Missing hype's high-water mark

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"For Your Consideration," Christopher Guest's Oscar-hype satire, arrives on DVD at the height of Oscar-hype season. The timing doesn't help the film: With Academy Award campaigns and media coverage nearing saturation point, it's even more obvious just how clueless this movie is about the world it purports to mock.

After tackling such curiously specialized topics as amateur theater ("Waiting for Guffman"), canine competition ("Best in Show") and — perhaps most bizarrely and rewardingly — '60s folkies ("A Mighty Wind"), Guest turns his attention to a fat mainstream target. The director and his regular co-writer, Eugene Levy, are presumably aware that the subject calls for more deflation than usual: There is a heightened meanness — or at least a lack of warmth — to the humor this time.

But there's also some serious conceptual confusion. The problem isn't exactly that Guest and Levy are shooting fish in a barrel; most of the time, they don't even seem to be looking in the right barrel.

The movie's deluded Oscar crusade centers on Marilyn Hack (Catherine O'Hara), a middle-aged journeywoman who's playing the dying matriarch in a low-budget Southern Jewish melodrama called "Home for Purim." When an Internet scribe calls her a possible contender, the hype machine starts humming.

"Consideration" dutifully sticks it to the studio suits (venal), the PR flacks (sleazy), the grinning entertainment-show hosts (freakish), but reserves most of its ridicule for Marilyn and her patently terrible movie (the always game O'Hara invests her role with more pathos than it deserves). There are at best a handful of passable jokes and a grand total of zero original insights.

The choice of targets is indicative of the film's toothlessness — it's much safer, of course, to deride the sad, small figures who get swept up in the Oscar maelstrom than to risk offending the power brokers who are behind the most absurd and shameless campaigns. (A truly committed Oscar satire would seem to require some sort of Harvey Weinstein figure.)

Guest also doesn't seem to get the single defining trait that makes the Oscars and the Oscar industry at once ridiculous and irresistible: the enormous sense of self-congratulation. A clumsy, unassuming tear-jerker such as "Home for Purim" — the Jewishness of the title and the dialogue is supposed to be a bottomless source of amusement — would never find itself the subject of Oscar talk.

To pack anything resembling a real-world punch, Guest's film-within-the-film should have been a smug, bloated prestige picture, the kind of movie whose awards potential is in direct correlation to its self-importance.

'Babel,' a convergence

Which brings us to "Babel," also out on DVD this week and arguably one of the front-runners in this year's wide open best picture race. Alejandro González Iñárritu's tapestry of transcontinental misery improves on last year's upset winner, "Crash," but adheres to that film's multithread approach to message filmmaking.

It's a dubious method by which the forced intersections of seemingly unrelated narratives are enough to convey the illusion of meaning. At the heart of "Babel," though, all we find is a truism: a banal, reductive assurance that we are the world and everyone is connected.

Still, it's an even more typical Oscar movie than "Crash," not least because of its indisputable veneer of quality — no other film last year put so much acting talent to so little use. And Iñárritu, no question, is a skilled director — so skilled in fact that he can give the random links and strained parallels of Guillermo Arriaga's screenplay a touch of cosmic gravity.

If "Babel" prevails over message-free genre movies such as "The Departed" and "Little Miss Sunshine," it will not be because it has something to say but because it believes it does.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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