In this audio interview with The Envelope‘s Tom O’Neil, N.Y. Daily News film critic and amiable chatterbox Jack Matthews reiterates a basic perception about Best Picture Oscar contenders. Uhm…well, Jack doesn’t really explain it as completely as he could so I’ll re-phrase it.
The movies that tend to win (or come close to winning) always seem to do one of two things. They say something fundamentally true about life on this planet that most of us recognize (like American Beauty‘s theme that few of us take the time to appreciate life’s small, quiet wonders). Or they make us choke up in recognition of some buried or under-acknowledged emotional truth residing deep in our chest cavities. Or both. Exceptions happen, of course — The Departed, The French Connection, etc. But mainly the soft, squishy stuff gets the gold.
In this sense, as much as I hate to admit it, American Gangster is vulnerable because it doesn’t do either of these two things. I think (hope) it’ll be nominated anyway because it’s a mesmerizing valentine to ’70s cinema and an awfully good textural-procedural in the vein of The French Connection, Serpico and Prince of the City with a sprinkle or two from the Across 110th Street salt-shaker. It’s a wonderfully savory NewYork cops-and-bad-guys story that underlines shared values between the hunter and the hunted.
The fact that it lacks ambition by not trying to do much else makes it, of course, unpretentious as well, and much to my liking. But if the Academy hard-cases keep up with the complaints that “it didn’t make me cry” and the beef that “it’s not really about anything,” then there might be trouble down the road.