This morning’s Screen Actors Guild nominations delivered ecstatic career boosts to a few surprise nominees (especially A Better Life‘s Demian Bichir…a longtime HE guy!) as well as to the highly deserving Jonah Hill for his supporting performance in Moneyball. Hooray! Hats in the air! But the noms also delivered stunning setbacks to critically favored contenders who were presumed to be all but locked.

Drive‘s Albert Brooks was blown off for a Best Supporting Actor SAG nomination and yet Armie Hammer and his seven or eight pounds of old-man makeup in J. Edgar got in? Hammer’s performance as Clyde Tolson was actually steady and convincing in Clint Eastwood‘s film, but where are the priorities? What was the SAG membership thinking in ignoring Brooks? Punish him because his toupee-wearing character stabbed too many guys?

Same thing with Kenneth Branagh getting a Best Supporting Actor nomination for playing Laurence Olivier in My Week With Marilyn. A decent performance, for sure, but not exactly worthy of cartwheels in the lobby or going into convulsions. When Branagh is eulogized at his funeral 30 or 40 years from now no one is likely to say, “And my God, what a moment of shining glory when he played Sir Laurence Olivier! The clouds parted!”

And Nick Nolte gets nominated for saying “c’mon…c’mon…gimme a chance….another chance, c’mon…I’m sorry…I don’t drink anymore….let me be your dad again” over and over and over and over again in Warrior?

And that assessment about Glenn Close getting weaker and “skating on thin ice” is out the window now with her Best Actress SAG nom. Clearly, the membership believes she’s due the honor of a nomination despite the fact that there hasn’t exactly been a torrent of praise for her Albert Nobbs performance. This is almost entirely a “we love you, Glenn” thing, and that’s fine.

We all knew SAG would ignore Andy Serkis‘ brilliant performance in Rise of the Planet of the Apes because they’re afraid of mocap performances the way the apes in 2001 were initially afraid of the monolith. They also blew off Patton Oswalt‘s supporting performance in Young Adult…a shame.

SAG members are basically middle-of-the-road milquetoasts. They go with their like-dislike instincts and rarely praise “challenging” performances. Michael Shannon‘s critically praised performance in Take Shelter was ignored because SAG members are unsettled by loony-tune types. And they blew off Charlize Theron‘s performance in Young Adult because she played a deranged and hateful bitch and they don’t want those vibes in their head…end of story. Michael Fassbender‘s Shame performance was snubbed because he played a chilly, diseased Martian sex addict.

Or maybe it was because Theron and Shannon and Fassbender didn’t work the party-and-screening circuit as much as they could have…who knows?

I have to add that the preponderance of SAG nominees from The Help and The Artist (as indicated by the Best Supporting Actress nomination for The Artist‘s Berenice Bejo…a definite coattails thing) made it depressingly clear that a significant portion of the industry is once again looking to embrace feel-good emotionality as the top criteria in determining Best Picture.

The Best Picture Oscar going to The King’s Speech last year was a variation in a sequence of smarter, edgier, real-world Best Picture winners (The Hurt Locker, No Country for Old Men, The Departed, Slumdog Millionaire) in recent years. That adult and semi-sophisticated judgment criteria, it appears, has been discarded. The King’s Speech win was not some freakish anomaly — it signalled a new paradigm of complacency and succumbing to easy emotional default. We are back in the grip of an ignoble Best Picture selection mentality in which emotionally affecting but irrefutably second-tier films can ascend to glory — cheers and salutations tonight, guilt and embarassment the morning after and forever more.