Oscars TV Review: Anne Hathaway and James Franco host a disastrous Academy Awards telecast

A couple of hours into the disastrous Academy Awards telecast, host emeritus Billy Crystal came on-stage to a thunderous standing ovation. If applause can be translated into words, those claps would have screamed, “Come back, Billy! Save us from this mess!”

That Crystal proceeded to follow that reception with a rambling, unfunny monologue about Bob Hope typified the sort of night the Oscar-cast was having. No matter the talent involved nor the intentions, virtually nothing worked. It was so strained and weird that at one point Roger Ebert tweeted, “I’m even beginning to feel nostalgic about Rob Lowe dancing with Snow White.”

Much of the blame unfortunately rests at the feet (both of which were clad in heels at some point during the show) of co-hosts Anne Hathaway and James Franco, two talented, versatile young actors who were brought in out of the hope that they might attract a younger, more advertiser-friendly audience.

It wasn’t a goal the hosts or their writers ran away from – early in their opening remarks, Franco told Hathaway, “You look so beautiful and so hip,” and she responded, “Thank you, James. You look very appealing to a younger demographic as well.” – but youthful energy alone isn’t enough to carry an unwieldy ship like the Oscars, especially when the energy of the two youths was so mismatched.

(It also doesn’t help that the Oscars still have a middle-aged sensibility even with twentysomething hosts. At one point, Franco made a “six degrees of Kevin Bacon” reference and joked, “Look it up on the Internet,” which was either incredibly-dated pandering or such a nuanced parody of same that it had no business being on this show.)

Though Franco spent 2010 trying to prove he could master every job even tangentially connected to showbiz, his non-acting persona is so laid-back and aloof that it’s no surprise many viewers asked me if he was stoned. No; that’s just Franco, but his demeanor from the evening started out like he couldn’t remember why he had agreed to do this and ended like he deeply regretted the choice. He was barely invested in any of the comic bits, or the pomp and circumstance, which was in marked contrast to Hathaway, who threw herself into things with so much energy that I kept fearing she was going to collapse after her next “Woo!” More supple comic minds than Bruce Vilanch might have found a way to turn the opposites attract thing to their advantage, but there was no adjustment for the clash in style – instead, we got lame, random humor like Franco responding to Hathaway’s tux by dressing up like Marilyn Monroe – so it just came across like she was killing herself to compensate for his apathy, making both of their presences uncomfortable.

The show around the two hosts was as ill-conceived as their chemistry. A much-ballyhooed attempt to trumpet the history of the Oscars fell horribly flat. The clips appeared on a recessed screen at the back of the stage, which lessened their visual impact and also made the audience slow to respond to them, which in turn left a bunch of awkward gaps as the presenters waited for their opportunity to talk about them in the context of the next award. It was so obviously not working that the show largely dropped it after the first hour. (Part of what torpedoed Crystal’s appearance is that it brought back the history angle, as he followed a joke about the show running long with an unnecessary segment about Hope.) And having presenters Jeff Bridges (for best actress) and Sandra Bullock (for best actor) recite brief odes to each of the five nominees was a lot clunkier than when they had five previous winners each do a tribute last year.

Now, there are certain fundamental problems that the Oscar-cast can’t do anything about in this modern awards season. Thanks to the Golden Globes, the SAG Awards, et al, we all pretty much know who all the winners are going to be before the show starts, which sucks a lot of the fun out of it and puts even more pressure on the show itself to be good, since surprises are going to be few and far between. But even here, Oscar fell down on the job. One of the few categories where there was any suspense was best director, where David Fincher of “The Social Network” seemed to have a chance to upset Tom Hooper from “The King’s Speech” – and where a Fincher win might have briefly created the illusion that “Social Network” could win best picture. But by presenting the director award – which Hooper predictably won – nearly 40 minutes before best picture, it sucked any remaining suspense from the rest of the telecast.

It was a night so full of weird moments that Melissa Leo’s F-bomb – which itself followed an amusing but long bit of old pro hamminess from presenter Kirk Douglas – barely even registered as a low point by the time the show was over.

One of the many pieces of wasted time was the president of ABC coming out to announce that the network had extended its deal to broadcast the Oscars through 2020. We can only hope the next nine shows are better-conceived than this one was.

A few other thoughts:

• One of the few genuinely funny planned comedy bits was the montage of auto-tuned scenes from hit movies of 2010, but even that ran too long and sold out its own joke by not auto-tuning the entire clip from “Twilight.”

• An improvement from the last two years: we could actually see the names and faces of all the people in the montage of movie people who died in the last year. On the other hand, viewers who make a spectator sport of which person gets the biggest applause had to be annoyed that the producers cut the audio from the theater so that all we could hear was Celine Dion singing “Smile.”

• So are we to take from the Robert Downey Jr./Jude Law banter that Downey wasn’t offended by Ricky Gervais’ similar joke at the Golden Globes? Or just that Downey accepts that sort of thing from a friend and co-worker and not a stranger?

• How strange that the requisite opening montage of the hosts inserted into scenes from the nominated films was predominantly about “Inception,” a movie that had no chance of winning any of the big awards. On the other hand, how appropriate that the final montage of the best picture nominees was dominated by the speech from “The King’s Speech,” which everyone assumed was going to win.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com