Monday, February 2, 2015

One Category at a Time: Adapted Screenplay

The state of the writing categories for this year's Academy Awards really is a tale of two contests; One is as competitive and over-stuffed with quality as I've ever seen it, while the other is practically a wasteland of mediocrity (with the only truly exceptional screenplay appearing courtesy of an Academy error in its favour).

Today we're looking at the latter, Best Adapted Screenplay, which is so thin on genuine contenders that they had to poach one of the surefire nominees from the Original Screenplay camp just to fill things out!
For the second year in a row, the finest script in this category is one that shouldn't be competing here in the first place. Last year it was Before Midnight being classified as an "adaptation", despite not being an adaptation so much as a continuation of an original story (albeit one that started 18 years prior). Still, you could make a stronger argument for sequels being adaptations than you could for Whiplash, which writer-director Damien Chazelle wrote to completion before shooting one scene of it in short film format to attract financiers. With the Academy mistaking that short to be the original inspiration for the feature length screenplay, Chazelle finds himself in weaker category, and in a better position to actually win. His peppery dialogue and breakneck dramatic pacing are part of what makes his film such a crowd-pleaser. I surely wouldn't complain if he ended up taking home an Oscar, despite the dubious category placement (of which most voters are probably unaware).

But Chazelle faces serious heat from another, more formidable Best Picture contender in this category. The Imitation Game may be dividing critics and bloggers on its merits as a feat of writing, but the older, more milquetoast Academy will be easily tickled by its nifty tridented structure and its simple quotability. I myself fall somewhere in the middle of the debate: While I concur that fortune cookie lines like the much ridiculed "Sometimes it's the people no one imagines anything of..." have no business cluttering up a film inspired by real people (who would realistically never talk this way), I actually appreciate the way Graham Moore unfolds the three time periods of Turing's life parallel to each other. He demonstrates a very sturdy grasp of how that dramatic construct impacts our perceptions of the central character, so I don't feel his eventual win will be quite as embarrassing as the Internet would have you believe -- although it's true that much of his anachronistic dialogue is not going to age well.
But if Moore somehow manages to lose this, it may be because there's another soft-edged British biopic splitting the vote of Academy members who prefer that genre. The Theory of Everything, penned by Anthony McCarten, chronicles the life of Stephen Hawking from his schooling at Cambridge to the present day in pretty traditional fashion. While this chronological bullet-point format is pretty typical (and often uninspired) for biographies, there's a grace and sensitivity in how McCarten portrays this story as an evenhanded marital study (he is interpreting Jane Hawking's memoir after all, not Stephen's). But it isn't the sort of project in which the writing particularly stands out. Writing that stands out is often what it takes to win this prize.

Still, McCarten would make a far more likely winner than Paul Thomas Anderson, whose stubbornly faithful transposition of the Thomas Pynchon novel Inherent Vice is easily the category's most off-the-wall entry. I realize that I'm in the critical minority in my dismissal of this mystifying stylistic exercise, but I can't begrudge any sort of accolade for Anderson, one of American cinema's most essential voices. That said, I find his distinctive visual language is in this case more a product of his direction than of his writing. He would be the first to admit that his 'adaptation' amounts to little more than lifting the dialogue straight out of Pynchon's prose. I can't help but feel that his name and stature amongst auteur filmmakers went a long way in securing this nomination from the writers branch, some of whom may feel they owed him one after he was passed over for
The Master a couple years back. Unless every Academy member is baked like a potato when filling out their ballots, there's no way it can win.
And that brings us to a possible spoiler that might catch Oscar watchers off guard if its title is called on the big night. American Sniper managed to hit its stride with the guilds at the perfect time to capitalize on this weak category and make an Oscar nominated writer out of Buffy alumnus Jason Hall (I know, right!?).
While the chronicle of the Iraq war as seen through the sniper scope of Chris Kyle has bred a sandstorm of controversy for its alleged conservative agenda, Hall actually does a deft job of avoiding any political colouration in favour of a more objective character study. It still doesn't come across as a writer's showcase, but the film's expectation-exceeding box office couldn't have come at a better time. Some voters may feel that the highest grossing Best Picture nominee deserves a victory in at least one major category, although such goodwill -- even if it exists -- may be splintered between the script and the star (In other words, watch out for Bradley Cooper as possible a spoiler in Best Actor).

Will win: The Imitation Game
Runner-up: American Sniper

Should win: Whiplash
Should have been nominated: Wild

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