I’ll admit that when I first heard about Oscar! I wasn’t impressed. “He’s a playwright famous for his bon mots, he’s a grouch who lives in a trash can: they fight crime.” Oscar Wilde (Geoffrey Rush) teaming up with Oscar the Grouch (Carroll Spinney) in a musical? It sounded like a one note joke. But then I heard that Charley Kaufman was writing the script, which seemed promising. It still seemed like Who Framed Roger Rabbit had covered this territory. But I was imagining the songs done as typical Muppet songs and as extraneous to the story. Nobody could possibly have imagined the impact of using Bollywood-style musical numbers in a film like this. But it’s the very surrealism that makes it work, along with Rush and Spinney’s perfect timing.
People have been arguing about whether the film is really science fiction. Of course it is! Time travel, even time travel by magic trashcan, has long been acknowledged as science fiction. It might be possible to argue that the conceit of having character escaping from fiction into reality is just being meta (not to mention done before in Last Action Hero) but the whole sequence with the aliens dodging through the asteroid belt in pursuit of the evil Lady Bracknell (Uma Thurman, hamming it up for all she’s worth) puts it solidly into science fiction. If anyone wants to argue that a movie with a space-chase sequence isn’t SF they’re completely crazy. It might not be what we normally think of as a science fiction film, but for better or worse it is one.
It’s much more interesting to ask whether it’s good, and I think it is. As with all Kaufman’s work it relies on the script and the actors not the special effects — and I think we’d be better with more genre films that think this way. This is a fast moving manic quest with dizzying one liners — most of them original Wilde quotes, but some of the best of them delivered deadpan by the other Oscar. What really makes it work is the way that it isn’t silly. It’s witty and funny but despite all the joking around it fundamentally takes itself seriously — which for a film that includes a muppet is very good going. Even the clowning around in the song “Please Don’t Eat My Green Carnation” is really about the serious issue of finding somewhere in society where you can be accepted as who you are. And when Dorian Grey (Cliff Richard) says Wilde did deserve better than Bosie, I wanted to cheer.
There have been some complaints about the musical numbers being too long and too over the top, mostly from those unfamiliar with the style of Bollywood musicals. “All Of Us Are In The Gutter (But Some Of Us Are Looking At The Stars)” does take up fifteen minutes, and “Hey, You Talkin’ To Me?” takes ten, but I was never bored. (Watch out for the cameos from Aretha Franklin, Clint Eastwood, and Kermit the Frog.)
Of course the question on everybody’s lips is: Will Oscar! be nominated for a Hugo? All I can say is, for once there may be something going above “no award” on my ballot.
Stanislaw Lem published two books, Perfect Vacuum and Imaginary Magnitude, collecting his reviews of books that didn’t exist. Jo Walton once used to wonder how he amassed enough of them for two whole collections.