Moments after kicking off this year’s Oscars show with an ambitious song-and-dance number about the magic of movies, host Neil Patrick Harris offered up some prestidigitation of his own. Unveiling a briefcase locked in a clear acrylic box, the emcee promised to predict the night’s winners with uncanny accuracy.
But what was intended as a running gag with an end-of-show payoff instead limped along during an already drawn-out 3-1/2-hour fete, ultimately failing to dazzle folks in the audience or watching at home.
Harris is no neophyte when it comes to this stuff. He’s a longtime member of the Magic Castle and has served as president of the club’s Academy of Magical Arts. So what went wrong?
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The first problem was that the trick wasn’t much of an attention-grabber. Harris set up the feat with an overly detailed pledge about how he had entrusted his predictions to PricewaterhouseCoopers, the accounting firm that tabulates the Oscars, earlier in the week. Plug notwithstanding, there’s nothing exciting about footage of a guy carrying a briefcase up the red carpet or dangling a magic key, even if he does kind of look like Matt Damon.
The next stage of Harris’ trick didn’t do much to raise the stakes, as he enlisted 2012 Oscar winner Octavia Spencer to watch over the box for the entirety of the show to make sure no one tampered with it.
“No bathroom breaks, no chitchat, no snacks — no snacks!” Harris instructed.
Spencer, who reportedly had no prior knowledge of the gag, gamely played along as Harris returned to her throughout the night, but the check-ins felt tedious and a bit patronizing.
Harris himself underscored how visually uninteresting the stunt was when he told TV viewers they could tune into a live feed of the box on the ABC website. Thanks, but no thanks.
The trick’s much-hyped punchline finally arrived at a climactic moment in the show, just before the announcement of best picture. Harris unlocked the box, reached in the briefcase and produced an envelope, which he then read from in plain view of the audience and cameras.
But while Harris’ promised prognostications did recap — or rather, precap — the show with humorous detail and precision, the moment fell flat. Viewers waited three-plus hours to watch a consummate showman recite jokes off an ever-unfolding piece of paper?
In the end, Harris’ trick encapsulated his performance as host. It was earnest and competently executed, and it was probably much more complicated to pull off than he made it look. But one thing it wasn’t was magical.
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