[Editor's Note: Oscar Prospects is your weekly analysis of an awards contender and how it's likely to fare come Oscar nomination morning. The column is comprehensive, so beware of spoilers.]
If there's a film this season that's poised to nab Oscar's Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close vote, joining a generously wide Best Picture field for its cloying take on a recent tragedy, it's definitely J.A. Bayona's The Impossible, a markedly odd prestige picture with enough capital-A acting and capital-I issues to distract from its dire mix of sentiment and insensitivity. Charting one family's struggle to survive amid the devastation of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, this epic, fact-based tearjerker is already raking in critical acclaim, despite its pedestrian retooling of the disaster-movie formula. On this site alone, venom has been spat regarding the central family's ethnicity, which was changed from Spanish to British in a move that reeks of commercial compromise. The contentious racial topic may well miff some Academy members of color (and the astute ballot-casters who love them), but likely not enough to quell the movie's apparent wave of supporters. (Get it?) One should hope that savvier voters will simply dismiss the film for reasons more foundational than whitewashing, for The Impossible is essentially a topical twist on a Roland Emmerich deathfest, wherein viewers are subjected to endless weather-fueled carnage, with the salvation of the core cast serving as self-satisfied consolation. Indeed, this is all inspired by a true story (as an emboldened pre-film title card is sure to hammer home), but, true or not, the strength of a story is in the telling, and what's peddled here is the convenient eminence of folks to whom, in comparison, all other survivors pale.
But back to the Oscars. The film's strongest bit of buzz has been swirling around the lead performance from Naomi Watts, whose tortured turn as the quintet's mother hen has made her a Best Actress frontrunner. As critic Tim Robey hilariously observed in his review for The Telegraph, much of this movie's first act plays out like "The Passion of Naomi Watts," whose character, Maria, suffers lacerations to her right calf and left breast during an agonizing sequence that churns her around in a soup of trees and debris. No one should ever discount the awards potential of an actor suffering for her art, not to metion de-glamming to the umpteenth degree. The last time Watts was in the Oscar ring, it was for her tear-heavy, drug-addled work in 21 Grams, and, give or take the Funny Games remake, it's safe to say she hasn't gone this vanity-free since. It probably won't matter much that, beyond the role's grueling physical demands, the actress's talents are only minimally displayed.
There's also a burgeoning campaign to hoist Ewan McGregor into the Best Actor* race, apparently spearheaded by none other than Angelina Jolie, who recently hosted a private screening of the film, praising McGregor's work and surely identifying with the international, fight-for-your-children themes. For evidence of big-name, actors-branch influence, look no further than the Best Actor lineups of the last two years: Julia Roberts led the 2010 charge to secure Javier Bardem's nomination for Biutiful, and 2011's Demian Bichir also had reported Jolie support. A well-liked veteran, McGregor does get one whopper of a breakdown scene that's begging for an Oscar clip, and in a few short minutes, it's admittedly some of his finest work. But one wonders if the unfortunate hokum that literally surrounds his character (he's encircled by second-fiddlers who meekly deem his plight the most important) will tarnish the luster for voters as much as it did for this viewer. And, ultimately, this has become one very competitive field, with four virtual locks (Daniel Day-Lewis, John Hawkes, Denzel Washington, and Joaquin Phoenix) and two strong contenders (Anthony Hopkins and Hugh Jackman) itching for the fifth slot. As for the talk of young Tom Holland showing up here or in the Supporting Actor race (he plays the eldest son of Watts and McGregor's characters), odds are Beasts of the Southern Wild's Quvenzhané Wallis will sufficiently fill 2012's pint-sized talent slot.
For his off-putting, tonally gonzo efforts (he merges violin-scored sap with near-unbearable, horror-film set pieces), genre maestro Bayona, last seen helming 2007's The Orphanage, doesn't have a prayer in Best Director, so let's just leave that settled and move on. It's conceivable that the movie's handful of deft craftsman, including Cinematographer Óscar Faura and Sound Editor Mark Bech, have real shots in their respective categories, as The Impossible is nothing if not technically well-constructed. But such behind-the-scenes honors will likely be reserved for the Visual Effects department, who rendered one nasty disaster that could just rival the ocean-set tumult of Life of Pi. The Impossible's impending box-office performance could be the factor that makes or breaks its awards-season clout, and for whatever it's worth, it already clinched Spain's highest opening-weekend haul last month. As many will surely say, that's nothing to sneeze at, and though the movie isn't much of a worthy hopeful in any Oscar field, ignoring its potential is virtually—oh, you know.
Surest bets: Best Actress, Naomi Watts; Best Visual Effects.
Possibilities: Best Picture; Best Cinematography; Best Actor, Ewan McGregor; Best Supporting Actor, Tom Holland; Best Editing; Best Sound Editing; Best Sound Mixing; Best Original Score.
Shouldn't be Overlooked: None.
*Correction: Ewan McGregor is being campaigned for Best Supporting Actor, while Tom Holland is being campaigned for Best Actor. Apologies for the faux pas, and thanks to the astute commenters for pointing it out.