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PEOPLE Review: Oscars Like Old Times – for Good and Bad

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Kevin Winter/Getty

Considering that last year’s Oscars were so thumpingly bad – co-host James Franco behaved as if he’d been taken out of the freezer, left on the counter and unevenly thawed – last night’s broadcast was a welcome relief.

The strength of the show ultimately rests on the heat of the biggest contests – I doubt Americans were on the edge of their seats wondering whether the cosmically inscrutable Tree of Life could score an upset over the French silent The Artist – but the production looked great and flowed well.

Billy Crystal was hosting for his ninth time, brought on after Eddie Murphy dropped out in November, and it felt no different from his seventh, eighth or (if one were to project) fifty-seventh time.

This was both good and bad.

Crystal might have tried freshening up his old opening routine: He started, as expected, with a meticulously worked-out segment that inserted him into most of the nine Best Picture nominees, followed by his old-school specialty number, in which he sings satirical patter about those same films. I would rather be stuck in an elevator for three hours hearing nothing but “Copacabana” piped in.

But Crystal is always sharp, arguably more alert than lively and more amusing than laugh-out-loud funny – but also absolutely dependable and consistent, popping in and out at the right moment to distract us from the sinking realization that we still haven’t gotten to Documentary Short. I especially liked a segment in which he read the minds of nominees in the audience.

I also liked:

• Emma Stone, presenting Visual Effects, pretending to be so wildly stoked about being on the show she asked Jonah Hill up on stage to dance with her. (He declined.) This kind of stunt nearly always comes across as someone faking merriment while knowing a terrorist is holding a loved one hostage, but Stone’s enthusiasm was natural and infectious.

• Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis in white uniforms, playing cymbals. I don’t know why. Just because.

• Faux-documentry footage of a 1939 focus group criticizing The Wizard of Oz. The piece featured Best in Show director Christopher Guest and his usual entourage, including Catherine O’Hara, Jennifer Coolidge and Eugene Levy, who complained: “I didn’t particularly care for the ‘Rainbow’ song.”

I could have done without:

• The overall theme reminding us, rather pushily, of the glorious experience awaiting you when you venture out to your local cinema. This was done with clips of Hollywood blockbusters, from Jaws to The Hangover; an arty Cirque du Soleil dance number that featured two high-flying acrobats dressed as Cary Grant in North by Northwest (excuse me, but: ????); stars, from Julia Roberts to Warren Beatty, talking about their emotional response to movies and movie-making; and even usherettes handing out popcorn in the theater.

This all felt as if took up roughly half the evening. And yet, in general, the clips shown throughout the show looked so good in HD, there didn’t seem to be much need to ever leave the house again.