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'Social Network' an also-ran? Oscar doesn't get it

By Lewis Beale, Special to CNN
  • Lewis Beale: Oscar shouldn't give "King's Speech," "True Grit" more nods than "Social Network"
  • Those movies fine, but "Network" is of moment, not traditional, he says
  • Why fewer nominations? Lead character jerk, dialogue smart, dense, edgy, he says
  • Beale: Academy's message: We like tradition, sympathetic characters, not to think too hard

Editor's note: Lewis Beale writes about film for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the New York Daily News and other publications.

(CNN) -- Now that the nominations for the 83rd Academy Awards have been officially announced, it's time to state the obvious:

Oscar has proven, once again, that it just doesn't get it.

By "it" I mean that the Academy voters seem to be stuck in some sort of time warp where solid, dependable, well-crafted, but utterly noninnovative films like "The King's Speech" get a bushel of nominations --12 in all, leading the pack -- while cutting edge, brilliantly directed and written, this-is-what-life-is-about-today films like "The Social Network" are relegated to third place, behind "True Grit," in the nominations total.

Don't get me wrong. "The King's Speech" is a moving film featuring two killer performances by Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush. And "True Grit" is a colorful bit of Western Americana with a larger-than-life Jeff Bridges and a fine performance from newcomer Hailee Steinfeld. And eight nominations for "The Social Network" is by no means a total diss.

Travers: 'Social Network' best of 2010
Facebook's Hollywood close-up

But really. "The King's Speech" could easily have been made for TV: It has all the cinematic pizzazz and expansiveness of any "Masterpiece Theater" episode. And "True Grit" isn't exactly a massive improvement on the 1969 John Wayne original, despite the visual flavorings of the Coen brothers' stylish direction.

Yet these two films are now the official front-runners in the Oscar race. How come? Let me venture a few thoughts on this, all of them relating to what "The Social Network" has that Academy voters don't seem to like:

• A thoroughly dislikable lead character: Maybe Mark Zuckerberg isn't such a jerk in real life, but the character brilliantly played by Jesse Eisenberg sure is. A condescending creep who is certain he's the smartest person in any room, Eisenberg's character is also a conscienceless manipulator who is seduced by power and screws his friends in almost every way imaginable. He's not exactly touchy-feely.

• Dense, allusive and totally au courant dialogue: To say that Aaron Sorkin's script is brilliant is like saying that Will Shakespeare did a pretty good job with "Hamlet." Sorkin's "Social Network" screenplay is simply one of the most cleverly constructed, literate works in years. Not only that, but it totally plugs into the zeitgeist, understands exactly how social networking has changed our lives and is thoroughly entertaining to boot.

• Contemporary relevance: D'oh! The fact Sorkin and director David Fincher could make an entertaining and meaningful film about a subject that at first glance seems unfilmable is miracle enough. But they have also managed to create a work of art that says volumes about our culture, our needs and the ways in which we interact with each other. That, combined with the classic themes of "power corrupts" and "be careful what you wish for."

• Technology: I'm just wondering how many Academy voters are even on Facebook. Do they see it as some sort of adolescent phase that will soon pass? Do they understand it at all? Or do they think it's just another example of The Decline Of Western Civilization As We Know It?

Oh, sure: Eisenberg, Fincher and Sorkin have all been Oscar nominated. But the Academy dissed every member of the film's supporting cast, and the fact is, that by relegating "The Social Network" to also-ran status, the Academy is sending a very strong message: "We like traditional filmmaking. We don't want to think too hard. We want our lead characters to be sympathetic or, at the very least, colorful. This year contemporary issue films aren't necessarily our cup of tea."

And last but not least: "What century is this, anyway?"

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Lewis Beale.