Sunday, January 27, 2013

Oscars Analysis 2012: Best Adapted Screenplay

It may be the Oscar obsessive in me, but I've always envisioned the Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Screenplay categories as rival gangs similar to the East and West Baltimore clans in "The Wire". The Adapted Screenplay category, with its strong literary pedigree and snobbish sense of entitlement, would clearly hail from East Baltimore, where Prop Joe systematically uses his network to maintain a stranglehold on imported drugs. The Original Screenplay field, with its more inventive and daring scripts, is emblematic of the ingenuity and fearlessness with which West-siders Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell attempt to increase their market share. Continuing with my anthropomorphized, possibly delusion vision, the screenplay categories typically run in their own circles and protect their own turf, but they're also ruthlessly competitive, with each side sneering at the other that its respective quintet of nominees exhibits the superior writing. And perhaps the two categories, in their thirst to establish their dominance, would officially decide the matter in some sort of sporting contest akin to the riveting basketball game between East and West B-more that takes place in the first season of "The Wire".

In fact, the Academy should strongly consider instituting a single Best Screenplay award that mirrors that very basketball game. The Oscars are all about supremacy, so shouldn't there be one screenplay to rule them all? And here's my point: If the Academy were so inclined to take the Manifesto's advice, the 2012 Best Adapted Screenplay field would absolutely annihilate its Original Screenplay counterparts. The East Side is simply unstoppable this year. These nominees look awfully impressive, and in the immortal words of Prop Joe, "Look the part, be the part, motherfucker".

Argo – Chris Terrio
Beasts of the Southern Wild – Lucy Alibar, Benh Zeitlin
Life of Pi – David Magee
Lincoln – Tony Kushner
Silver Linings Playbook – David O. Russell

Told you. In addition to being more loaded than Jimmy McNulty after guzzling fourteen shots of Jameson, this field is one of just three categories comprised entirely of Best Picture nominees (the others being Best Director and Best Film Editing), which makes weeding out the chaff more difficult than usual. The only nominee I'm truly comfortable eliminating is Beasts of the Southern Wild, a scrappy independent film that can't seem to shake the dreaded "I'm just happy to be here" vibe. Voters will doubtless applaud themselves for having had the bravery to nominate such small-budget, anti-Hollywood fare in the first place, but they'll award the actual trophy to a contender with legitimate studio muscle. I'll also knock off Life of Pi, whose bare-bones screenplay lacks the narrative drive – not to mention the quantity of dialogue – of a typical Oscar winner.

The remaining combatants, however, are not so easily dismissed. It's worth noting that no Best Picture winner has lost this category since 2004, when Sideways knocked off Million Dollar Baby. Of course, that tidbit would be more meaningful if I currently had any idea which movie will actually win Best Picture; sadly, the Producers' Guild's recent crowning of Argo has thrown everything out of whack.

That means I'm left to sift through the screenplays themselves, and I think Lincoln has the slightest of edges. True, Argo's screenplay provides for a taut, exciting reenactment of a landmark real-world event, while the script for Silver Linings Playbook offers three-dimensional characters who speak in rich, flavorful dialogue. But Lincoln features both. Its screenplay follows a roster of scruffy, colorful men who partake in a playful, engaging double-talk that belies its monumental historical importance. And Lincoln's curious combination of sly comedy and grave solemnity – a potentially antithetical mixture that instead functions as a dizzying, invigorating brew – distinguishes it as the rare historical biopic that refuses to collapse under the weight of its own pomposity. And that should be good enough for Oscar.

[UPDATE, 2/24: I initially wrote this post just as Argo was starting to pick up momentum but well before it had established itself as the frontrunner. Following its win at the Writers' Guild, I have no choice but to officially change my pick. Argo takes it.]

As I caution every year, evaluating these screenplays on their merits is somewhat impossible for someone of my literary failings. A critical element of an adapted screenplay is how well it translates its source material to the screen – as I haven't read any of the books or plays on which these scripts are based, I can hardly comment on the dexterity of their adaptations. Nevertheless, I like to think that I can distinguish between good and bad writing, and in that regard, Beasts of the Southern Wild is wanting. The movie has a great deal to recommend it: a strong sense of place, a phenomenal score, powerful symbolic imagery, and two terrific performances. But its screenplay feels vague and malnourished, more a sketched-out concept than a fully formed story. Supporting characters are poorly defined, and a late detour smacks of artifice when it should ring true. It's a commendable film that would have greatly benefited from a rewrite or two.

Also commendable is David Magee's attempt in Life of Pi to address religion head-on, even in the context of an adventure film. Unfortunately, the spiritual elements of Life of Pi feel ungainly and tacked-on, especially when compared to the bracing oceanic voyage that occupies the movie's thrilling middle third. In fact, the adventure scenes in Life of Pi are so well-executed that they render its lengthy prologue largely irrelevant. As for the conclusion, Magee's efforts to extract larger thematic meaning from the title character's exploits are noble but unsuccessful, and they risk drowning the film in sap.

Silver Linings Playbook features its share of sap, but its sentimentality feels earned in light of the bruising emotional journey undertaken by its two main characters. David O. Russell's screenplay accomplishes the extraordinary balancing act of nimbly jumping from comedy to drama and back, and it traffics in humor and pathos in equal measure. If the proceedings occasionally feel chaotic, that's only because Russell's script acutely recognizes the messiness of real life, not to mention the perilous randomness of mental illness. It's a winning portrait of two people searching for their own identities and finding each other, and even as it skirts danger and pain, it gladdens our minds and warms our hearts.

Argo is a different beast entirely, a white-knuckler that finds room for some wry, sidelong commentary on Hollywood politics even while amping up the suspense surrounding its central hostage crisis. Chris Terrio's screenplay falls victim to some Hollywood temptations itself, and Argo's climactic scenes lack the nuance and thoughtfulness demonstrated in its first 90 minutes. For the most part, however, Terrio's script smartly sets the template for a gripping, fast-paced suspense picture while also essaying a number of well-developed, sympathetic characters. Most impressively, and similar to Mark Boal's original screenplay for Zero Dark Thirty, he succeeds spectacularly in creating an atmosphere of terror and anticipation even when the majority of the audience knows the ending.

The ending of Lincoln is presumably well-known as well, but Tony Kushner's screenplay focuses less on the destination than the journey. More than anything, Lincoln is a persuasive portrayal of the political process in action, and Kushner's script manages to energize the proceedings without burdening them with undue exposition. He also provides a number of characters with electrically vivid dialogue, and Lincoln's most mesmeric scenes involve little more than men engaged in antic, sweaty conversation. Kushner's suggestion of the sixteenth president's frayed relationships with his family isn't quite as perfect, but that's less an indictment of his grasp of human emotion than a testament to the magnetism with which his Lincoln persuades, cajoles, and even bribes his fellow politicians in order to achieve his ends. Political scholars may take note that the wrangling and whipping of votes represented in the film bears strong resemblance to today's doings on Capitol Hill, but Kushner's screenplay can hardly be reduced to mere allegory. It exists entirely in the moment, a sympathetic, deeply moving study of a man so desperate for moral peace, he went to war.

And so, my top two choices are clearly Lincoln and Silver Linings Playbook, and as fond as I am of Kushner's acidic dialogue and cagey storytelling, the romantic in me is compelled to select Russell's stinging, stirring depiction of potentially toxic relationships, and the love that sees them through. Silver Linings Playbook gets my vote.

The Dark Knight Rises – Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan
Lincoln – Tony Kushner
The Perks of Being a Wallflower – Stephen Chbosky
The Secret World of Arrietty – Hayao Miyazaki, Keiko Niwa
Silver Linings Playbook – David O. Russell

The marginalization of The Dark Knight Rises as some sort of "lesser sequel" is one of the quieter ongoing tragedies of this year's awards' landscape; the Nolan brothers' screenplay is comfortably the best of the trilogy, concocting a frightening, fascinating tale of oppression and terrorism heretofore unheard of in blockbuster entertainment. In The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Chbosky deftly transports his own epistolary novel to the screen, and it's a sharp but tender portrait of the pangs and pains of adolescence. The Secret World of Arrietty is Studio Ghibli's strongest import in over a decade, a wonderfully whimsical story of the bonds of family and friendship.

My ideal winner: The Dark Knight Rises – Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan.

Also deserving: Headhunters – Lars Gudmestad, Ulf Ryberg (for enlivening the genre thriller with wit and suspense); Cloud Atlas – Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski (for even trying).

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