Friday, February 26, 2010

Oscar Watch Review: An Education

Alfred Molina as Doctor Octopus in  Spider-Man...Image via Wikipedia
FilmAn Education
Nominations: Best Picture, Best Actress, Adapted Screenplay

The Oscars just wouldn't feel right if there wasn't at least one obnoxious period-piece British romance to pander to the tastes of the more "sophisticated" members of the Academy. Surprisingly, even with the number of Best Picture nominees bloated to an inexcusable Ten this year, there's only one real qualifier among the chosen. Even more unusual, it takes place in a different decade instead of a different century. For the Academy's consideration: An Education.

An Education follows the delightfully un-torrid affair of sixteen-year-old Jenny, a witty and intelligent daughter of a stuffy middle-class family with a bright scholastic future waiting for her at Oxford. All of that takes a backseat the moment she gets a ride from an older man who introduces her to an extravagant lifestyle and seeks to steal her away from her parents, school, and oh-so-bright future.

All of this is way to obviously good to be true, so the minute these two meet the entire film becomes a rather drawn-out exercise in waiting for the other shoe to drop. Cinematic tours of sixties-era England and France punctuate countless scenes that are drearily low on charm and sexual tension, two things you would expect a storyline like this to stock up on. By the time the big reveal of David's horrible secret (which is almost as dull and underwhelming as his previously revealed "secrets"), all you can do is wonder how long they're going to take to wrap up Jenny's end of the story.

It doesn't take long, and that's probably one of the most frustrating things about the film. This is a story about a young teenage girl who is seduced by an older man, lured away from her home, sexually propositioned, pulled out of her scholastic career, and left to pull the pieces back together after the whole thing falls apart. Not only does she manage to do so, but she does it with such a minimum amount of time and effort wasted that by the time the credits role there appear to have been no consequences whatsoever. Coming-of-age stories usually involve major life-changes, positive or negative, that alter not only the evolving character's world view, but their present and future as well. By the time An Education neatly wraps itself up, the only thing that seems to have changed in Jenny's life is her answer to the "Are you a virgin" question. Middle-school crushes end more dramatically and devastatingly than this. Being lied to by a man trying to get in your pants isn't an education, it's a undeniable fact of life.

It doesn't help that the characters in the film don't sell you on any of it. Jenny is played up as such a smart, intelligent, and resourceful young woman, it's hard to feel sorry for her when she willfully ignores glaring reality after glaring reality just so she can go to concerts and feel grown-up running of to Paris. It seems more important for the deceitful David to be boyishly charming that his cons feel more like childish pranks than criminal deceptions; sort of like Mamet's House of Games starring the Little Rascals. And let's not forget Jenny's proper English father, the strict disciplinarian with far-reaching plans for his daughter's future, who switches from "Oxford or Death" to "Drop Out and Marry the Older Man" so fast it almost gives you whiplash.

None of this blame deserves to be heaped on the performers. Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard and Alfred Molina all turn in wonderful performances, and they can't be blamed for the fact that the shallow characters they play change emotions and perceptions not when they should, but when it is convenient for the script. All of these actors manage to make you feel more for these characters more than they should, and almost make their illogical actions seem human. This is especially true for Molina as Jenny's Father, a character that makes the split personality of Doctor Octopus seem like a rational internal debate.

Most credit An Education to being based on the memoirs of Lynn Barber, when the truth is more along the lines that both the Nick Hornby screenplay and Barber's memoirs are based on a previously published article by Barber, which almost reads like a synopsis for the film. This leaves us with another overly-dry and forcibly-witty Hornby screenplay based on a memoir expanded from an article whose autobiographical validity has been questioned by some critics, and which broaches the topic of the seduction and deflowering of a young girl with the cool distance of a self-aggrandizing socialite (The sex was lousy and it was all daddy's fault). To this end, you can't really begrudge Hornby his Best Adapted Screenplay nomination, as he did remain faithful to the source material. But when it comes to Best Picture, you have to ask yourself if the source material was worth all of that effort in the first place.
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