The screenwriting categories are among my favorites, y’know, being a writer and all. And there’s an interesting dichotomy in results between the Original and Adapted Screenplay awards. Since 2000, half of the Adapted Screenplay winners have gone on to win Best Picture. Conversely, only five Original Screenplay winners have won the top prize in that span, the most recent being Spotlight (the only award it won apart from Best Picture). More often than not, the Screenplay awards, combined with Best Director, are the bellwethers for Best Picture. A win here usually signifies either a competitive shot for the big one, or a consolation prize for a film that had no realistic chance in the first place.
For the Adapted category this year, however, it’s hard to make an argument for the former, as only one nominee in this field is up for Best Picture. For the other nominees, three of the four count this category as their only nomination, period. And the fourth is in multiple categories where it’ll have a hard time winning, so this is likely its best shot at bringing home any gold itself. So can the lone Best Picture nominee use this as a springboard to make its case to win the night, or will a worthy but ultimately ignored movie get to make a solid statement of value? We’ll see.
This year’s nominees are:
James Ivory – Call Me By Your Name (adapted from the novel by André Aciman)
The hardest part of judging the Adapted category is figuring out what criteria matter the most. With Original, it’s cut and dry – how good is the dialogue and the story? With Adapted there are other factors that could be reasonably brought in, like faithfulness to the source material, pacing, and narrative instruments. With Call Me By Your Name, there’s a heavy reliance on 80s references and the quality of the dialogue.
Some of that dialogue is absolutely brilliant, particularly when it comes to Oliver’s strategy of “negging” young Elio, Elio’s awkward teenage mood swings (seriously, there are times when he’s shot from the waist down from behind, and the way he talks you could almost imagine it’s Jennifer Grey in Dirty Dancing), and the near-ending monologue from Elio’s father, which was the most beautiful speech about acceptance and familial love I’ve heard in a very long time. These are definite points in the script’s favor.
Unfortunately, there are also three major strikes against it. First, there are simple bits of exposition and establishment that were either glossed over or skipped entirely. For example, the film opens with Elio lamenting giving up his room to newcomer Oliver, who joins the family for the summer as a research assistant. He whines about this to Marzia in French, and then goes downstairs where his mother also speaks French. As such, we’re left to assume that Marzia is Elio’s sister, and that they’ll be sharing a room for the next six weeks. Instead, Marzia is a friend who just happens to be visiting “Somewhere in Northern Italy” (another weird script decision – just name a town for God’s sake!), and who eventually takes Elio’s virginity. Given that, you kind of need to establish that Marzia isn’t a relative, because otherwise things get creepy FAST.
Second, while the sexual tension between Elio and Oliver is obvious from the get-go, it takes a full 55 minutes for anything to be said or done about it. You only need to establish the dynamic once or twice to make it work, not spend half the film’s runtime on it. By the time it’s finally stated, we’re not celebrating the release of romantic tension, we’re screaming, “JUST FUCK ALREADY!” Finally, while that last speech from Elio’s dad was beautiful, it wasn’t the end. As if taking a lesson from Peter Jackson, James Ivory stretches the ending out for a further 10 minutes, skating past several logical ending points before finally letting Elio cry in front of a fireplace. Either end the film where logic dictates, or give us a reason to pay attention. A weak callback to the film’s title isn’t enough.
Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber – The Disaster Artist (based on the book by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell)
The influence of Greg Sestero is front and center in The Disaster Artist, as he’s made into the innocent bystander to Tommy Wiseau’s shenanigans. He reacts to it, and instigates very little of the action. This is very much his story, a story that happens to him, and as such we get to use him as the audience surrogate as we take in the absurdist happenings throughout the production of The Room, one of the greatest cult movies of all time.
So right off the bat we’ve got a perfect standpoint from which to view the chaos, and given the insanity of the entire project, we need an anchor, so it’s hat’s off to Neustadter and Weber to give us that grounding as soon as possible. That’s a huge hurdle to overcome to make us invest in these characters, especially Tommy.
But more importantly, this was just really, really, funny. The Disaster Artist was in my mind the funniest film of the year. It wasn’t the best pure comedy, mind you (to me that was The Big Sick), but I had more gut-busting laughs during this film than any other, punctuated by James Franco as Tommy thanking everyone at The Room‘s premiere for “coming to my comedy movie.” One of the hardest things for any creative person to do is to step out of his or her own mind and simply laugh at the silliness of the world. The script for The Disaster Artist not only accomplished that feat, but had us laughing the whole way up to that grand finale.
Scott Frank, James Mangold, and Michael Green – Logan (based on characters from Marvel Comics and previous theatrical films)
These days I’m not as much into comic book movies as I once was, mostly because the timelines and crossovers get so convoluted that it takes an investment of half your life and a small fortune to keep up with everything (don’t even get me started on the massive clusterfuck that Infinity War is gonna be). Thankfully, tossing all of that shit aside is why Logan worked so well. Sure, you had established characters in Wolverine and Professor X, and you even had the original cinematic actors back to play them (Hugh Jackman in what he promises is his last time doing this, and Sir Patrick Stewart, missing in “main” action since X-Men: The Last Stand, though he’s made cameos in other films), but the story is set outside the timelines and story threads of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and even the previous X-Men films, this one based primarily on the “Old Man Logan” story arc.
As such, the characters were given room to breathe, and exposition could be concise. All that mattered was what was going on in this story, not all the random stuff that could have implications in a future film, nor all the hashed out consequences from previous ones. The film was allowed to stand alone, and that yielded one of the richest comic book stories in movie history, and of course the R-rating let Jackman and Stewart act and speak in a way that was true to the characters, rather than the sanitized version we’ve gotten in cartoons and movies for the past two decades (thank you, Deadpool, for opening the door). This is the first time a superhero comic book movie has had its screenplay nominated for an Oscar, and it’s not hard to see why. The dialogue is rich, the story is expertly paced, the dark themes allowed for spectacular character development, and everyone – good or bad – had proper motivation established inside the film, rather than forcing us to rely on what we already know about them from other sources. That’s masterful work, right there.
Aaron Sorkin – Molly’s Game (based on the memoir by Molly Bloom)
I’ve been a fan of Aaron Sorkin for a long time, ever since I first saw Sports Night back in the late 90s. I’d love to work for him someday, but sadly, part of his overall professional persona means that’ll likely never happen. The man refuses to hire a writing staff or collaborate on his work unless absolutely necessary. I get the desire to take full ownership of your creation, and to be a real auteur, but sometimes you can get in your own way, and the overall product suffers a bit because of it.
That’s the problem with Molly’s Game. It’s a fine movie, and great directorial outing (plus Jessica Chastain in a strapless dress never hurts), but too often, the script falters because Sorkin falls back on a lot of the tropes and signatures that he’s been criticized for in the past. For example, he has a penchant for Broadway which creeps into his work (in this case the on-the-nose comparisons to Arthur Miller’s The Crucible). Also, there are rapid-fire bits of exposition and dialogue for relatively mundane scenes that seem much more clever on paper than they are in execution. Take the poker tutorials for instance. If you don’t know how the game works, it’s fine, but it’s still a bit too flashy and too smart for its own good. Just give me Margot Robbie in a bubble bath explaining subprime mortgages, thank you very much. Finally, in the age of the #MeToo movement, I have to dock Sorkin here for his predilection towards “Mansplaining.” It’s a step in the right direction to have a character as smart as Molly Bloom as your lead, and to have such a brilliant actress as Jessica Chastain deliver the part, but he just couldn’t resist summing the whole thing up with a three-minute psychoanalysis by Molly’s father (Kevin Costner) intentionally provoking her so he could lay his wisdom at her feet.
Again, I love Sorkin’s work. Always have, always will. Hell, I still wish The Newsroom was around, now more than ever. But bad habits are hard to break, and he let them slip in a few times too many on this one.
Virgil Williams and Dee Rees – Mudbound (based on the novel by Hillary Jordan)
Apart from Call Me By Your Name, this is the only nominee in the category that’s even up for another award. The ambitious Netflix original is also nominated for Supporting Actress, Cinematography, and Original Song. But this might be its best shot at a win, as the other three categories are stacked with strong competition. Does it have a chance? Certainly, but it won’t get my vote.
The script for Mudbound is one of the few times where the adaptation is a bit too true to the page, and it comes down to one major artistic choice that for me just fell flat. In Hillary Jordan’s novel, the point of view is divided among the six main characters, three from the Jackson family and three from the McAllens. As such, on the printed page the focus shifts chapter to chapter. From a literary standpoint, it’s a brilliant device, because it grants us unique, first-person perspective from every relevant angle. Unfortunately, that doesn’t really translate well in a two-hour movie. When you’re spending days or even weeks reading a novel it works great, but when you’re constantly jumping back and forth among six different narrators, the whole thing becomes jumbled, confusing, and unfocused. I’m surprised this got nominated actually, because the underlying conceit of six narrations is what really set the film back from being truly great as far as I’m concerned.
1) The Disaster Artist
3) Call Me By Your Name
4) Molly’s Game
Next up: We take a look – and a listen – at the Sound Editing category, with the acting and the groupies and the “Luke, Luke, save me” and the lightsaber with the vwiing, vwiing, vwiiiiiiiing.
Join the conversation in the comments below! Just keep it short, it’s not like we’re talking about written words or anything. Also, please note, as always, that I pull all photos off of Google and own nothing, nor do I profit, so tell Idris Elba to keep his focus on Molly and off me.