After all the hype about whether he'd be indecent, Chris Rock was merely decent enough.
He hosted last night's overgrown Academy Awards ceremony with no more irreverence or edge than previous hosts such as Johnny Carson and Whoopi Goldberg. He was appealingly chipper, but not exciting or unpredictable. Ultimately, he didn't give the Oscar telecast what it so desperately needs in this era of awards-show overpopulation: A pulse.
Calling the show a ''def Oscar jam" because of its four black nominees, and goofing on the simplistic titles of black movies such as ''Barbershop" and ''Car Wash," he was likably less of a Hollywood insider than Billy Crystal. He managed to usher what seemed like a record number of black faces into the usually white telecast, after having joked in recent weeks that straight black men don't watch the show. During a sequence in a theater lobby, he asked black moviegoers to name their favorites of last year -- and he got titles such as ''White Chicks" and ''Saw."
But his stand-up material was run of the mill, with predictable jokes about President Bush and his -- irony alert -- ''genius." There were ''Passion of the Christ" teases and light-hearted bits about the Hollywood A and B lists, including the over-productive Jude Law and the over-intense Russell Crowe. (Later in the telecast, a humorless Sean Penn defended Law as ''one of our finest actors.")
As always, the night just felt too long, with the glut of interesting awards saved for the tail end of the show. To be fair, there were canny little attempts to streamline the production. Nominees in non-glamorous categories such as sound mixing were gathered onstage, as if in a police lineup, so that the winner was instantly at hand to accept.
The hike to the stage was also eliminated in small categories such as best live action short, with the nominees seated beside one another in the audience and the statue handed to the winner on the spot. ''Next year, they're going to give out Oscars in the parking lot," Rock joked.
But these smart alterations weren't enough to make the event more TV friendly and less of a slog. One or two musical performances were distracting enough -- most notably Antonio Bandaras and Carlos Santana with an intimate performance of ''Al Otro Lado Del Rio," the winning song from ''The Motorcycle Diaries."
And Robin Williams packed a little punch into his short ramble, before announcing the year's best animated film. First, he arrived onstage with tape over his mouth -- his comment on the fact that ABC forced him to drop a politically incorrect song about the dark underside of cartoon characters. Then he mocked those who have condemned SpongeBob SquarePants as gay, and imagined stars such as Jack Nicholson lending their voices to classic animated characters such as Bugs Bunny.
But most of the acceptance speeches were ordinary, from Morgan Freeman's soft-spoken thank yous to Cate Blanchett's low-key homage to ''Aviator" director Martin Scorsese. Hilary Swank had refreshing sincerity, and Jamie Foxx had electricity, as expected, as he nodded to Sidney Poitier. And ''Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" screenwriter Charlie Kaufman was as self-conscious as we wanted him to be. But by very late in the evening, there had been no acceptances bound for the annals of memorable -- or even slightly memorable -- Oscar speeches.
ABC began the evening with an exclusive red-carpet show that was nothing short of trying. After weeks of Oscar-themed TV infotainment, and after hours of E! and CNN pre-show froth, can't we just cut to the chase at 8 p.m.? Knowing the night would stretch thin in the later hours, it was unnerving to listen to Jann Carl cheerfully killing the minutes with questions such as ''Was there an actor or an actress who inspired you?"
Star Jones Reynolds had already presided over the carpet, taking charge of E!'s bling-ed up microphone with the fever of a morning host with an eye on prime time. With the camera perpetually peaking down her dress, she was an eighth world wonder of sincerity and adulation. The gush was awesome. She put her hand on her heart to call every actress in her path ''my girl," and dubbed the likes of Salma Hayek and Swank ''glamazons." Her exchange with Oprah Winfrey was a kiss-kiss for the ages.
And she was absolutely the biggest fan of every tuxed-up gentleman, from Clive Owen and Freeman to Foxx, who trod the carpet with his daughter. Only Johnny Depp, so reserved and New European, managed to resist her onrush. Obsequious, self-important, attracted to the sound of her own voice, she always got the names right.
Poor Kathy Griffin. Someone at E! decided she wasn't suitable for the red carpet -- is it the lack of velvet on her hammer? -- so she was plunked down in a quiet booth above the fray with nothing but her sarcasm.
The red-carpet hierarchy is ferocious, as the local reporters elbow one another for the gets, but Griffin wasn't even in the running. Her solo shtick ranged from faux cellphone calls with Julia Roberts and Law to the requisite ''Catwoman" jab. They couldn't take her meow.