Oscar season brings out the studios' worst, says Lisa Schwarzbaum

By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated March 05, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST
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Why are most new movies so awful?

The biggest movie opening this weekend, ”The Mexican,” stars Brad Pitt as a winsome Mob bagman sent south of the border to retrieve a valuable antique pistol, and Julia Roberts as his adorable girlfriend who’s kidnapped and held by hitman James Gandolfini to ensure the pistol’s safe return. Take away the fact that two of America’s hugest movie celebrities share occasional screen time together — and that TV’s favorite ”Sopranos” wiseguy has been recruited as support — and ”The Mexican” is an empty, tortilla flat caper tricked up with contemporary, ironic dodges and feints.

The biggest movie opening last weekend, ”3000 Miles to Graceland,” stars Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell as thieves who dress like Elvis impersonators, and Courteney Cox as a Las Vegas grifter with a heart who dresses like a Hollywood costume designer’s idea of Wal-Mart style. It’s a strange car wreck of a creation, part boys only fantasy camp, part Wild West shoot ’em up. As my colleague Owen Gleiberman wrote in his review, it’s ”the studio version of an indie variation on kinetic studio trash.”

Studio trash is the operative term here: Recent junk delivery has included ”Sweet November,” ”Valentine,” ”Saving Silverman,” and ”The Wedding Planner.” This is not to say that there aren’t smaller, offbeat new -ish films that have opened since the start of the year that are worth seeing — try ”The Gift” for a fine dose of Cate Blanchett and a good performance by an unexpectedly energized Keanu Reeves — but it is to say that I am hornswoggled every year by the disparity between the Cheez-Whiz stuff Hollywood releases at the beginning of the year and the creamy Oscar flavored Brie reserved for the fall. (The fall? How about the equivalent of a minute before midnight on the last day of the year, which is just about when ”Traffic” was unveiled for very, very special consideration.)

I’m not so naive as to be shocked. I understand marketing strategy, and the value of stacking the deck with quality pix in the last quarter of the year, the better to influence Academy voters and year end list compiling movie critics. I realize that between now and Oscar night on March 25, a lot of moviegoers will be just getting to contenders like ”Cast Away” and ”Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” and that those who have bankrolled those projects are counting on Oscar buzz to sell tickets.

I’m frustrated, though, by the marketers’ manipulation of the Hollywood calendar year at the expense of the consumer, to the point where even the least cynical patron at the multiplex knows that if something is released in January or February — or March, or May! — the odds are it’s cut rate quality. It’s madness to expect every movie ever released to be as good as ”Cast Away” or ”Crouching Tiger,” of course, and it’s foolish to waste breath kvetching about the boorishness of ”3000 Miles to Graceland” and ”Saving Silverman.” But it would be refreshing and revolutionary to restructure the year’s movie release patterns so that surprise and discovery were built in to the business.

What if February was just as good a month to enjoy fine moviemaking as October? What if every weekend carried with it the possibility of discovery? What if most movies, rather than few, were made and sold as if they were more than boxes of ”Chocolat”?

Maybe there’s hope: ”Erin Brockovich” came out in March, ”Gladiator” stormed the screen in May.

Or maybe there’s no hope: Next week’s lineup includes ”See Spot Run,” featuring that doofus anomaly (and ”Graceland” costar) David Arquette.

Maybe you can help: Which new or about to be released movies do you have highest hopes for in the next three weeks? And which look like they’re strictly ”Sour February”?


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