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For one full minute during the 96th annual Academy Awards, John Mulaney recapped the 1989 Kevin Costner baseball movie, “Field of Dreams.” Standing alone onstage, preparing to present the Oscar for Best Sound, the stand-up comic pivoted from a broad set-up about how some people still think movies were better before the talkies took over — “These people are difficult and insane” (a good line which got his first laugh) — to listing films that were clearly better because of their audio — films like “Jaws,” “When Harry Met Sally,” and “Madame Web” (laugh No. 2). Then Mulaney said, “Or what about that moment in ‘Field of Dreams’ when you hear, ‘If you build it, he will come?’”

And then it happened. Mulaney kept going. And going. And going. He dropped the inherently funny phrase, “I want to watch ghosts play baseball,” confessed to thinking James Earl Jones’ book from the movie was a real book, and called out the peculiarity of a rule violation that kept Moonlight Graham from returning to his beloved game of ghost baseball. (“I guess if you leave the field at any point to become an elderly ghost and do the Heimlich maneuver, you can’t return to the field?”) I lost count, but there are at least three more laughs in there: One when you realize he’s really going to recount the whole movie, and another two for whatever random description strikes your fancy.

(Left to right): Marla Farrell and Da'Vine Joy Randolph

Emma Stone wins Best Actress for "Poor Things" at the 96th Annual Oscars held at Dolby Theatre on March 10, 2024 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Gilbert Flores/Variety via Getty Images)

One minute in a three-and-a-half hour telecast may not sound like a lot, but one minute of a bad bit feels like an eternity to audiences watching at home. On paper, Mulaney’s “Field of Dreams” rant — which arrived shortly after Wes Anderson won his first Oscar and just before Ryan Gosling blew the roof off the Dolby Theatre — very easily could’ve been a bad bit. But it wasn’t. It was a great bit. It was funny and charming and delivered with the dexterity and ease of a professional public speaker. But most importantly, it was delivered with sincerity. “I love ‘Field of Dreams,’” Mulaney said, stating the obvious. “That should win Best Picture… though they’ll probably go with one of this year’s [films].”

Laugh No. 5. And five laughs in a minute is a better batting average than any Oscars host in recent memory. It’s certainly better than whatever Jimmy Kimmel averaged on Sunday, during an off night for the stalwart Oscars emcee, but the middling comedy is (nearly) beside the point. What Mulaney did in his brief time onstage was illustrate how a light prodding of fan-favorite films could go hand in hand with a genuine affection for those films. He loves “Field of Dreams.” That much is clear in his vivid recollection of the film, the thought he’s put into it, and the choice to talk about that movie, of all the movies out there, while presenting at the Academy Awards.

Despite sporadic efforts to lean into a heartfelt appreciation of cinema, sincerity was lacking during the rest of the 2024 Oscars. The winners had it. Even the losers had it — be it Mark Ruffalo hugging a stunned Emma Stone (and offering a few words of encouragement), or Gosling, not long after losing Best Supporting Actor to Robert Downey Jr., flexing his rock star status in a room full of movie stars. But the surrounding show undercut them far too often for the 96th Academy Awards to resonate as fully as it should have.

And yes, it started with Kimmel. His opening monologue may not have bombed like Jo Koy at the Golden Globes — watching from home, it felt like Kimmel’s jokes went over slightly better in the ballroom — but from his lame kicker at the end of a solid opening montage (sitting in for the elderly woman in “Barbie”) to his slew of overly obvious dating jokes (Bradley Cooper is dating his mom! Jodie Foster is too old for Robert De Niro! Christopher Nolan has a porn addiction?), the introduction was too bumpy, too easy, and too glib.

Kimmel’s best joke came late in the ceremony, seemingly off the cuff. After Donald Trump posted a negative “review” of the Oscars on his social media platform, Kimmel read a portion of it to the audience before adding, “I’m surprised you’re still watching — isn’t it past your jail time?” The Dolby crowd ate it up, and they should have. Kimmel wasn’t just playing to a crowd of progressive voters, he was defending the Oscars. He was standing up for himself, sure, but by doing so, he was standing up for everyone participating, and that wasn’t always the case during this year’s show.

Jimmy Kimmel hosts the Oscars in 2024
Jimmy Kimmel hosts the 96th Academy AwardsCourtesy of Frank Micelotta / Disney

In his opening monologue, he made sure to complain about the average length of the Best Picture nominees. “When I went to see ‘Killers of the Flower Moon,’ I had my mail forwarded to the theater,” he said, before adding another groan-inducing quip about how it would’ve been faster to drive to Oklahoma and solve the murders himself. Instead of referencing any of Robert Downey Jr.’s many popular movies, he went back to his drug habit. (“This is the highest point of [his] long and illustrious career — or one of the highest points.”) If a good sport like RDJ is telling you to wrap it up, perhaps you should’ve known better than to go back to a very old, very dry well in the first place.

A little over an hour into the telecast, while referencing its early start time (7 p.m. ET instead of the typical 8 p.m.), Kimmel said, “If this was an AMC Theater, the movie would be starting right now” — and that, in a nutshell, was that. People who love movies don’t like sitting through (what feels like) an hour of ads and trailers, but they still love the movies. Too few of Kimmel’s jokes reflected that devotion, and they stood in stark contrast to successful production choices that did.

Choices like what immediately followed the opening monologue: The first acting award, presented by five previous winners, featuring brief tributes to each of the nominees. Cinephiles may be a bit irked by the absence of clips for each performance, but clips can be found anywhere on our beloved Internet and this direct recognition cannot. (Plus, this year’s impressive stage design provided excellent examples of the honored work without taking up valuable runtime.) Bringing former Oscar recipients out serves as an opportunity for unmissable moments, shareable moments, driven by earnest admiration (or, at least, great actors convincing us of their earnest admiration for each other).

Emily Blunt seemed genuinely moved by Mary Steenburgen’s words, as did eventual winner Da’Vine Joy Randolph by Lupita Nyong’o’s. The presenters gave an extra oomph of emotion to the winners’ speeches (Randolph was exquisite), while giving the nominees a little more time in the limelight. All four worked as intended. All four earned their length. And all four created beautiful moments for those in the room and those of us watching at home.

The heartfelt structure of the evening even could’ve supported more moments like Jonathan Glazer’s speech, which called attention to the “dehumanizing” violence in Gaza. Certain attendees wore pins calling for a ceasefire, though few brought it up from behind the microphone. Winners were specific to their films, their industry, and their moment. Although there were only a few surprises among the most-anticipated categories, one came early in the night — when “The Boy and the Heron” topped slight favorite “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” for Best Animated Feature — and one came near the end. Between the two, only Emma Stone was there to give a speech (Hayao Miyazaki did not attend the ceremony), but it was the perfect blend of utter shock, relatable discombobulation (“My dress is broken,” she said. “I think it happened during ‘I’m Just Ken’”), and unfeigned appreciation. “It’s not about me,” she said. “It’s about a team that came together to make something greater than the sum of its parts.”

Robert Downey Jr. winning his Academy Award at the Oscars
Robert Downey Jr. winning his Academy Award at the OscarsCourtesy of Disney / ABC / Stewart Cook

The team focus felt fitting given the biggest winners of the night — “Oppenheimer” with seven, and “Poor Things” with four — as well as what those winners mean to the industry. Christopher Nolan represents the kind of visionary director who still sells out theaters. Downey Jr. is one of our last bonafide movie stars, and Emma Stone (with her two Oscars at age 35) stands in defiance of Hollywood’s continued disinterest in making more movie stars. Both movies were initially underdogs, with few doubting they could find any kind of success. “Poor Things” was originally slated for an early September release — prime real estate for wannabe awards players deemed too weird for the full festival circuit (let alone prime box office slots) — and yet it’s grossed more than $100 million worldwide and has four Oscars. “Oppenheimer’s” incredible run has been well-documented, which brings us to its counterpart and the night’s stealthier winner: “Barbie.”

Greta Gerwig’s phenomenal blockbuster only took home one trophy Sunday night, when Billie Eilish became the youngest person ever with two Oscars, but despite going one-for-eight officially, one of those losers ensured “Barbie” would be the movie everyone will be talking about tomorrow, the next day, and whenever someone brings up the 2024 Oscars going forward: Ryan Gosling. Of course it was Ryan Gosling. The first question on everyone’s lips once the nominations were announced was, “Would Ryan Gosling perform ‘I’m Just Ken’?” Once it was confirmed he would, attention turned to questions of “When?”, “With whom?”, and, “Would he sing live?” Well, the producers saved his all-out endeavor for the last hour, brought on his full band from the movie as well as the other Kens (Simu Liu, Kingsley Ben-Adir, and Ncuti Gatwa included), and let the former “Mickey Mouse Club” star put on a live show for the ages.

For as hilarious as the song remains, there wasn’t a trace of condescension in Gosling. He embraced the moment as thoroughly, as convincingly, and yes, as lovingly as he embraced Ken. That affection came through in the pink leather gloves he wore, the choreography he executed with so many fellow dancers, and the way he made sure to let an over-the-moon Gerwig sing a few bars herself. He gave the people what they wanted, and he did so with absolute sincerity.

Three minutes of “I’m Just Ken,” one minute of Mulaney’s sweet stand-up, a handful of good bits elsewhere (the John Cena “streaker homage” did work), and let’s estimate 20 minutes of great speeches — that’s more than enough to make for a memorable Oscars. And it was a solid telecast, all things considered. It’s just a shame in a show clearly built for emotional highs, so many self-imposed speed bumps kept us at an even keel. Ken, once again, deserved better.

Grade: B-

The 96th Academy Awards were held Sunday, March 10 at the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles, CA. The ceremony aired on ABC.





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