Friday, February 24, 2012

Oscars Analysis 2011: The screenplays

Sometimes I worry that the rationale behind awarding Oscars for screenplays is utterly fraudulent. Don't get me wrong, I'm not denigrating the importance of writing in today's cinematic climate, not least when high-brow critics constantly grumble about how "Scripts don't matter anymore" and "Young people are too attention-addled to appreciate a proper art film" and "What the hell is Twitter, anyway?". My real concern is that, of all of the prizes awarded at the Academy Awards, the screenplay is the one category that voters can't actually see. For Best Costume Design, they can judge a film's wardrobe; for Best Cinematography, they can follow the camera movements and lighting; for the acting fields, they can watch the performer. You get the idea.

But a screenplay? Hell, a screenplay is just a few hundred typewritten pages that might have been drafted years ago and were lying in a dusty desk drawer underneath some old Superman comics until a director miraculously came along and decided to turn them into a movie. Of course, it rarely works that way (though Clint Eastwood apparently sat on the Oscar-nominated script for Unforgiven for 15 years until he was old enough to play the lead), but I nevertheless wonder if we can accurately judge a screenplay on its own merits rather than as a mere stepping stone to a finished film.

But so it goes. Besides, these are two of the categories in which the Academy regularly exhibits a certain degree of bravery ("The Oscar-winning Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" always has a nice ring to it), so I suppose I shouldn't be staring into the mouths of gift horses.


The Descendants – Nat Faxon, Alexander Payne, Jim Rash
Hugo – John Logan
The Ides of March – George Clooney, Grant Heslov, Beau Willimon
Moneyball – Aaron Sorkin, Steven Zaillian
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – Bridget O'Connor, Peter Straughan

For roughly a month, the parallels between The Descendants and Up in the Air absolutely terrified me. Up in the Air, you'll recall, was a beautifully written blend of wry comedy and poignant drama – spearheaded by a charismatic, tender turn from George Clooney – that became an instant Best Picture favorite upon its release, only to stumble down the stretch of a painfully long awards season. This year, I could duplicate that previous sentence, only replacing "Up in the Air" with "The Descendants", and it would be perfectly accurate. The similarities are eerie. And that's the problem, because for all of its critical (and public) acclaim, Up in the Air walked away with as many Oscars as the Philadelphia Eagles have Super Bowl titles: zero.

So that's the concern. But while the momentum of The Descendants has indeed flagged considerably, and while it's clearly languishing on the sidelines in the Best Picture race, I don't think that the ghost of Up in the Air haunts its chances in this category as much as I'd originally feared. The Descendants recently received recognition from the Writers' Guild, holding off competition from its two primary challengers (Hugo and Moneyball) in the process. It's also, along with Moneyball, one of the most writerly nominees, as its pronounced lack of directorial flair will almost shoehorn voters into considering its screenplay above all else.

Of course, that hardly means it's a sure thing. While I'm quite comfortable eliminating The Ides of March and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (the only contenders not also nominated for Best Picture) either Hugo or Moneyball could poach the trophy. Hugo's chances, however, are fairly slim, as I expect the membership to appreciate that film more for its craftsmanship and its legendary director than its script. Moneyball is of far graver concern; not only is it a dialogue-heavy film, but it's penned by two of the most well-known screenwriters in the business (plus it's based on a book that was allegedly unfilmable). But Sorkin got his cookies last year with The Social Network, and Zaillian already won (albeit last century) for Schindler's List, so it's not as if they're owed anything. Besides, we can't possibly see a repeat of the Up in the Air disaster – The Descendants has to win something, right?


I throw out this disclaimer every year, but it's always worth repeating: It's impossible for me to properly evaluate this category because I can't read. Wait, that came out wrong. What I mean is that this category recognizes the best adapted screenplay – it places a premium (or at least it should) on the skill with which the screenwriter takes a previously existing story and shapes it into a form that's feasible as a feature film. Because I read so rarely (unless we're talking about reading A.O. Scott's commentaries on the state of contemporary cinema or FanGraphs' analysis of Adrian Gonzalez's opposite-field swing, in which case, I'm voracious), I can't accurately judge the quality of the adaptation. So in 2047, when some higher-up at the Academy gets wind of the Manifesto and invites me to join as a member, I'll likely recuse myself from this category.

That said, I can still tell the difference between good writing and bad writing, and I don't need to have read John le Carré's spy novel to know that the screenplay for Tinker Tailor Solider Spy is bad. It was undoubtedly challenging for O'Connor and Straughan to condense a supposedly labyrinthine book – one that has previously been spun into a six-hour miniseries (and even that was said to be incredibly dense) – into a two-hour movie, but it's a challenge that they failed. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a lovely, occasionally exquisite work of filmmaking, but as a piece of writing, it's a mess. Characters blur into each other with no attempt at delineation, numerous scenes are utterly indecipherable, and the pace is positively glacial. When the movie ended, I could only describe the experience of watching it as an absolutely beautiful waste of time. (Would I feel differently if I'd read the book? Probably. But it's the screenwriter's job to make the movie accessible for veterans and newcomers alike. Someone forgot to tell that to O'Connor and Straughan.)

The remaining four nominated screenplays all represent strong writing, though I think Hugo's is a tick beneath the other three, as it's a fairly generic tale that happens to be impressively told. The Ides of March doesn't really mine new territory either, but it's laced with cynicism and desperation, a tonic that proves highly potent in its dark, dour second half.

Moneyball, naturally, is the one nominee for which I've actually read the source material, and when I first heard that Michael Lewis' stat-heavy geek-o-rama was being adapted into a movie, my reaction was typical among baseball nerds: How the fuck can anyone turn Moneyball into a movie? The answer: Hire Aaron Sorkin. That's glib, but then, so is Sorkin, and for him, the baseball diamond is just another arena in which tortured intellectuals marshal their resources in an effort to conquer the institutions that scoff at their idealism. Moneyball isn't a baseball movie as much as the story of a man courageously bucking the system. That's somewhat rote, but with Sorkin on hand, it's also electric, and the inter-office banter between dueling executives crackles with insider knowledge and, more importantly, buried passion. Not exactly what I'd pictured when reading a chapter about Jeremy Brown's collegiate OPS. (Note: I'm unfairly marginalizing Zaillian's work on the screenplay because I'm borderline-obsessed with Sorkin; in truth, I don't know the extent of each writer's respective contribution. Something tells me Zaillian will get over the slight.)

So Moneyball's screenplay is terrific, but I simply can't pick against The Descendants here. The graceful, sorrowful story of a spiritually broken man trying desperately to reassemble his family, it features the most thoughtful, three-dimensional characterization of any script this year. Clooney's Matt King is a pitch-perfect portrait of a middle-aged man paralyzed by fear, grief, and raging impotence, and the supporting characters come across as fully sketched individuals rather than mere archetypes. The story is acutely moving without straying into hackneyed sentimentality; when it ends, we feel blessed to have spent time with people who remind us so painfully of those we know, and of ourselves.

The Adjustment Bureau – George Nolfi
The Descendants – Nat Faxon, Alexander Payne, Jim Rash
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 – Steve Kloves
The Ides of March – George Clooney, Grant Heslov, Beau Willimon
Moneyball – Aaron Sorkin, Steven Zaillian

Strong showing from the Academy in this category this year, as three of its five nominees match my own list. Nolfi's Adjustment Bureau transplants the timeless paranoia of Philip K. Dick to a distinctly modern age, then gilds it with a dash of storybook romanticism. Kloves finishes his exhausting journey on the Harry Potter saga with an unflinchingly grim script, boldly filling out the darkest corners of one of literature's greatest heroes.

My ideal winner: The Descendants – Nat Faxon, Alexander Payne, Jim Rash.

Also deserving: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Steven Zaillian (for putting a stunning emotional spin on a chilling thriller); The Muppets – Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller (for being awesome); The Skin I Live In – Pedro Almodóvar et al. (for taking us to the brink of humanity's disturbing capacity for revenge); Too Big to Fail – Peter Gould (for challenging Margin Call for the title of "Best screenplay of the year about seemingly boring but actually hypnotic financial markets").


The Artist – Michel Hazanavicius
Bridesmaids – Annie Mumolo, Kristen Wiig
Margin Call – J.C. Chandor
Midnight in Paris – Woody Allen
A Separation – Asghar Farhadi

And here we have the most interesting category of Oscar night. The Artist has Best Picture and Director all but locked up, and the acting categories, if not surefire guarantees, are relatively stable, meaning that, of the major categories, Best Original Screenplay is where the suspense really lies. Yet oddly enough, there are really only two contenders here. Sure, it's technically possible that Bridesmaids, Margin Call, or A Separation could pull a Villanova over Georgetown, but it would be disingenuous of me to pretend that any of them has odds superior to those of your standard lotto ticket. No, this is a two-horse race, plain and simple, between The Artist and Midnight in Paris.

The Artist, frankly, only has one thing going for it: It's The Artist. By which I mean, it's extremely tempting (and perhaps logical) for members who vote for a certain film for Best Picture to vote for its screenplay as well. To wit, it's been seven years since the Best Picture winner didn't receive recognition for its screenplay as well (when Million Dollar Baby fell to Alexander Payne's Sideways) and the last time Oscar's alpha dog lost in this category was in 2000, when Almost Famous knocked off action epic Gladiator (not exactly a screenwriting classic). That said, the correlation here isn't nearly as strong as that between Best Picture and Best Director. More importantly, the Academy tends to equate the best screenplay with the film featuring the best dialogue, and The Artist, for all of its virtues, isn't exactly strong on dialogue. (In a weird way, it resembles the mostly silent Wall-E, which lost in this category in 2008 to the bluntly written Milk.)

That might not matter were The Artist facing meager competition, but Midnight in Paris' screenplay credentials are auspicious. First, it bears the stamp of an auteur; Woody Allen is a screenwriting legend who's been nominated in this category a whopping 15 times (yet he hasn't won since Hannah and Her Sisters in 1986, so there's no fear of oversaturation). Second, its time-traveling conceit is exactly the type of visible screenwriting device that tends to appeal to Oscar voters. Finally, it won at the Writers' Guild, indicating that any lingering resentment against Allen as a result of his personal mishaps has long since dissipated.

That final point is a bit misleading, as The Artist wasn't even nominated at the guild because it was ineligible. (Of course, Hazanavicius was eligible, and in fact won, at the Directors' Guild. You figure it out.) And Hazanavicius has held his own on the circuit, topping Allen at the BAFTAs and also garnering awards from critics' associations in Chicago, Florida, Phoenix, and Vancouver. And while his decision to honor the silent film era necessarily rendered his movie light on dialogue, it's also a bold, novel approach that might receive voters' admiration for its ingenuity.

In the end, though, I don't think it has enough juice. It's far from a sure thing – that seven-year stat certainly gives me pause – but I think it's time that Woody Allen makes his way back to the winners' circle. Midnight in Paris takes it.

Right, so remember how I'd proclaimed that I was done with disclaimers this year because I'd seen all of the remaining nominees? Well, that was before Century Boulder inexplicably defaulted on its promise to start screening A Separation on February 17, despite assurances from Sony Classics' website. Dammit, Century, I thought we were closer than that – I thought we could trust each other. After being wrenched away from my beloved Boston Common three years ago in a parting of Antony-and-Cleopatra magnitude, my heart had finally started to feel whole again, but now you've thrown that all away, just so you could screen Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance a few extra times. You broke my heart.

(The point: I've yet to see A Separation, so I can't comment on its merit in this category. Moving on.)

I like The Artist quite a bit, but it's hard to deny that its screenplay is slight. It's a winning conceptual gambit, but the movie is memorable for its craft, its earnestness, and its impeccable acting. Bridesmaids, on the other hand, is a writers' movie through and through, and Mumolo and Wiig deserve acclaim for mingling piercing insights into relationships and loneliness amidst all of the big, brawny laughs. That said, its tone is a bit spotty, and a handful of scenes feel too forced for it to rank as a true comedic classic.

Midnight in Paris is a pure winner, and it features one of Allen's finest screenwriting efforts in some time, full of warmth and wonder along with his typical (and typically hilarious) neuroticism. My vote, however, goes to J.C. Chandor's Margin Call, a gripping, kinetic, scrupulously intelligent screenplay about ... an investment banking firm? The subject matter for Margin Call – a fictional recreation of a single night just prior to the stock market crash in 2008 – sounds utterly banal (not to mention predictable, given that we already know the ending), but Chandor's script bristles with energy and urgency, turning what could have been an obnoxious, muckraking exposé of corporate greed into an evenhanded, relentlessly compelling thriller. Top marks.

Crazy, Stupid, Love. – Dan Fogelman
The Guard – John Michael McDonagh
Margin Call – J.C. Chandor
Midnight in Paris – Woody Allen
Rango – John Logan

Fogelman illustrates that a movie can dabble in a variety of genres with falling prey to tonal inconsistency, and Crazy, Stupid, Love. supplies a buffet of humor, heartbreak, romanticism, and candor, with some wily plotting mixed in for good measure. (Now Fogelman just needs to learn proper punctuation.) McDonagh's script for The Guard is a pleasingly unhurried, marvelously jagged take on the standard buddy-cop comedy. Logan, I fear, received an Oscar nomination for the wrong film (Hugo), as Rango represents the most vibrant, original storytelling at the movies this year.

My ideal winner: Rango – John Logan.

Also deserving: Contagion – Scott Z. Burns (for its rigorous, horrifyingly plausible depiction of humanity's response to the apocalypse); Love Crime – Nathalie Carter, Alain Corneau (for having the patience to madden its viewers before finally rewarding them); Martha Marcy May Marlene – Sean Durkin (for terrifying us without stooping to cheap thrills); Neds – Peter Mullan (for crafting a coming-of-age story with an agreeably grey-shaded protagonist); Warrior – Gavin O'Connor et al. (for transforming trite into triumph); Young Adult – Diablo Cody (for obliterating the myth of the redemption fairy tale).

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