Skipping the Oscar race is the smartest move 'Monuments Men' ever made

Monuments-Men.jpg

Image Credit: Claudette Barius

There’s been a lot of talk about how the delayed release of George Clooney’s film The Monuments Men affects the Oscar race. The film vibed like a contender. It had a cast of past winners and nominees. It was the latest directorial effort by George Clooney, the best walking advertisement for the Academy’s vision of itself. It has an up-with-the-arts plotline, based on a true story, and the bad guys are Nazis: Yahtzee! Because Monuments Men seemed like such an awards-baiting prospect — complete with not one, but two Oscar lucky charms, Bill Murray and John Goodman — it was in contention before it was even in production.

Clooney told the Los Angeles Times that Monuments Men was delayed because the effects weren’t finished, which is kind of like checking into rehab for exhaustion: Even if it’s the truth, it doesn’t feel like the whole truth. And prognosticators are already throwing in Monuments Men with other delayed bits of Oscar-bait detritus like Princess Grace and The Immigrant — to say nothing about the ongoing saga of The Wolf of Wall Street, which is supposedly currently seven hours long with two intermissions and an orchestral interlude. Conventional wisdom says Monuments Men saw a crowded Oscar field and blinked — and since the film is being delayed into early 2014, it seems unlikely to compete in next year’s Oscars. And if it can’t compete for Oscars, oh golly, what was Monuments Men ever for?

I think the release-date change is a smart move, specifically because it moves the film out of the Oscar race. The date shift recontextualizes Monuments Men in an exciting way. It’s no longer an Oscar movie. So what is it? It helps to look at the performance of two major releases from recent years, movies that came with major Academy buzz but immediately lost that buzz when they were delayed into early next year — and which both went on to be major box office successes. Neither of them were great, but they were bright stars in an otherwise dire time of the movie year — and, bizarrely, that probably made them seem better. And they both starred Leonardo DiCaprio — not coincidentally, the most interesting contemporary Hollywood movie star to never win an Oscar.

In early 2008, Shutter Island looked like an Oscar contender. It was Martin Scorsese’s first film since he finally won for The Departed; it came from a Dennis Lehane book, who also provided the basis for Best Picture winner Mystic River; and it had a cast of Academy all-stars. (UPDATE: Actually, Mystic River was only nominated for Best Picture,  but it won two Acting Oscars, had nominations in almost every other major award, and kickstarted Clint Eastwood’s late-period Academy resurgence.) But Shutter Island turned out to be the opposite of Oscar bait: An unsettling, off-tilt B-movie, with every one of those all-stars trying to out-crazy each other. It wasn’t The Departed 2.0; it was Identity played like Shakespeare.

Originally slated for October 2009, Shutter Island would’ve hit the Oscar race in the middle of a crowded field — that was the year of The Hurt Locker and Avatar, of Precious and Up in the Air, and of District 9 and Inglourious Basterds. The latter two films are close to Shutter Island‘s wavelength, but they had Oscar-y topics (apartheid and WWII). Instead of winning the Oscar race, Shutter Island did the next best thing: It invented a whole new game and won it. Hitting theaters in the midst of loads of burn-off tripe like The Wolfman and Cop Out, it took in $294 million globally, the most money ever made by a Scorsese film.

The Great Gatsby isn’t too different. Originally set for a Christmas 2012 release, Gatsby was pushed back to May 2013, because it needed to spend time with its family finish off its effects. Again, Gatsby had all the outward appearance of an Academy movie. A great book. A great cast. A director whose last movie was nominated for Best Picture, if you choose to believe that Australia was just a figment of our nightmare imagination. But imagine Gatsby in the midst of last year’s heavy-hitting lineup — Big Issue heavy-handers like Argo and Zero Dark Thirty and Lincoln and Django Unchained and Les Misérables and Life of Pi. (The lightest movie in the Best Picture race last year was Silver Linings Playbook, which was about insane people.)

Let’s be honest here: The Great Gatsby was never an Oscar movie. And thank heavens. The whole idea of an “Oscar movie” is boring, which Baz Luhrmann — love him or hate him — is not. Coming out in May at the dawn of the blockbuster season, Gatsby served as extremely crafty counter-programming: It was actually more garish and more over-the-top than the special-effects extravaganzas it played against. The film grossed almost $350 million, and it gave everyone something to talk about for a couple of months besides superheroes.

Maybe we’re seeing the resurrection of a specific kind of movie: The expensive Hollywood movie for adults that isn’t trying to win any Oscars. Dodging the Oscar race might lose you some bragging rights – but in the long run, it might actually be better for your movie’s stature. One of the greatest examples is Inside Man, a thriller that came out in March 2006. It came out a month after the 2005 Oscar nominees, which included at least one great movie (Brokeback Mountain), one movie somebody always insists is better than you remember (Munich), two decent-but-forgettable biopics (Capote and Good Night, and Good Luck), and the actual winner Crash, a movie about how the only cure for racism is falling down the stairs. None of them are more fun than Inside Man, and while all of them besides Brokeback have diminished in the years since, Inside Man only looks better and sharper with age.

So: The Monuments Men. In that L.A. Times interview, Clooney nonchalantly refers to the film as “a commercial, non-cynical piece of entertainment.” And when you watch the trailer, that’s what the movie looks like: A larky romp through our most fun war with all our favorite people and Cate Blanchett doing one of her Blanchettiest accents. Blanchetty (adj.): Something that would be ridiculous if Cate Blanchett weren’t doing it. It’s Ocean’s Eleven Goes to War, and it’s difficult to figure out how that movie fits into an Oscar race. It’s a fun movie for adults at a time when there are lots of those, plus a lot of serious movies for adults.

But push it into 2014, and the context changes radically. If Monuments Men gets pushed to February, it’ll be sharing the screen with the Robocop reboot, The LEGO Movie, Pompeii, and that movie where Liam Neeson is on a plane. If your patience for digital animation is low, it’s already the most interesting movie of February 2014.

If Monuments Men comes out in March, it will get a similar boost. Actually, March 2014 is shaping up to be the most interesting March for cinephiles in years: Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel and Darren Aronofsky’s intriguingly troubled Noah are both slated for that month. The last few years have seen the rise of the early spring blockbuster, first with adrenalized demi-blockbusters like 300 and Clash of the Titans, more recently with youth-bait actioners like The Hunger Games and Divergent. Could it be that there’s a natural counterbalancing action taking place — that the increased moviegoers in March will overflow into movies not targeted at teenagers?

We’ll know in a few months. Because not every movie that skips the Oscar season wins the spring game. Not too long ago, Hollywood made a movie that vibed Oscar. It starred two Oscar winners, was a period piece based loosely on a real story, an All-American story. The film was delayed from a December 2007 release date into April 2008, which is pretty much the last time anyone ever mentioned George Clooney’s Leatherheads.

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