Super Bowl 2014 Halftime Review: 'A Barn Burner of a Bar Mitzvah'

Still light years better than the abysmal game that bookended it.

Scott Brown on Bruno Mars, the Red Hot Chili Peppers -- and Thomas Pynchon.

It was a night of shattered illusions. We learned that hype, no matter how testosterone-infused, doesn't always culminate in something worth missing Downton Abbey for. We learned that professional football players can, in fact, make Pee Wee league boo-boos, that Dinobots have good agents, that Bob Dylan now looks like a drag king character cut from Inside Llewyn Davis. We learned that Maserati isn't an Italian luxury car manufacturer at all, but some sort of Little League fight club dedicated to bringing down The System, with the little girl from Beasts of the Southern Wild as its Tyler Durden.  

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And we learned that even as dizzyingly talented and dynamically swivel-hipped as Bruno Mars is, he can be made to look a little -- how to put this -- wedding band-ish if the stagecraft framing him is a confinement, not an amplification.

That's not actually as harsh a critique as it sounds. Mars himself was impeccable. Countless walk-ups were written about how hard the little pop polymath with the Thomas Pynchon name and the hair of a collectible maquette would have to work to earn the respect of 20 million semi-drunk sports fans breathlessly awaiting a GoDaddy commercial they might successfully masturbate to -- and, failing that, a somewhat interesting football game. (Dead ball on both counts, I'm afraid.) But Mars, as countless other walk-ups predicted, delivered a fluid, frictionless set based on old-fashioned showmanship. He hopscotched from hit to hit, exploding out of a "Billionaire"-anchored drum solo into "Locked Out of Heaven," "Treasure," and "Runaway Baby." (At which point, some pasty, aging streakers somehow made it onto the field and performed a pretty tight karaoke version of "Give It Away" by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I'm fairly sure one of them was Weird Al Yankovic.)

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But while Mars and his band, the Hooligans, resplendent in gilt throwback blazers, were note-perfect and full of energy (so much bouncing!), the view from the rafters (not to mention Twitter) revealed nothing so much as a real barn burner of a bar mitzvah: Musicians, arrayed mostly in straight lines, exhorting a clutch of partygoers to have the good time they shouldn't need any exhorting to have. Massive LED screens slobbered photons all over everyone and everything, but could not disguise the near total lack of mega-staging and choreographic refulgence needed to overcome the black hole gravity of the venue. No one was expecting another Beyonce-ized, "shoot the lights on" kind of spectacle. With Mars, the focus was always going to be the music itself.

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But the designers and directors ran too far in the opposite direction, and after a splashy opening, the band looked stranded in an inky ocean of underlit benignity, bopping gamely in a void. After "Give It Away," an energetic but off-key insertion, Mars took center stadium for a yearning, pellucid "Just the Way You Are." It was just the tipsy tens of millions of us and Bruno sharing a moment together, and it was nice. But it wasn't intimate, which is what it felt like the shapers were going for. Like a blind date with a great guy our parents picked out, the whole thing felt ceremonial and remote.

In other words, it was still light-years better than the abysmal game that bookended it.