|Here are some of my thoughts on this year’s Best Screenplay Oscar nominees. I’d love to hear your thoughts too. So please add your comments at the end of the article and let’s get a great discussion going.|
Silver Linings Playbook
All stories concerning mental illness require some kind of cheat. If the hero is truly mentally ill, he is compelled to act a certain way. Hopefully his doctor can find a drug that can control it, because with a lot of mental illness we are not in the realm of choice and will power. But that’s not dramatic, and it’s not funny.
If you can’t accept this cheat you may have trouble enjoying Silver Linings Playbook. The lead character, Pat, clearly has a mental illness at the beginning of the story. But through the love of a good (but also troubled) woman, he not only overcomes his illness, he matures at the end. Putting aside the reality of this change, the way Pat gets there is beautifully written, and is one of my two favorites for winning Best Adaptation.
|Silver Linings Playbook is a rare example of a transcendent romantic comedy. Yes, it hits all the story beats of this highly choreographed form, as it must. But what really sets it apart is that it also twists every beat in a unique way. This allows Silver Linings Playbook to overcome the predictability of the romantic comedy form, an almost impossible feat for a writer to accomplish in this day and age.|
I also have to mention the wonderful scene work and dialogue in this film. The scene where Tiffany makes the case to Pat’s father that she is in fact good luck for all of them is an instant classic, and worth careful study for anyone trying to master the screenwriter’s craft.
My other favorite for wining Best Adaptation is Argo. I’ve written a review of this film already. But let me say here that writer Chris Terrio has pulled off the difficult task of combining the True Story genre with Thriller and Action to produce a real knockout punch of a film.
Let me be clear. The craft in this script does not come from transcending the main genre. As a couple of readers of my in-depth review accurately pointed out, the hero has no moral flaw and only the barest psychological weakness. Because of this unique story, I don’t believe that the lack of a serous character weakness is a big story problem inArgo. But it does keep the film from hitting the pinnacle of artistic success.
So where does the quality of this script come from, if not from transcending the form? It comes from the seamless way Argo combines genres that don’t normally go together. And it is a classic example of the screenwriter’s craft, of using the power of the cut in cinema to create an inexorable vortex hurtling the viewer forward at a faster and faster rate. This script is a crowd pleaser in the best sense of that term, and that feat should not be underestimated.
Life of Pi
I came to the film, Life of Pi, having already read the book, and though I liked it I was not a big fan. I loved the basic premise of the boy and the tiger together on a lifeboat, and found many of the incidents enjoyable. But the overall story for me was flat and episodic. Also, it did not make its thematic case for a God, in whatever form one wants to believe, nor did it make the case for the healing power of storytelling itself (something I fervently believe).
Given that, I was impressed that the screenwriter, David Magee, did as well as he did in translating this Personal Myth-Fantasy Memoir to the screen. Unfortunately, what I saw as the flaws in the original book remain. And I think Magee made a serious mistake in the way he handled the storyteller frame. In my Masterpiece class, I talk extensively about this powerful but difficult story tool. In Life of Pi, the storyteller frame does not lead to a new dramatic conclusion, and the constant return to the storyteller throughout the film makes the story seem even more episodic than it already is.
I’ve said in my more in-depth review that I believe Lincoln will win Best Adaptation, but I will be sad if it does. This film is rife with Oscar Disease, wherein the patient is horribly bloated, boring and believes he is doing God’s work among the Great Unlearned. Starting with the laughably phony and absurd opening scene, every scene in this film is at least twice as long as it should be. Tony Kushner and Steven Spielberg, if you are going to make me take my medicine for 2 1/2 hours, at least wrap it up in some sugar (that is, plot, artistic craft and subtle, non-preachy dialogue).
While I enjoyed this film the first time I saw it, I wasn’t blown away. Mostly that’s because the film is small, and I feel that children entering those unpleasant teenage years should be hidden in a closet until they have a coming out party at the age of 21. But when I saw Moonrise Kingdom a second time, I was able to see the incredible craftsmanship in this script.
This is a transcendent romantic comedy, which is tough enough to pull off (and now two in one year!). But the writers also add in terrific work on story world, namely the kind of Americana utopia found in such classics as Meet Me in St. Louis, You Can’t Take It with You and Jean Shepherd’s A Christmas Story. Moonrise Kingdom opens in the mini-utopia known as the “buzzing household.” But the flip is that this is an apparent utopia, because the wife is having an affair and the teenage daughter, the pretty princess I like to call “Perfume Girl,” is miserable.
We then jump to another mini-utopia, the perfectly organized, perfectly geometrical scout camp, home of “Nerd Scout.” But this too is an apparent utopia, because Nerd Scout is an outsider and wants to run away with Perfume Girl. With an approaching storm giving us a vortex (the same technique found in Argo), the writers twist every romantic comedy beat in a fresh and endearing way and converge on a literal cliffhanger.
We end with a new home and scout utopia, and the memory of the perfect moment and the only true utopia in the story, when the boy and girl created their Moonrise Kingdom by the bay.
If you don’t like your lead characters to be 12, this movie may not do much for you. But this script is sensational, and while it has no chance of winning in the Original category, it should.
Flight’s strength is that it’s an actor’s film, written with a big juicy starring role. A lead character that can attract a movie star is a big advantage in the Hollywood sweepstakes.
But Flight’s strength is also its first great weakness. The lead character is so dominant that the film is essentially one long monologue where Denzel Washington gets to strut his stuff. Now Denzel struts very well, but that doesn’t make for a good story.
When you wed the lead character’s dominance to a story about alcoholism, you end up with a predictable plot, a one-note character and a painfully obvious and false climax. You can probably tell I don’t think this script can or should win.
Django Unchained is a genre mash up that is quite enjoyable for about 2/3 of its very long running time. Writer Quentin Tarantino combines the spaghetti Western with Comedy, and adds in his usual funny and sometimes bizarre dialogue. The scene where the Klansmen complain that they can’t see though the eyeholes is hilarious.
But to see what’s really going on here, it’s important to look at Tarantino’s underlying story strategy in both this film and his previous film, Inglorious Basterds. Part of the reason Django became less enjoyable to me as it went on is that the fundamental sadism of the writer-director became overwhelming. Simply put, Tarantino seems to take extreme pleasure in finding creative new ways to maim, torture and kill people.
As his career has progressed, Tarantino has found the need to justify this sadism. So for him the question naturally arises: how do I create a story world where this extreme level of violence is not only acceptable, it’s necessary? Answer: create stories where the heroes fight two of the worst crimes against humanity in history, the Nazis and slavery. It’s win-win-win: Tarantino gets free reign to torture and kill to his heart’s content, the audience gets to feel good about taking revenge against all those evil people, and critics get to applaud Tarantino for his masterful take on the “big themes.”
Note to Quentin: please, please stop acting in your own movies. The moment you show up in this movie is the moment it officially ends.
Zero Dark Thirty
The hit against Zero Dark Thirty is not that the writer, Mark Boal, showed the CIA torturing victims. And if this script doesn’t win Best Original Screenplay, it won’t be because three U.S. Senators criticized it. It will be because the script’s not that good. I admit, I don’t get why critics love Boal’s scripts. I thought The Hurt Locker was one of the most over-rated films of that year, primarily because of the script. The writer is supposedly a fanatic about authenticity, but every person I know with military experience has said that film was so full of absurdities it was hard for them to watch it.
In Zero, Boal has set a bigger task for himself, bringing down Osama Bin Laden. In reality, this was a ten-year project that involved hundreds if not thousands of people. And that creates a story nightmare for the writer. His solution: structure the story on the desire line of one woman. Notice this gives a potentially sprawling story real focus and narrative drive. But the costs are high. This decision limits plot to the somewhat predictable actions of one person. It completely removes the possibility of character change, and even the importance of character itself; our hero is a cold, determined woman whose only change, or sign of humanity, is that she sheds a tear of relief when the whole thing is over. Oh, and did I mention, making this a one-woman job is absurd.
Whether you agree or disagree with my views and my choices, I hope this article gets you to look under the surface, to see the structural decisions these writers made in creating their scripts. Remember, it’s all about studying the pros so you can learn techniques that may result in one of your scripts being nominated for Best Screenplay.