Page last updated at 06:14 GMT, Monday, 8 March 2010

In-jokes keep Oscars co-hosts Martin and Baldwin afloat

By Ben Sutherland
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin
Martin (left) and Baldwin provided two safe pairs of hands

In Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin, the 82nd Academy Awards featured the first presenting duo since 1957. How successful was it?

Well, while their onstage energy was for the most part fine - once a slightly stilted start was negotiated - the schisms in the writing were less easily overcome.

The jokes veered crazily from the almost dangerously dark and pointed, to the sort of ludicrously banal stuff that has all the side-splitting mirth of a car accident.

Especially in the beginning, there were some absolute zingers: discussing the nominations of the divorced James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow, Martin quipped, "She sent him a beautiful gift basket, with a timer. And he reciprocated by sending her a Toyota."

Or this, discussing Inglourious Basterds' scene-stealing Jew Hunter: "Christoph Waltz played a Nazi obsessed with finding Jews. Well, Christoph [gesturing to the audience]: the mother lode."

But equally, there were some moments where the script seemed to have been found in a Christmas cracker. Some dragged-out banter about forgetting The Hangover, for example, would have sounded old when Ug The Mildly Humorous was handing out stone tablets for Best Supporting Mammoth.

'I wrote that speech'

Neither host actually opened the show. Instead, that task went to Neil Patrick Harris - best known until recently as Doogie Howser MD, but who has now carved out a reputation as a song-and-dance performer at big awards shows.

Harris carried off the innuendo-laden opening number, about how "no-one likes to do it alone", to good effect. Would his forthcoming turn in The Smurf movie signal great things for blue-skinned CGI critters everywhere?

From then on it was over to the Martin/Baldwin partnership - a partnership that grew increasingly one-sided over time.

Ben Stiller as a Na'vi
Ben Stiller put in the effort to dress as one of Avatar's Na'vi

In all comedy double acts, there has to be a straight man. After a few jokes it became evident that this was to be debutant Baldwin - who, by the time the show was over, had appeared significantly less that twice-previous host Martin.

On the plus side, this gave Martin the freedom to ad-lib to good effect.

Precious writer Geoffrey Fletcher, for example, accepted his Oscar with words so touching and heartfelt there was genuine emotion in the audience. Martin then brought a big laugh by immediately responding with, "I wrote that speech for him."

And there were a lot of digs at the stars in the audience. "Look, there's that damn Helen Mirren," said Martin. "See, that's Dame Helen Mirren," Baldwin replied.

Or this barb from Martin - "He directed A Single Man, and she weighs a single pound: please welcome Tom Ford and Sarah Jessica Parker."

Indeed, there seemed to be much more self-referencing than usual this year, leading to a show curiously deprived of energy. Even the Autocue seemed to be jammed at 70% speed.

Perhaps it was simply that there was nothing else to really joke about.

Fey's star turn

Martin's best performance was back in 2003, when the backdrop of the Iraq war gave him a genuine tightrope to walk - which he did both brilliantly and hilariously.

Tiny Fey and Robert Downey Jr
Tina Fey and Robert Downey Jr were arguably the night's funniest couple

But this time around there was nothing in the background - no strike or credit crunch for the writers to really get their teeth into.

Couple the in-jokes with the complete lack of surprise winners in almost every single category - at least until the very, very end - and large parts of the show were left oddly inert.

And co-stars coming on to tell all five nominees in their categories how wonderful they are really slowed everything down.

"Ladies and gentleman, this show was so long that Avatar now takes place in the past," Martin said at the end, and he was not wrong.

Avatar itself did prompt some laughs when Ben Stiller appeared as one of its Na'vi creatures, aptly for best make-up, and speaking in the native tongue before translating: "This seemed like a better idea at rehearsal. It was between this and the Nazi uniform."

But of the guest presenters it was - as last year - Tina Fey who got the biggest laughs, when she came on to present best adapted screenplay with Robert Downey Jr.

The pair traded about the worthiness of writing against acting, ended by Downey Jr in brilliant style: "It's a collaboration. A collaboration between handsome gifted people, and sickly mole people."

Fey was having none of it, and sharply directed Downey Jr towards the Autocue.

Surely it is only a matter of time before she gets the whole gig - and shows her 30 Rock co-star Baldwin exactly how it's done.

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