Oscars review: Ellen DeGeneres served us a tasty, but not-so-spicy pizza

As I bask in the glow of the Best Picture win for “12 Years a Slave,” I wonder if my opinion of the telecast may be more rose-colored than usual. The winners were good, my predictions were good, and the show was … just okay.

Alright, so my perspective isn’t that rosy. It wasn’t a bad Oscars – no spectacular bombs or embarrassments among the jokes or performances – but it was a fairly safe, inoffensive show, and since putting on this event can be a monumentally thankless task, I can’t blame them for being conservative. When they take chances sometimes we end up with James Franco.

As host, Ellen DeGeneres was reliably charming, if hit-and-miss with some of her comedy bits. Ordering pizza for the audience was a joke she returned to more times than I would have liked, but the audience was so game they literally ate it up – and then chipped in when Ellen passed around Pharrell‘s famous hat.

And that’s an important factor. Having developed a reputation on daytime TV for her positivity, the crowd was immediately at ease with her, which allowed her extra freedom to poke fun at members of the audience: reminding everyone of Jennifer Lawrence‘s tripping on the stage at last year’s Oscars, mistaking Liza Minnelli for a drag-queen impersonator, referencing Jonah Hill‘s prosthetic penis in “The Wolf of Wall Street” (“You showed me something I haven’t seen in a long time …”)

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She even made the uncomfortable joke that was undoubtedly the subtext of most of the awards season: that either “12 Years a Slave” wins Best Picture, or else “You’re all racists. Our first white presenter is …”

The crowd might have bristled at those jokes coming from a Seth MacFarlane or a Ricky Gervais. The host’s relationship with the audience matters, which is why the person delivering the joke is often the difference between a laugh and a groan. I doubt anyone but DeGeneres could have made a group Oscar selfie as entertaining as she did. It set a new record for retweets, and I was one of the retweeters.

Like last year, the bigger problems with the production came from the producers: Craig Zadan and Neil Meron. With last year’s telecast they made an attempt to celebrate movie musicals, which turned out to mostly be a self-serving tribute to just three films: “Dreamgirls,” “Les Miserables,” and the film they just so happened to produce, “Chicago.”

This time they tried another theme, almost as dubious: movie heroes. That’s quite a broad topic, since most movies that get made are about good guys, and the arbitrary clip packages, which included everything from “Schindler’s List” to “Man of Steel,” never justified their presence on the telecast.

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Similarly, Pink‘s rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” in honor of “The Wizard of Oz” and Judy Garland, felt out of place, even though Pink sang the hell out of it. Garland’s children, Minnelli, Lorna Luft, and Joseph Luft, did not participate except to provide reaction shots to the on-stage performance.

Slightly less out of place but almost equally unnecessary was Bette Midler‘s performance of “Wind Beneath My Wings” following the In Memoriam segment. Most In Memoriam performances take place during the montage, but Midler’s came after, which made it less a tribute to deceased artists and more an excuse to have her on the show. Like Pink, the performance itself was terrific, but what was it doing there?

(As a side note, I was immensely grateful to see Roger Ebert included among the In Memoriam tributes. Without his influence, I wouldn’t love the movies the way I do.)

Zadan and Meron are like a prom committee run amok, and if they come back next year I fear we may be subjected to “Oscars Under the Sea” or “Enchanted Forest Oscars.”

The musical moments from the Best Song nominees were much better, and pleasingly diverse. Pharrell brought in upbeat pop with his “Despicable Me 2” song, “Happy,” which provided one of the night’s best moments when he coaxed nominees Lupita Nyong’o, Meryl Streep, and Amy Adams out of their seats for a dance. Then Karen O slowed things down a bit with her plaintive performance of “The Moon Song” from “Her.” And later Idina Menzel blew the roof off the auditorium with “Let It Go” from “Frozen,” which was the unsurprising winner.

U2‘s performance of “Ordinary Love” from “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” was just okay, and Bono hit a few bum notes.

Even Darlene Love couldn’t help getting in on the action, singing to the rafters after “20 Feet from Stardom” won Best Documentary Feature. That joyous, impromptu rendition of “His Eye is on the Sparrow” took the sting out of the fact that I had been rooting for “The Act of Killing” and “The Square” in that category.

All four winners for acting stepped up their game at the podium. Supporting Actress-winner Nyong’o has always been poised, but she outdid herself on the Oscar stage and was my favorite, most moving winner of the night.

Dallas Buyers Club” actors Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto finally got it together and gave eloquent thanks for their wins. Perhaps they needed to get a few award shows under their belt to get the awkward rambling out of their systems. Even McConaughey’s signature refrain, “Alright, alright, alright,” didn’t feel as forced this time.

The best sentiment of all came from Best Actress Cate Blanchett (“Blue Jasmine“), who gave a much-appreciated shout-out to female-driven films and their ability to make money: “The world is round people!” she insisted, and Hollywood producers and executives should take note.

Then of course came that win for “12 Years a Slave,” after which director-producer Steve McQueen literally leaped for joy. I know how he felt. The result makes me so gosh-darned happy that I think I’ll put my rose-colored glasses back on and declare it a very good night.

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