Jan 27, 2012

Best Original Screenplay 2011

It’s that time of year again when Hollywood likes to pat itself on the back. For the last 10-15 years, the awards have been highly ironic, since the best work has come largely from the independent film community, not the major studios. While the studios have been busy making money from superhero franchises, the indies have been making original and compelling work that has approached the quality of American TV drama. Nowhere is this phenomenon more apparent than in this year’s Best Screenplay category.

The Oscar nominations came out this morning. But I have found the Writers Guild awards to be a better gauge than the Oscars of the year’s best writing. Nominated this year for the WGA Best Original Screenplay are 50/50, Bridesmaids, Midnight in Paris, Win Win, and Young Adult.

The most glaring similarity among all these films, besides their high quality, is that four of the five combine comedy and drama, while the fifth,Bridesmaids, is a straight out comedy. Normally comedy doesn’t get anywhere near the respect it deserves, especially at awards time. But when you combine it with drama, you get a powerful hybrid where the comedy comes out of real people and their pain, and the serious drama is leavened by the often-ridiculous nature of life.
I liked all of these scripts, but the real surprise for me was the sleeper film, Win Win. This is a comedy drama combined with a sports story, and the film’s ability to weave all three threads into a seamless whole is exceptional (the fact that a second, equally-fine sports drama, Moneyball, came out the same year is amazing). Sports stories can be dramatic and inspiring, but they are almost always unbelievable. First, they try to compress too much improvement into too short a period of time. Second, they often use actors who have the athletic ability of a snail. The resulting lack of authenticity is deadly.

A sport is a physical and mental craft. Like screenwriting, it takes years of training and practice to do well. The result, when played at a high level, is art. Film, as the sensual and realistic medium par excellence, is potentially unmatched in bringing the thrill of this art form to the audience. But you have to know how to do it. And the writer of Win Win does.

The first key to Win Win’s success is that its main character is not the athlete but the coach. The comedy and drama comes out of this character’s journey, with the elements of the sport, in this case wrestling, hung on that line. Coach Mike Flaherty is a family man and a lawyer in a small town, and he’s in trouble from page one. Times are hard, his practice is dying, and he doesn’t want to tell his wife. He’s also the wrestling coach at the local high school, and they haven’t won a match all year.

This is putting tremendous psychological pressure on Mike. But another technique that writer-director Thomas McCarthy uses to kick the film to a higher level is that Mike doesn’t just have a psychological flaw. He makes a moral mistake. When he sees the opportunity to make $1500 a month as the guardian of a senile old man, he grabs it, even though the way he does it is illegal.

With that as the foundation and spine of the story, McCarthy then brings in troubled high school kid Kyle from out of town. Kyle, who is the old man’s grandson, is a scrawny-looking, 120-pound boy with badly bleached hair. He is also a fantastic wrestler.

Directors often say that casting is 90% of their job, and director McCarthy did his job to perfection. He knew that the success of this little indie sports-comedy- drama rested on the authenticity of his kid wrestler, even though actual wrestling takes up only about a quarter of the film. The actor, Alex Shaffer, was a New Jersey state wrestling champion, and he has skills that you just can’t fake.

Of course the reason most directors don’t use real athletes for lead roles in their sports movies is that real athletes don’t have the acting chops. But this kid does. Sure, he’s no Paul Giamatti, who plays Coach Mike. But the boy’s understated, closed-off performance is perfect for this particular character whose family troubles have shut him down emotionally.

By making this Coach Mike’s story, McCarthy grounds the kid’s entrance, the sports story, in small town reality and connects the two storylines – sports and drama – through the two lead characters. The success of one line and character means the success of the other, and the rest of the film becomes a kind of love story between the desperate coach and the troubled boy.

The high point of the film is the coach’s revelation that this scrawny stranger isn’t just a wrestler, he’s a phenom. The boy won’t help Mike with his financial and moral problems, but he will make a big difference to Mike’s loser team. And any coach will tell you that the chance to work with just one player of this caliber is coaching nirvana. It’s also pure gold for the viewer.

I will admit that part of the pleasure this viewer took from Win Win came from the fact that when I was a young man I had the opportunity to coach some of the best players in my sport of squash. Making a strategic suggestion that a great player would then execute brilliantly was a thrill I will never forget. I also found myself, as a high school sophomore, playing on the same team as a tiny, 14-year-old freshman who was so incredible he regularly beat the best college freshmen in America. Unfortunately, he left after one season because there was no one on our team who could challenge him in practice.

But while my personal background may make this story especially appealing to me, it is the writer’s craft that makes it work. The middle of Win Win tracks the rising success of the star wrestler, the team, and the emotional connection between coach and player. But the hidden moral issue must eventually rear its ugly head. Once again we see the value of founding this story on the hero’s moral flaw. Not only does the story escalate to concerns much larger than sporting success, the plot veers from the predictable sports beats of progressively bigger victories.

I won’t go into specifics about the film’s ending. But the writer effectively turns the sports plot back to the dramatic interplay between the moral and emotional issues of the main character and his family.

Win Win, and the other films nominated for Original Screenplay by the Writers Guild, are a promising sign that the underestimated and complex Comedy genre may finally be gaining the respect it deserves. But, as I always point out in my genre classes, the trick to transcending the form, and making your script stand above the crowd, is to combine Comedy with Drama. If you learn how to turn these two story strands into one, you will be very hard to beat.