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The 24th Spirit Awards

Posted by Wesley Morris  February 21, 2009 07:43 PM

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Every year, you can count on the Independent Spirit Awards to be more fun than Oscars. People wear jeans and Betsey Johnson. They recognize the work of people who don't have the money to get the Academy's attention. They laugh when presenters like Cameron Diaz can't seem to read the teleprompter -- Catherine Keener, you were totally laughing. (Charlie Kaufman won best first feature and the Robert Altman award.) But this year, something's off. Everybody's painfully earnest. The nominee introductions are hackneyed (Robin Wright Penn had to read the words "a one-night stand becomes a day-long journey through San Francisco and a landscape of human emotion" for first-film nominee "Medicine for Melancholy.")

Like Sarah Silverman, Rainn Wilson, and the incomparable John Waters before him, the host Steve Coogan is trying to be irreverent, but it's not working for him. I caught Jonathan Demme in an Obama t-shirt, and that kind of sums up what's off. Everybody's kind of happy, and there's no sitting bogeyman. And what are people gonna do, make jokes about the economy? There's a kind of defensiveness in the air. Where's the joy?

Taraji P. Henson just performed a song about best film nominee "Ballast" to the tune of "Respect." It was funny until you realize the song is about how the title makes no sense and that no one saw it. Of all movies, why go negative on that one? It's discouraging. There was a cutaway to the writer and director Lance Hammer, who didn't seem to mind. For "Rachel Getting Married," Robin Hitchcock performed something about being "up to our necks in love." But where's the mocking song about that movie? You could have set it to the theme song of "Family Ties."

Having Teri Hatcher, in leather pants, salute "Wendy and Lucy" by draping herself over a bike rack singing "the bitch is gone" to an empty dog leash seemed mean. Wait, am I the humorless one? No! Rainn Wilson doing "I Feel Bad" for "The Wrestler" set to "I Feel Good" is great comedy (he's wearing a yellow curly-fries wig and and lime-green tights). It tweaks the movie without entirely mocking it.

Early on in the show, there's a lot of talk about thrift and saving money. These are the Independent Spirit Awards, people. It's like attendees at the Oscars feeling bad for so having so much money to spend. Melissa Leo won best actress in "Frozen River," and her speech is more like it. She thanked the entire independent-film apparatus: the media, the crew, the distributors, the theaters owners who showed the movie for eight -- expletive -- weeks. She was earnest for sure, but elated and amazed, too. She gave a folk-rock acceptance speech. Who knows, maybe it'll come in handy tomorrow. (If I can be frank, so might a better dress.)

If supporting actress winner Penelope Cruz wins an Oscar tomorrow, I hope she retells the story about why she loves Woody Allen (it has something to do with his hypochondria and a spot on his hand). It was great -- I also hope Rosie Perez stops by to tell everybody what Cruz said after Perez called her a "fly bitch": "I'm a bitch that can fly?" It's funnier when you hear Perez do it. Somebody, let her host next year.

Speaking of speeches, Mickey Rourke's belongs in the award-show hall of fame. It was truly spontaneous funny, weird (an epic shout-out to Eric Roberts?), rude (Mickey, why didn't Marisa Tomei come of her trailer), scary (would it ever end?), and entertaining. He at least deserves an Oscar for that. Could he get a chance to do some recycling tomorrow?

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

Mark Feeney is an arts writer for The Boston Globe.

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Tom Russo is a regular correspondent for the Movies section and writes a weekly column on DVD releases.

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