Oscar Update: ‘Billy Lynn’ Opens Weak

We are in the final stages of the Oscars preseason, as the New York Film Festival winds down. There’s only a few major films left unseen in the race for the Academy Award. One of the biggest unseen contenders of this year’s race was Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Directed by two-time Academy Award winner Ang Lee, the film followed a young boy (Joe Alwyn) in the army who is paraded around the United States after a vicious battle he participated in is broadcast on TV. This “victory tour” will culminate in an appearance on stage at the Thanksgiving Halftime Show of the Dallas Cowboys, alongside Destiny’s Child. All through this time, Billy and his fellow soldiers grapple with PTSD and the realization that when the tour is over, they’ll still have to return to Iraq. The film also stars Kristen Stewart, Chris Tucker, Garrett Hedlund, Vin Diesel and Steve Martin. What’s unique about the movie is that Ang Lee decided to film the movie in hyper-realistic 120 fps. This gives it a super clear, super realistic feeling most often seen on TV. For context, Peter Jackson controversially shot The Hobbit films in 48 fps. So, did Lee fare any better? Is Billy Lynn going to be an Oscars smash?

If we’re going by early reviews, most likely not. Early word out of the NYFF, where the film premiered last night, has been mixed at best. While most critics agree that there’s something special in the effects, especially on battle sequences, the Halftime Walk, and a scene between Billy and his sister (Stewart), for the most part the 120 fps is too jarring and unnerving. Apparently there’s a scene with a close up on Steve Martin where you see every pore and every twitch of his eyes and face, and while that sounds incredible to me, it was unnerving to the audience. Furthermore, outside of the performances of Stewart, Hedlund, Martin and especially Alwyn, the acting is supposedly average, with an even more mediocre script. None of this is encouraging, and it seems like the film is sunk as an Oscar contender, let alone as a box office success.

However, there are three things that keep me hopeful about the film. The first is the way the critics are disagreeing. Critics often disagree over what’s good and what’s bad in film, but there’s something odd here. Almost all negative reviews are split straight down the middle-either the film is a technical marvel with a weak story, or it has terrible effects and a great story. There’s no in between. While normally that isn’t a big deal, the fact that no one seems to agree over it means there may be more to this than meets the eye. The second is that the most negative condemnation comes from Kyle Smith over at the New York Post. Smith has moments of brilliance from time to time, but often gets his head stuck his own ass, such as reviews explaining how girls don’t get Goodfellas, or how American Sniper is the only good war film. He declared the movie an all out failure, but his tweets on the subject seem to imply he didn’t realize exactly what the film’s point was going to be (the film isn’t necessarily against the war in Iraq, or against our soldiers, just about how our government, our institutions and our citizens themselves abuse them while ignoring their plight. So, ya know, not entirely positive). The third, and most important thing working for the film: this is almost the exact same type of response that Lee’s Life of Pi received. Upon its premiere, it was called sappy, trite, and a little off-putting due to its massive use of effects. It was called “D.O.A.” in the Oscar race. And what happened? 11 Oscar nominations, including Picture, Director and Screenplay (the last of those completely unnecessarily), and won 4, including Visual Effects, Cinematography, Score, and even Director for Lee. So it’s entirely possible that Billy Lynn can still receive Oscar nominations by the bushel in January, and while it’s no longer a contender to win (although, to be fair, this race is already over. More on that next week), I wouldn’t rule it out as a potential nominee. We’ll see what happens as more reviews begin to roll in.

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