Oscar season is supposed to be a time where the Academy uses its influence to draw attention to artful little dramas that very few people would otherwise see.
In the case of “The Reader,” the Academy mysteriously nominated a really bad movie for Best Picture and fooled me into wasting my Saturday night.
Kate Winslet stars as Hanna Schmitz, a 30-something German lady who spends one summer in the late 1950s teaching a 15 year old boy – Michael – about sex. In exchange, Hanna makes the boy read her classic novels.
Fast forward to the 60s. Michael is a law student and his professor takes the class to a trial of suspected Nazi war criminals. One of the accused is none other than – duh duh DUH!– Hanna.
One of the problems with “The Reader” is that the story is ludicrously far-fetched. I wonder how many young men coincidentally find themselves at the war crimes trial of the woman they had an affair with as a teenager. I estimate that that situation has occurred approximately zero times in human history.
An even bigger problem is that the characters are poorly developed and we never understand their motivations. Kate Winslet was nominated for Best Actress, but I don’t even think this was her best performance of the year (“Revolutionary Road”).
If you are going to have a main character perform completely weird and anti-social actions, you have to give us a reason why. Winslet and director Stephen Daldry never do.
Why does Hanna shack up with a teenage boy? Is it because she thinks an adult lover would be able to discover her shameful secrets? We’ll never know.
A key plot point is that Hanna confesses to war crimes that she did not really commit in order to hide the fact that she can’t read. Now I’d probably be a little ashamed if I were illiterate, too. But not tarnish-my-name-forever-and-go-to-prison-for-life ashamed!
I still think that mass murder is a more serious offense than illiteracy. How come Hanna doesn’t? We’ll never know.
All we really do know about Hanna is that she is a moody loner with poor judgment and creepy taste in guys. Are we really supposed to sympathize with her? I sure didn’t. I just found the character inexplicable and boring – like the movie itself.
Hanna isn’t the only poorly developed character. Michael – who begins the picture as a perfectly normal boy – grows into a cold, emotionally stunted man and the picture never gives us a real explanation.
When faced with the shocking realization that he had once hooked up with a war criminal, I think a normal guy would lament – or even chuckle at – the lousy taste in women he had when he was a kid. We all dated at least one person who was wrong for us during our naïve youth. Most of us grow up and move on.
Michael remains obsessed with Hanna. Why does he let the brief affair that he had as a teenager consume his entire life? We’ll never know.
“The Reader” is an awful, unpleasant waste of time. As far as I’m concerned, it is in the running for WORST picture of 2008.