Thursday, February 12, 2009

Oscar's Best Screenplay: Tale of Two Categories


I don't have the energy, or the enthusiasm to break down each and every nominee in the two screenplay categories, but I will do by my best to discuss all the nominees at once. It's literally night and day with these two categories, this year, for me, so let's jump in with some analysis:

With Best Original Screenplay, there are five scripts that I absolutely love. Probably no coincidence that only one of the films are up for Best Picture, Milk. Dustin Lance Black's screenplay is touching and informative at just the right moments and times, never overextending Harvey Milk as a character, but creating a ferocious monolith of Harvey Milk as an icon. Likewise, Mike Leigh's script for Happy-Go-Lucky focuses mostly on the development of one character, Poppy (DAMN YOU ACADEMY for not recognizing Sally Hawkins' beautiful performance). Leigh's script is funny and poignant, but never relents on its cerebral atmosphere. How much did Leigh actually write? Not much, I presume. He's infamous for utilizing improvisation, but it can't be forgotten how much he had to do with the development of the film's "plot" (that's a relative term with Leigh).

My name is Dustin Lance Black and I'd like to recruit you... into knowing who the hell I am.

But the meat of these nominations come from the other three nominees. First, there's Courtney Hunt's Frozen River, which could have easily settled for being a melodrama about white trash, but instead relies heavily on the nature of its characters. No character ever does anything surprising, but they never disappoint you with their decisions--that's a lot tougher than it seems. Then there's wordsmith Martin McDonaugh's screenplay for In Bruges, in which McDonaugh utilizes his skills as a playwright and translates it almost perfectly into a wonderfully realized film. Of course, those great performances don't hurt.

I'm Andrew Stanton, and I wrote a masterpiece of modern cinema, but people prefer the movie I made about fishies.

I don't think it'll surprise anyone when I say that the screenplay I'm most enthusiastic about in this category is Andrew Stanton's WALL-E. An animated film with only a handful of dialogue; how important could a screenplay have been to something like that? Well, for one, WALL-E's most appealing aspect is its love story, which is mainly a creation of Stanton's mind. But let's not forget the moments in the film that do have dialogue, because they're not cheapily written. The film's subplot about fat humans in space does not get enough credit for its clarity, and lack of pretension. It's a screenplay of beautiful subtlety and grace.

In the Adapted Screenplay category, it's a whole different story. I enjoyed Frost/Nixon and Slumdog Millionaire. Doubt's script is based on a Tony-winning play, so for that, it actually does a good job of not being particularly "theatre-y". These are all great screenplays, but none are really spectacular examples of wondrous writing, unless the criteria is long, arduos speeches which wouldn't work unless spoken by Philip Seymour Hoffman or Frank Lengella. Not to say that these scripts are unworthy, but what about Nicholas Meyer's Elegy script, or Snow Angels by David Gordon Green? No attempt at a splash move.

As for the other two nominees--The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Reader--it's almost a joke. The main problem that both of these films have is that there screenplays don't seem to get the point that there story is simply going on too long. Both films want so badly to be sincere and profound but these scripts make no attempt to earn it. Eric Roth, who penned Benjamin Button, relies on borrowing devices from his other Oscar winning screenplay (*couch* Forrest Gump *cough*), and hopes his name will gain the film recognition on its own--well, it worked. As for David Hare's work on The Reader, I'll admit I simply don't like the film, but I honestly find Hare's script to be uninspired.

"If I plagiarize MY OWN film, it's fair game, right?" -Eric Roth

Predictions for these and other categories, as well as the Oscar Breakdown for Best Director will be coming very soon.

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