Even though a film may appear loaded for Oscar bear, it doesn’t take long for critics and the box office to transform it into a load of awards season bull.
Oscar season is somewhat like a Rotary Club bake-off. There’s generally a lot of talk about new recipes for success, and everyone excitedly looks forward to trying something new and perhaps a bit exotic. Yet when it comes time to hand out the blue ribbons, it’s often the most tried and true concoctions, or at least some slight iteration upon an old favorite, that carry the day. For example, awards voters have proven time and again their love for epic-scale productions (Titanic, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King … The English Patient), just one of many easily identifiable Oscar and Golden Globe trends. At this time of year, various pundits are well into the momentum – or lack thereof – of various actors, actresses and films. If a performer is lucky enough to score an early nomination or award (e.g. Cate Blanchett as Venice’s Best Actress, Juno as the Rome Film Festival’s Best Feature, etc.), it generally begets them extra opportunities, within the larger context of the odds favoring previous winners and honorees. Like Lions for Lambs opening this weekend, Reservation Road was on paper a film with all the essential Oscar bait ingredients. It stars Joaquin Phoenix – twice nominated for an Academy Award, most recently in 2006 for his turn as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line — and Mark Ruffalo, an habitual awards season flirter. The film’s female lead, Jennifer Connelly, was of course 2002’s Best Supporting Actress for her role in A Beautiful Mind.
The second female lead? Mira Sorvino, 1996’s Best Supporting Actress winner for her turn in Woody Allen’s Mighty Aphrodite. The film is directed, meanwhile, by the respected writer and filmmaker Terry George, himself twice Oscar nominated, and coming off of a critical hit with important political overtones in the form of 2004’s Hotel Rwanda. Then there’s the subject matter itself, a grief-saturated drama with plenty of big emotional scenes. Adapted from John Burnham Schwartz’s 1998 novel about the accidental death of a child, it shows how the adults closest to the situation variously deal with the heartache, anguish, misery and guilt. If further Oscar positioning were needed, Reservation Road also features Babel’s Elle Fanning, the younger sister of wunderkind Dakota Fanning and an in-demand adolescent performer in her own right. So why did Reservation Road utterly crash and burn at the box office, grossing under $150,000, less than the cost of an average house? How is it possible, in fact, that this pedigreed film, featuring four known performers, made less at the box office than Henry Jaglom’s Hollywood Dreams, the documentary Iraq in Fragments, or Ten Canoes, Ira & Abby, Vitus and any other number of arthouse releases that played scarcely anywhere outside of New York and Los Angeles? The answer is a qualitative referendum in small degrees, but also has a lot to do with politics.
Reservation Road opens on a warm, New England September evening. College professor Ethan Learner (Phoenix) and his wife Grace (Connelly) are attending a recital. Their 10-year-old son Josh (Sean Curley) is playing cello — beautifully, as usual. His younger sister Emma (Fanning) looks up to him, and his parents are proud of their son. On the way home, the family stops off at a gas station. There, in one terrible instant, Josh is taken from them forever. The same evening, law associate Dwight Arno (Ruffalo) and his 11-year-old son Lucas (Eddie Alderson) are attending a baseball game. Their favorite team, the Red Sox, is playing, and making a historical push for the World Series. Dwight cherishes his time spent with Lucas. Driving his son back to his ex-wife, Lucas’ mother Ruth Wheldon (Sorvino), Dwight heads toward a fateful encounter at Reservation Road. The accident happens so fast that Lucas is all but unaware, while Ethan – the only true witness – is all too aware. A panicked Dwight speeds away, the police are called and an investigation begins. Haunted by the tragedy, both fathers and families react in unexpected ways. Matters are further muddied when Ethan retains Dwight’s law firm to try to track down the hit-and-run culprit. As a terrible reckoning looms, Ethan and Dwight are each forced to make the most difficult choices of their lives.
The film’s main problem, diagnosed in macro fashion, is that the seams of Reservation Road’s oh-so-cutely constructed Oscar inducement show a little too obviously. The film recalls, in its own tangential and component ways, Miramax’s late-millennium run of Lasse Hallström movies (The Cider House Rules, Chocolat and The Shipping News), each progressively more treacly and inert than the one before it. The score, from composer Mark Isham (A River Runs Through It, Quiz Show, Crash), swells in all the appropriate places, but George’s direction and the film’s script are so busy telling us what to feel – and when to feel it – that a certain contrarian resistance develops. Phoenix’s beard is a smart choice; in addition to offering contrast with Ruffalo, it gives shading and definition to his face, and helps him play a bit older than he actually is. His performance is the single real standout thing about Reservation Road, which otherwise hits all the standard aggrieved dramatic beats in elongated fashion, and lacks any satisfying, stalking thrill that would qualify it as a cousin of Neil Jordan’s recent The Brave One. Body count isn’t the issue. Neither does the film play as a real exploration of revenge, and how a single-minded attachment to it can slowly warp the mind. Of course, Reservation Road isn’t at all terrible, despite a few scenes that, lifted from context, lilt toward the histrionic. So why the half-hearted sales job by distributor Focus Features? It’s called playing the odds. After sticking a finger to the wind with critics – both in advance of its bow and just after its limited release – plans to take the movie wider, and give it a deep and sustained theatrical release across the country, were basically scrapped. Focus also had Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution and Pride & Prejudice director Joe Wright’s buzz-heavy Atonement on their holiday season slate. With advance notices on each of those films – and in particular the latter, considered an early Oscar frontrunner – trending markedly better, it was easy for Focus to turn its focus elsewhere, away from Reservation Road.