Saturday, February 1, 2014

Oscars 2013: Best Original Screenplay

Here's a secret: As obsessive as I am about covering the Oscars, for the most part, I don't really care who wins. Sure, I have my preferences in each category, but the Academy's ultimate choices are usually at least defensible, even if they don't align with my own (far more enlightened) opinions. As a case in point, I wouldn't have voted for any of the past three Best Picture winners—The King's Speech, The Artist, and Argo—but I think all three are fine movies, and I don't begrudge them their trophies. (I'm sure they just heaved a collective sigh of relief.)

Occasionally, however, a category crops up where I'm so passionate about one of the nominees that I actually develop a vested interest in the outcome, and this year's Best Original Screenplay race is such a category. This, unfortunately, makes me approach the Academy's announcement with something close to dread. Rooting for your favorite movie to win an Oscar can feel a lot like rooting for your favorite sports team to win a championship. In this case, if my preferred nominee pulls off the victory, I'm going to feel as elated as I did when Allan Houston's floater dropped in to beat the Heat in Game 5 of the first round of the '99 playoffs. On the flip side, if my favored selection loses to a different contender, I'm going to feel as crushed as I did when Jason Williams failed to complete his four-point play against Indiana in the 2002 Sweet 16 (and when, ahem, Carlos Boozer got fouled on the follow). Such is the blessing and the curse of being devoted to a work of art. On to the analysis.

American Hustle—David O. Russell, Eric Warren Singer
Blue Jasmine—Woody Allen
Dallas Buyers Club—Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack
Her—Spike Jonze
Nebraska—Bob Nelson

Let's not mess around here. Technically, Blue Jasmine, Dallas Buyers Club, and Nebraska all have a chance; the former is a Woody Allen screenplay (he's the only three-time winner in this category, plus he's the all-time leader with 16 nominations), while the latter two are both Best Picture nominees. But Blue Jasmine is chillier than Allen's typical work (his three wins were for Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters, and Midnight in Paris, all nominal comedies), and many voters may find its story of delusion and disintegration to be abrasive. Meanwhile, in a nine-movie Best Picture field, both Dallas Buyers Club and Nebraska feel like second-tier contenders for the top prize, so I doubt either film receives much of a trickle-down benefit.

So this is really a race between American Hustle and Her, and the key question is this: Just how much does the Academy like American Hustle? The movie's dance card is full with 10 nominations, but how successful will it be converting those invitations into actual wins? Is it a Silver Linings Playbook, which earned eight nominations but only one win (for Jennifer Lawrence)? Or is it a Slumdog Millionaire, which took home trophies in eight of the nine categories in which it was nominated? My guess is that its fortunes lie somewhere in between, and at this point, I'd liken it more to The Aviator, another period piece loosely based on a true story that earned double-digit nominations (in its case, eleven). The Aviator's Oscar night performance was respectable; it scrabbled together five wins (one more than Best Picture champ Million Dollar Baby), but only one of those victories came in a major category (Best Supporting Actress, for Cate Blanchett). Of course, The Aviator is hardly similar to American Hustle in content, impressive nomination haul notwithstanding; one is a sober, laser-focused biopic, while the other is a scattered, playful romp. As such, The Aviator's loss in the Original Screenplay category admittedly provides questionable predictive value.

What's more relevant is the particular movie it lost to. The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind only earned one additional nomination (for Kate Winslet's magnificent performance, or in other words, for Kate Winslet's performance), but voters nevertheless embraced Charlie Kaufman's bold, relentlessly imaginative script, honoring it at the expense of its more classical rival. Her, with its five total nominations, isn't as much of a fringe candidate as Eternal Sunshine, but it's hardly a heavy hitter (three of its five nods are in below-the-line categories). Yet Spike Jonze's screenplay—with its audacious conceit and futuristic setting—features the same level of visible brilliance that landed Kaufman a surprise Oscar nine years ago. And remember that this category, more than any other, functions as an area where the Academy will broaden its reach beyond typical prestige fare. (Past winners include Juno, Talk to Her, The Usual Suspects, and Wall-E. Wait a minute, Wall-E lost to Milk? I refuse to accept this—someone must have altered the Wikipedia page.)

Of course, it's possible that I'm simply underestimating American Hustle, a well-liked, tremendously entertaining movie that keeps raking in money. It's also worth pointing out that, of its 10 nominated categories, Best Original Screenplay is the only one where American Hustle isn't forced to compete against either Gravity or 12 Years a Slave, meaning that voters who applaud the film but prefer the two frontrunners might settle on its screenplay as the appropriate place to recognize it. In the end, however, I think Jonze's visionary love story wins out over David O. Russell's manic con game. Her takes an Oscar, and in the process makes my life complete.

[Note: Given the extreme closeness of this race—and given that the Writers' Guild of America has yet to announce its winner in this category (it'll do so this evening)—I reserve the right to change my pick prior to Oscar night. If I do so, I'll be sure to update this post with my revised prediction, thus refraining from shady antics along the lines of "I killed Earl Milford!"]

Dallas Buyers Club is a perfectly enjoyable movie, but I'm struggling to see how Craig Borten's and Melisa Wallack's screenplay distinguishes itself. Their story is a fairly standard redemption arc, and while they do a nice job evoking the noxious atmosphere surrounding AIDS in the 1980s—the overwhelming fear, the medical confusion, the rampant homophobia—they treat their characters more as ciphers than people. The script also loses focus in its second half, as a would-be tale of government corruption and bureaucratic failure feels too half-formed to be truly authentic. (Worse, Borten and Wallack clumsily create a quasi-love interest in the form of Jennifer Garner, whose scenes derail any momentum the movie might have otherwise attained.) In the end, the screenplay is compassionate and big-hearted, but it is not particularly deep or even thought-provoking. It conveys its message—AIDS was (and remains) a terrible illness, and to defeat it we must first overcome our own prejudices—with much conviction, but little nuance.

Bob Nelson's screenplay for Nebraska can feel similarly straightforward, but his story of familial strife and loyalty has more depth of feeling behind it. Occasionally, Nelson's characterization of Midwestern hokiness succumbs to mockery, but for the most part his screenplay exhibits genuine affection for its characters, even when they're behaving badly. Nebraska isn't a complicated movie, but it is a compelling one, and its simple conversations between an emotionally impotent father and his frustrated-but-devoted son ring with suffering and truth.

Truth is antithetical to Blue Jasmine, a movie about deception and denial. Woody Allen's script can feel a little slapdash; portraying working-class Joes has never been his strength, and the stark contrast between Jasmine's aristocratic husband and her sister's rough-and-tumble suitors feels rather forced. Thankfully, those supporting players are appropriately secondary relative to the title character, for in Jasmine, Allen has created his most fascinating and flawed protagonist since Jonathan Rhys Meyers' social climber in Match Point. Part of that, of course, is thanks to Cate Blanchett's fearless, singularly committed performance, but even on the page, Jasmine is a piece of work. Constantly blaming others for her own failings, she fancies herself a paragon of victimhood, one whose struggles stem from cruel whims of fate rather than her own ability to maintain a relationship or a job. Yet Jasmine's utter self-absorption is less monstrous than pathetic, and Allen's script provides her with ample shape and dimension. Blue Jasmine may be scattered and unfulfilling—its jumping chronology is effective but ultimately meaningless—but Jasmine herself is a marvel.

The term "scattered" applies in force to David O. Russell's and Eric Warren Singer's script for American Hustle. The movie chronicles the ABSCAM sting from the 1970s, but it's less interested in reenacting true-crime events than in probing the psyche of its characters. To do so, it takes those characters' ostensible identities and reflects them through a fun-house mirror; in the up-is-down world of American Hustle, it's the two-bit schemers who operate with coded integrity, whereas the enterprising lawmen are vengeful and immoral. It's a hugely ambitious approach, but that it pays off is due more to Russell's extraordinarily deft direction (not to mention the knockout cast) than to his and Singer's screenplay. The writing here is almost gleefully undisciplined, and while American Hustle is a terrific, boundlessly enjoyable movie, it's difficult to commend its screenplay for being so shamelessly unfocused.

And then we have Her. Spike Jonze's fourth feature is a wonder on all accounts—the exquisite acting, the poised and unshowy direction, the subtle production design, even the quietly beautiful music—but if there's one area where it deserves recognition, it's for Jonze's screenplay. The audacity of his concept can't be overstated: Here is a movie, at its core, about love between man and machine. Yet Jonze infuses his misbegotten romance with astonishing tenderness and texture, creating a love story both unique and universal. Her is overtly a piece of science-fiction, but it operates on countless layers: as a prism into the fumbling messiness of relationships, as a searching examination of how technology both isolates and binds us, and as a heartbreakingly intimate portrait of how love can grow, distort, wound, and comfort. (Lest this sound dour and intellectual, the movie is also extremely funny. With any justice, "Choke me with that dead cat!" will become standard issue for all phone-sex conversations going forward.) As a piece of writing, it's a breathtaking mixture of new-age creativity and old-world authenticity. The Oscars can be a lark, but they can also brand particular achievements of movie-making with the justified stamp of immortality. And if there's one nominee on the 2013 slate that's earned the right to be remembered forever, it's this one.

Her—Spike Jonze
Inside Llewyn Davis—Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
The Place Beyond the Pines—Derek Cianfrance, Ben Coccio, Darius Marder
Prisoners—Aaron Guzikowski
The World's End—Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright

With Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen Brothers provide a touching and melancholic portrait of a struggling artist, and the key is that their titular musician is both sympathetic and highly flawed. The Place Beyond the Pines is a startlingly bold experiment, and if Cianfrance and company don't fully succeed, their sprawling tale of paternal failure is nevertheless a noble effort. Prisoners is a typically suspenseful whodunit, but Guzikowski's script is more noteworthy for its pitiless depiction of how evil can be a vortex, as it chronicles one man's descent into moral oblivion with unblinking detachment. The World's End is far more than what it seems, and Pegg and Wright parcel out their allegory of dehumanizing homogenization with canny precision.

My ideal winner: Her—Spike Jonze.

Also deserving: Disconnect—Andrew Stern (for tethering the everything-is-connected gambit to a specific conceit, namely the crippling power of technological connectivity); Frances Ha—Noah Baumbach, Greta Gerwig (for locating the beauty and serenity in bumbling callousness); Side Effects—Scott Z. Burns (for consistently keeping us on our toes).

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