!)

As for the family drama, it was elevated by Pitt's performance, so contained but always seemingly on the brink of boiling over in the most explosive way. He's probably about a decade too old to be playing Jessica Chastain's husband, but then, he hardly looks like he's less than two years shy of 50. When his character, Mr. O'Brien, went to the other side of the world to hawk his inventions, I missed him a lot more than his boys did!

I think the family drama would have been more effective overall had director Terrence Malick focused on it solely (leaving The Creation for another movie) and filmed it as a straight narrative without all of the existentialist bells and whistles and taken more time to flesh out the characters and the family dynamic. And beyond the fact the Chastain looks too young to be receiving news of her son's death via telegraph (was he at sleep-away camp?), I think the movie focused on the wrong kid.

I realize that they had to justify Sean Penn's presence in the bookending scenes, but the middle son was the more interesting character. Maybe it was his artistic leaning -- more representative of the spiritual angle that the film kept awkwardly working in -- or perhaps the young actor's sad, expressive eyes. He broke my heart every time he was on screen.

So did Brad Pitt. Mr. O'Brien wasn't particularly likable, but thanks to Pitt, I understood him and to a degree, even sympathized with him. I'm convinced that on Oscar night, Natalie Portman will be saying his name when she opens the envelope and presents the Best Actor prize. "Brad Pitt for Moneyball"! I can see it now: round of applause, maybe a standing ovation, many close-ups of a beaming Angelina Jolie.

And I'll be folding my arms, flashing back to 2009. Totally deserving actor, totally wrong movie.
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