Friday, February 7, 2014

Oscars 2013: Best Adapted Screenplay

Before Midnight—Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, Richard Linklater
Captain Phillips—Billy Ray
Philomena—Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope
12 Years a Slave—John Ridley
The Wolf of Wall Street—Terence Winter

Bellwether alert: The last four times the eventual Best Picture winner competed in this category (i.e., it wasn't the product of an original screenplay), it scooped up this ancillary prize as well. Variance does happen—Million Dollar Baby, Chicago, and The English Patient all came up short here before winning the pageant—but the surest technique in predicting this category is to just ride the coattails of the frontrunner.

The question is this: Is 12 Years a Slave really a Best Picture frontrunner? We'll know more after the BAFTAs in a few weeks, but at this point, I think Steve McQueen's merciless depiction of human cruelty is running in pole position but is hardly lapping the field. Gravity is right on its tail, and I remain wary of an Anakin-in-the-pod-race surge from American Hustle and its league-leading 10 nominations. Of course, neither of those movies is a threat here (both featured original screenplays), which raises a second question: If 12 Years a Slave is vulnerable, which challenger has the "Villanova in '85" chutzpah to knock it off here?

The most seductive pick is Captain Phillips, which is well-liked and suspenseful, and it just nabbed the award from the Writers' Guild. That victory is somewhat hollow, however, given that the guild deemed 12 Years a Slave to be ineligible; it's as though a group of voters decided to bestow an award for Best Baldwin, then refused to put Alec on the ballot. As for The Wolf of Wall Street, it did win Best Screenplay from the National Board of Review, but I'm guessing it's too long and polarizing to achieve the kind of consensus required to pick up a major Oscar outside of the acting categories. And Philomena has about as much chance of winning as the Broncos did following Percy Harvin's kickoff return.

The only legitimate threat in my mind is Before Midnight, which seems odd, given that it's the lone nominee here that lacks a corresponding Best Picture nod. (For the record, the last movie to win here that lacked a Best Picture nomination was Gods and Monsters in 1998.) But it's already picked up wins from both the LA Film Critics and the National Society of Film Critics, two prestigious and well-populated circles. More importantly, it's an extremely talky film, and Oscar voters tend to equate writing with dialogue rather than story development. It's enough of a confluence of factors to make 12 Years a Slave nervous.

Nervous, but not helpless. John Ridley's script tells a deeply moving story that anchors the likely Best Picture winner, so as appealing and sexy Before Midnight may look as an upset pick, it just doesn't have the firepower to pick up a win for its lone nomination. 12 Years a Slave takes it.

(Amusing note: The YouTube user who uploaded that clip labeled it, "12 Years a Slave—Brad Pitt Movie." Apparently the uproar over this didn't exactly result in widespread social change.)

Curiously enough, my usual disclaimer—that critics should judge an adapted screenplay not as a piece of standalone writing but in terms of how it actually modified its source material—doesn't really apply this year, or at least not with as much force as usual. That may be because four of the nominees chronicle ostensibly true events. (The only one that doesn't is Before Midnight, which the Academy moronically places in the Adapted category because it's a sequel and is thus based on previously existing characters, even though all of the script's material is new.) As a result, the typical temptation to adhere slavishly to a beloved novel is absent. (Fun fact: This year represents the first time since 1927—also known as the inaugural Oscars—that none of the nominated scripts was based on a novel.) Thus, although Captain Phillips is based on its eponym's memoir, Billy Ray obviously took considerable artistic license, especially in crafting scenes that take place outside Phillips' point of view. 12 Years a Slave is also based on a memoir, but one written in 1853; I've never read it, but I have to believe that John Ridley took similar liberties in writing his own dialogue rather than lifting it from the pages of the book. As for The Wolf of Wall Street, I've heard that Jordan Belfort's book is pompous and self-aggrandizing, and while the movie is undeniably a portrait of excess, it hardly paints Belfort in a favorable light.

The only nominated screenplay that functions as a fairly standard form of adaptation is Philomena, which Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope adapted from Martin Sixsmith's book. But even its based-on-a-true-story narrative feels authentic, possibly because Sixsmith appears as a character and is played by Coogan as a rather superior schmuck. Yet the screenplay also feels somewhat slight, and while it's a delicately observed character study in opposites, it never quite achieves the larger topical resonance you sense it's grasping for, especially in its muted treatment of sectarian abuse.

The remaining three nominees that also sport an accompanying Best Picture nod fare better. I'd argue that The Wolf of Wall Street derives its magnetism more from Martin Scorsese's directing and Leonardo DiCaprio's acting than from Terence Winter's screenplay, but Winter nevertheless does an impressive job streamlining reams of material and packaging it into a cohesive story of inexhaustible lust for money and power. Some of my favorite moments in the film occur when DiCaprio's character breaks the fourth wall and starts explaining the complexities of his various scams to the audience, then catches himself and says something to the effect of, "It doesn't matter how it worked; just trust me that we were all making a fuckload of money." It doubles as Winter's tacit acknowledgement that it's the debauchery—and the obsessive drive for money leading to that debauchery—that matters. The how is never as interesting as the why.

Captain Phillips, in contrast, is more visibly about the how, as Ray's screenplay asks a number of intriguing questions, ranging from logistical (how does a band of malnourished pirates use two small skiffs to board a far more imposing freighter?) to behavioral (how would a civilian respond when trapped in a life-or-death situation?) to geopolitical (how does the U.S. military weigh risk and reward when civilian lives, both American and foreign, are at stake?). But Ray doesn't shy away from probing at the psychological costs of heroism, and his script also keenly observes the global imperative equating work with survival. (In the film's most cutting scene, Barkhad Abdi's pirate gloats to Phillips about how he heisted six million dollars last year, to which Phillips responds with faux inquisitiveness, "Six million, huh? Then what are you doing here?") Captain Phillips is first and foremost a thriller, but it's a thriller about people, and Ray's screenplay never loses sight of the seamen behind the ships.

Considerable nuance aside, Captain Phillips is a fairly blunt actioner in terms of plot, but structurally speaking, 12 Years a Slave is perhaps even more straightforward. It's an episodic narrative that presents its hero with a series of problems, then sits back and watches to see how he responds. The power in John Ridley's screenplay lies not in flash but in pure content. This is a powerful, gripping story of endurance and suffering, and the arc that Ridley sketches for Solomon Northup—who must battle not only the abstract obstacles of bigotry and ignorance but also the far more literal impediments of whips and chains—is furiously, almost sickeningly compelling. It's ultimately a tale of triumph, but its steadfast refusal to sentimentalize its protagonist's journey grants it veracity, and in so doing makes it all the more triumphant.

So those are three good screenplays; none, however, can rival the searing catharsis achieved in the final scenes of Before Midnight. It's perhaps ironic that this screenplay is the only nominee that isn't literally based on truth, given the raw and naked emotional truths that splash across the screen. There is nothing fancy about Julie Delpy's, Ethan Hawke's, and Richard Linklater's screenplay. It simply involves two people who know each other very well, and it examines how they can use that knowledge to inflict pain on one another when trapped. This is a story of stunning intimacy, a deeply affecting drama that examines marriage with honesty and clarity. It is ruthless and unsparing, but those same qualities make it noble and rewarding. It is such a rare treat to spend time at the movies with real people, to bask in their warmth and flaws and messy humanity. We should acknowledge such an opportunity for what it is: a gift.

Before Midnight—Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, Richard Linklater
Blue Is the Warmest Color—Abdellatif Kechiche, Ghalia Lacroix
The Spectacular Now—Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber
12 Years a Slave—John Ridley
What Maisie Knew—Nancy Doyne, Carroll Cartwright

Blue Is the Warmest Color provides a fully realized coming-of-age portrait, observing a young woman's development with unflinching detachment but also heartbreaking tenderness. The Spectacular Now takes a standard boy-meets-girl setup and infuses it with vividness and texture, shattering our expectations in the process. What Maisie Knew is an uncommonly thoughtful examination of divorce and its consequences on small children, and it gratifyingly rejects the temptation to cast any of its imperfect characters as a villain.

My ideal winner: The Spectacular Now—Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber.

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