Neil Patrick Harris gave it a good shot, but the first-time Oscar host had a hard time Sunday night conjuring up any real magic.
The deck was not stacked in the affable actor’s favor. This was one of the least star-studded Academy Awards in recent memory. But his best efforts simply didn’t work.
An opening musical piece, written by “Frozen” composers Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez will most certainly not be on the lips of 13-year-old girls everywhere, despite an amusing assist from Anna Kendrick and Jack Black.
Instead of a lengthy comedy monologue, Harris opted to sprinkle one-liners throughout the evening, the kind your corny uncle would torture you with on long car trips. (“You could eat her up with her spoon — Reese Witherspoon!” “Edward Snowden could not be here tonight, for some treason.”)
His standout line was a joke that’s a year old: “Benedict Cumberbatch is not only an awesome name, it’s also the sound that comes out of John Travolta’s mouth when he says Ben Affleck.” That was followed by Travolta and Idina Menzel (“Adele Dazeem”) presenting together. Cute, but not hilarious.
The evening could have used more comedic presenters doing what they do best. Why invite Kevin Hart to give out an award and not give him a couple minutes to let loose? And what’s the deal with Eddie Murphy, who, just as he did at the “Saturday Night Live” 40th anniversary, seemed to be boycotting the delivery of any jokes?
There wasn’t a single knockout one-liner, although Emma Stone got a well-deserved laugh for silently clutching a Lego Oscar while her name was read in the race for best supporting actress.
Everything seemed a bit off. The music introducing presenters and winners seemed random, as did Jennifer Hudson’s performance of “I Can’t Let Go,” a ballad she had previously performed on NBC’s “Smash.” Common and John Legend’s version of “Glory” would have been more moving if they hadn’t just done it at the Grammys. Ditto for Lady Gaga’s lengthy tribute to “The Sound of Music,” which comes a little more than a year after NBC’s live version.
Best film nominees were saluted in bunches, which made for some weird transitions, especially when clips from “The Grand Budapest Hotel” slid into “American Sniper.”
The producers seemed to recognize that the Academy had blown it by not nominating a single actor of color. It jammed the presenter list with people like Kerry Washington, Idris Elba, Viola Davis and Jennifer Lopez. Nice try, but it’s not the same. Many of the presenters are more associated with TV than film — which may say more about the bigger power of the small screen these days.
Thank goodness for some of the winners. There were no major surprises, but well-respected character actors took full advantage of their time on the podium. J.K. Simmons tenderly urged children to call their parents. Patricia Arquette came alive when she passionately spoke about women deserving equal rights.
Genuine emotion always trumps a clever trick.