It's easy to see why audiences have fallen in love with "The King's Speech," a period drama starring Colin Firth as a British monarch who overcomes a debilitating stammer. The film has everything going for it -- intelligence, wit, sensitivity, charming accents, even a bit of underdog appeal. All of which helps explain why "The King's Speech" seems predestined to win the Academy Award for best picture Sunday.
But should it?
The only other top Oscar contender is David Fincher's "The Social Network," also a period piece (set way back in 2004), about Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook. Dark, discomfiting and downbeat, it's harder to like. It's also the only major release of last year that reached for something beyond mere entertainment, something more timely and resonant, something more like -- let's just say it -- art. Initially considered the Oscar front-runner, "The Social Network" now looks like the also-ran.
All of which leaves the 5,755 voters of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in a familiar spot: Darned no matter what they do. Perennially criticized for favoring small, artsy films that few people have seen, the academy could score much-needed populist points by honoring a crowd-pleaser like "The King's Speech." On the other hand, ignoring "The Social Network" would cement the academy's other, paradoxical reputation for its conservative, middlebrow mind-set.
The good news is that the two films are turning the 83rd Academy Awards into an unusually close race and sparking a vigorous debate about movies. Call it Team Speech versus Team Network -- the crowds versus the critics, hearts versus heads, dessert versus vegetables. After "The King's Speech" won best drama at the Golden Globes, several Oscar-predicting pundits at the website GoldDerby.com switched their picks accordingly -- but not Rolling Stone critic and "Network" supporter Peter Travers, who raged: "It's more than a battle between New Hollywood and Old. It's a battle to ignore business as usual and put the groundbreaking movie in the academy time capsule."
The two films have some similarities. Both are biopics about real-life figures rising to power. Both are success stories (even if "The Social Network" doesn't feel like one). And both have sold well: As of last week, the widely released "The Social Network" had earned $96.7 million, while "The King's Speech," initially a limited release that recently expanded, was at $106.1 million, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com.
So why does "The Social Network" feel like the less popular movie? For starters, "The King's Speech" has an attractive, well-respected cast that includes Helena Bonham Carter and Oscar winner Geoffrey Rush. It's upbeat and inspirational. It has an appealing back story in screenwriter David Seidler, who overcame his own stammer as a teenager. And Tom Hooper's subtle direction does what viewers generally prefer in a movie: It goes unnoticed.
As for "The Social Network," you might think the story of a "commoner" like Zuckerberg -- a Jewish kid who outsmarts his aristocratic colleagues at Harvard -- would warm American hearts. Instead, Zuckerberg comes off as a toxic combination of arrogance, cowardice and viciousness, played to perfection by Jesse Eisenberg. He's tough to root for, to say the least. When it comes to capitalist giants, Americans prefer swaggering criminals like Gordon Gekko, not craven snakes in the mold of Sammy Glick.
What mostly makes the movie so impressive is its existence. By Hollywood's sluggish standards it's a lightning-fast response to a technological phenomenon that is rapidly changing our lives. It's the first film to truly focus on the Internet and its ripple effects, which -- as the recent revolution in Egypt proved -- are still spreading in unpredictable ways. Like all things cutting-edge, "The Social Network" will eventually grow dated, but as a snapshot of a pivotal moment in time it seems likely to be assigned viewing for years to come.
It also seems likely to go down in history as yet another Oscar oversight, right next to the groundbreaking "Citizen Kane," the endlessly influential "2001: A Space Odyssey" and the genre-defining "GoodFellas," all of which were passed over for good, solid, classically crafted entertainments ("How Green Was My Valley," "Oliver!" and "Dances With Wolves," respectively).
No awards-bestowing body can get it right every time.