Wednesday, October 17, 2007

My Favorite Close-Up

My entry into the immensely enjoyable Close-Up Blog-a-Thon going on over at The House Next Door:

As soon as proprietor Matt Zoller-Seitz announced the blog-a-thon I instantly thought of this as my entry. I've long maintained that Haley Joel Osment was robbed of (at the very least) an Oscar nomination* for his performance in A.I., and the clincher moment for me is this closeup from early on in the film.

(The scene in question takes place in the 2:32 - 5:00 window of this longer clip; the close-up itself goes from 3:48-4:22, with one cut in the middle.)

At this point in the story, Osment's character, David, is simply a robot prototype of a little boy, programmed to be the quintessential "good boy" but not directed with any kind of parent-child attachment. Frances O'Connor's character, a mother who has lost her son to what she thinks is a coma he will never recover from, has decided, after a few days with David, to "imprint" him upon her. As the film has explained, this means that David will think of her as his mother, and instantaneously become completely devoted to her, with a (literally) undying love.

This moment in so many ways is the real crux of the film - David's single-minded devotion to his "mother" is the drive behind the entire film's story, and it is critically important to the integrity and internal logic of the rest of the film that we believe this moment, that we believe that David has changed, fundamentally and forever.

Now, Spielberg could have handled this in any number of ways - through the plot itself (writing a scene to demonstrate that David has changed, for example--one can easily imagine Monica saying "it didn't work" with a cut to a scene in which David's newfound love is profoundly demonstrated through action), through John Williams' score, heck, through, these days, digital effects. Instead he entrusted the moment--the moment his entire film hinged on--to the acting ability of a twelve-year old boy.

And that twelve-year old boy delivered. What astonishes me about this closeup is how subtle Osment's work is - he doesn't signal David's fundamental change of character in any exaggerated way, but through a series of very small, barely detectable shifts in expression. As Monica reads the string of random words that will trigger the change, we see some very minor changes that we might be inclined to write off as only existing in our imagination. But when she finishes the string by reciting hers and David's names, the change really takes hold, and before our eyes Osment's face changes. I've watched it dozens of times and I still can't figure out exactly what he's doing. And yet at the end of those few seconds we are looking at what is in essence a completely different character. Not a blandly pleasant little boy, but a slavishly devoted son who loves his mother without reservation or qualification. So that when, for the first time, he calls her "Mommy," we can see the wondering, astonished love behind his eyes--eyes that, only moments ago, showed no hint of any such feelings.

Until Whenever

*I have a pet peeve about critics complaining about actors being robbed of nominations and not playing fair by labeling who should not have been nominated. After all, it's not as if nominations go to all great performances - it's just the five best. And if you are going to complain about someone who should have gotten a nomination, you really should balance the equation by noting whose slot your man or woman should have taken. That being said, I unfortunately have seen only two of the nominated actors from 2001 and can't in all fairness say that Osment should have gotten, for example, Will Smith's slot (although I have my suspicions). Nonetheless, I'd easily place Osment's performace here above the only one of the five's I have seen, Tom Wilkinson's in In the Bedroom.

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