We’re down to just two remaining categories, and tonight might be the most important one to break down, as it’s the only one of the so-called “major” categories that has any legitimate intrigue to it. Yet another reason why The Academy – and really Disney – are complete dicks for hacking a third of the field from the broadcast, is the fact that of the 11 awards they prioritized, at least eight of them are stone cold, lead pipe locks. Of the other three, two are officially a two-horse race, those being Animated Feature and Adapted Screenplay. I’ll further analyze the winning odds on Friday.
But Original Screenplay is essentially wide open. Three of the five nominees have won a major award so far this cycle, and the other two can’t exactly be counted out, as a fierce competition could open the door for one of them to consolidate the “also-ran” votes and pull the upset. Four of the five nominees are also up for Best Picture, so in a contest that’s pretty much already decided, this is the chance for a high-profile consolation prize, while the fifth could use this category to make a case that it should have been up for the top honors, as well as collect a trophy for itself, given that its other nominated category is also already sewn up.
Is there a solid set of criteria for judging the quality of a script? Not really. It’s arguably the most subjective area of the “Above the Line” fields. Voters can’t exactly read the scripts at will (though I’m sure they have resources to get a copy if they really want one), so nuances like stage direction might get lost in the shuffle, unless a silent action is meant to have significant focus. The dialogue itself certainly needs to make sense within the context of the overall film, and should serve the general purpose, whether that’s making us laugh, cry, think, or any combination thereof. But those lines are delivered by actors, and if the cast isn’t convincing, you could write the Gettysburg Address and it wouldn’t matter.
It really just comes down to what works for you and what doesn’t, and those feelings can change on a dime, to say nothing about year-to-year dynamics. It’s an eye test, but one of the oddest of its kind, because that look is second-hand. Sometimes a simple story with realistic dialogue is what wins out over something more clever. Sometimes you’re looking for rapier wit, but it can come off as too smart for its own good. This discipline – be it Original or Adapted – is the most “your mileage may vary” skill in the entire filmmaking process. There are situations where acting as one’s own director can certainly help, because no one would know better the writer’s intent than if it were the same person. That makes things easier to execute. But it’s a double-edged sword, because taking on full ownership can also create an echo chamber in the creator’s mind, making them unwilling to entertain constructive (or otherwise) criticism, because they’re just too close to the material to see it with any objectivity.
It’s a problem with no solution, but that’s also sort of the point, as well as the fun. In the end, these are essentially works of literature in a different format than a standard book or poem, and they’re just as vulnerable to misinterpretation as they are primed for overwhelming praise. However you decide to judge them, it all comes back to internalization and how much the script spoke to you, whether you heard the actors’ voices or not.
This year’s nominees for Original Screenplay are…
Belfast – Kenneth Branagh
Given that the film is told almost entirely through the eyes of young Buddy, himself a stand-in for Branagh as a child, the key to the screenplay is understanding how Buddy sees the world, as a horrible period in human history unfolds around his otherwise normal adolescent development. This is accomplished through two ostensibly separate yet crucial avenues that occasionally intersect.
The first is to create a vocal support system for Buddy. This is mostly accomplished through Granny and Pop, but also involves Buddy’s parents, brother, cousins, and friends. With the worst of mankind on display all over the place, there’s a concerted effort to protect his fragile innocence. A lot of that comes down to Granny and Pop’s gentle good nature and overall humor, playfully shit-talking one another in Buddy’s presence so that he can laugh and feel love all around.
The second is to encourage Buddy’s curiosity. There’s not a single moment in the film where Buddy’s family lies to him. They tell him nothing but truth, even if they have to phrase it in a way that he can understand and that won’t traumatize him. There’s a reality that he’ll eventually have to cope with, but it’s essential that they eschew harshness, as there’s plenty to go around on the fringes. Instead they engage him on any number of subjects, entertaining his wild ideas and his youthful enthusiasm for life and the world. Just as he’ll have to know what’s really going on, he needs to be reminded that there are still normal things in the world, like schooling, young love, and different entertainments. He has to still be able to use his imagination, even if it was shattered the moment the bombs started going off and the guns started firing. Buddy needs to have a childhood, in essence, so a good deal of the dialogue is used to maintain that for as long as humanly – and humanely – possible.
Don’t Look Up – Adam McKay; Story by McKay and David Sirota
The success of this script – and really the movie as a whole – is entirely dependent on the effectiveness of the satire, and for me, it just didn’t work. It’s not badly written by any means. McKay’s trademark comedic sensibilities are on full display, and the jokes – regardless of quality – are delivered with expert timing by the cast. It’s a clever, witty screenplay, but that’s as far as it goes, because the actual parody doesn’t land.
McKay is an expert at pointing out absurdity, and there’s plenty of it to go around here. But there are a lot of issues. For one, while the threat of the comet is a metaphor for climate change, we’re still emerging from a two-year pandemic where the science denial and political posturing are just as pronounced, but for a lot of people, it’s still too raw and too real to treat lightly. We got eight years between the collapse of the housing market and The Big Short, and we got a full decade of Dick Cheney being out of office before Vice, so enough time had passed where we could get a legitimate laugh out of lampooning some seriously dark moments for this country as the millennium turned over. In the case of Don’t Look Up, a lot of people are still experiencing the trauma of the pandemic, and still more are feeling the effects of climate change in real time due to catastrophic weather events that have become increasingly intense, from hurricanes to drought. There are many who just aren’t ready to laugh at it yet, and honestly could take offense at the tongue-in-cheek treatment the film gives the issue, like when the trailer said it was “Based on true events… that haven’t happened… yet.” For millions of Americans, it’s happening right now, and they either don’t get the gag and/or don’t appreciate it.
Even outside of those issues, after four years of Donald Trump and his epic failsons, we don’t need reminders of them in the forms of Meryl Streep and Jonah Hill. They give fine performances and deliver the material just fine, but at this point you’re not winning any converts. Liberals know what McKay’s doing, and even if they agree, it’s just tired at this point, and since the Trumps may still go to jail for their crimes, the timing’s not right for a joke. And as for conservatives, especially the ones with a cultish devotion to Trump, seeing McKay poke fun at him is enough to get him dismissed at best and targeted at worst. Literally, no minds are changing here, which is the point of satire itself.
And then, like I said, the actual comedic through line just doesn’t work. It’s simultaneously too vague and too obvious. It’s so ham-fisted that it can’t go into a kosher deli. We’ve seen Leonardo DiCaprio advocate for environmental causes for decades, so seeing him here comes off less like a joke and more like elitist pontification. Amazingly the gag is over-the-top and heavy-handed, but also unfocused, as McKay can’t stay on any one target long enough for anything to resonate. There’s plenty of crap to sift through between social media, soft news broadcasts, corporate interests, and disinterested government. But when McKay turns the crosshairs to everyday people, he’s playing with fire. Satire exists as a means to speak humorous truth to power and mock those who abuse it. When you then turn the tables and tell the audience – or certain sectors of it – that they’re just as bad due to their own idiocy, you’re getting dangerously close to insulting the viewer and completely missing the point.
Again, from the standpoint of competence, this is a good script. It’s well-written, decently paced, and constructs the individual jokes with ease. But as an effective attempt at satire, it falls almost completely flat.
King Richard – Zach Baylin
One of the hardest things to do as a screenwriter is to create an objectionable character but still have them be somewhat sympathetic, allowing the viewer to root for them while also acknowledging their biggest flaws. For the most part, Zach Baylin succeeds in that regard in his version of Richard Williams. A lot of heavy lifting is done by Will Smith’s performance, but he is provided with the properly balanced material to give the character his spotlight moments as an inspirational parental figure while also highlighting his more stubborn faults.
Honestly, where the script falls short is in the overall structure of the narrative. The timeline jumps from some scenes taking place a few days apart to several months down the road, with no real indication other than on-screen text or a tossed off line of dialogue to let us know that anything has progressed. This is especially true when it comes to Venus and Serena’s evolution as players, with their skills and readiness essentially left to Richard and the various coaches to tell us that we’ve hit the next stage. It’s all very clunky at times, though thankfully it doesn’t happen to a degree where the total quality of the film truly suffers.
And then, of course, there’s “The Plan.” Richard talks endlessly about his massive project to turn Venus and Serena into superstars, which works for his vainglorious character. Aunjanue Ellis and others even call him out on it from time to time as it becomes an obsession. But what we never get to do is see the plan in action or hear any real detail about it. It’s an unseen character, a thematic prop, that’s continuously referenced but has no real relevance to the plot. It doesn’t even reach the level of a MacGuffin or Chekhov’s Gun, because we have no concept of it beyond the abstract. We never know what the plan is, how long it’s supposed to last, what its components might be, or how successful Richard, Venus, and Serena are at any given point. It’s just, “The Plan,” and that’s all we get to know. Again, the film as a whole is still quite enjoyable, mostly thanks to Smith and Ellis’ performances, but that is a rather gaping hole in the writing itself.
Licorice Pizza – Paul Thomas Anderson
There’s a grand scheme at play in Licorice Pizza‘s script that I think works absolute wonders. Essentially, Paul Thomas Anderson gives us one of the most perfect coming-of-age movies ever, because of how he’s able to portray the inverse of personal growth and maturity relative to the ages of the characters themselves.
There are both extreme and subtle moments of this dynamic in action. On the more absurd side of things, we have our stable of A-list actors playing the most exaggerated versions of the Hollywood personalities they’re either parodying or outright portraying. Jerry Frick thinks making any vaguely Asian sound counts as speaking Japanese. Jon Peters threatens teenagers and smashes car windows for a TV commercial. Sean Penn playing a caricature of William Holden nearly gets Alana Haim killed recreating a stunt from a movie. Christine Ebersole plays a name-changed Lucille Ball as a crazed maniac, and in one scene gives a better, more convincing performance than Nicole Kidman did for the entirety of Being the Ricardos. These are all showbiz/L.A. legends in one form or another, all well into their 40s or older, and all of them acting in the most childish way possible.
In a more nuanced example, there’s Joel Wachs, the city councilman and mayoral candidate played by Benny Safdie. He’s high-minded, dedicated, and trying to do his best for the community. But he’s also so insecure about his social standing due to his sexuality that he’d go so far as to call Alana down to a bar to take his boyfriend home, using her as a cover rather than deal with his relationship issues like an adult. Yes, it was the 70s, and yes, there would have been social and political consequences to his being outed, but to respond to the situation by asking someone to metaphorically hold his hand while literally holding someone else’s is a truly brilliant distillation of arrested development. And then on the flipside, the first boy that Alana dates, Lance (Skyler Gisondo), tries to show off for her by pretending to be far more enlightened than his age would indicate, eventually blowing up in his face when he tries to take a stance against organized religion at the Kane dinner table. The overcompensation is just as funny as the social ineptitude.
And then of course, we have our main protagonists, Alana and Gary. Their juxtaposed relationship is made apparent in the first moments of the film, presented through note-perfect dialogue. Alana is 25 but feels stunted, while Gary at age 15 has a sophistication and confidence to him because he’s been a working professional his entire life. Yes, they both have their moments of maturity (running a business together) and immaturity (turning gas cans into dicks for the purpose of miming sex acts), but there’s just this wonderful contrast between their physical ages and their emotional ones, adding one dimension to their yin-yang attraction after another. Anderson crafts each bit of whip smart dialogue between the two as a sort of pop quiz to see how far apart they are and how much closer they get to meeting in the middle. It’s a beautifully layered approach, and it’s orchestrated so well that complete neophytes end up giving nomination-worthy performances with the material.
The Worst Person in the World – Eskil Vogt and Joachim Trier
I discussed this when I reviewed the film, so forgive me if this is a bit of a repeat, but this really is the biggest strength of the screenplay. Given the frenetic nature of Renate Reinsve’s Julie as a character, it makes absolutely perfect sense to divide the story of this film into multiple chapters (plus a prologue and epilogue). It’s a format that’s been used plenty of times before, but it doesn’t always work. Here, it does quite well.
First and foremost, there has to be a well-paced flow to each chapter. This is something that The French Dispatch really mishandled earlier in the year. As great of a writer as Wes Anderson is, the idea of starting the film with a prologue, then a brief vignette, and then three half-hour films with an absolute shit-ton of diversions inside of them, is a structural nightmare. It left me confused, frustrated, and even worse, bored on several occasions. The fact that there was almost no connective tissue between them didn’t help, either.
Vogt and Trier don’t fall into that same trap, thankfully. There are many more chapters in the story, all of them flowing into a central narrative, and all of them being short enough to hold audience attention. If left completely alone, I think the film could have still worked as a traditional story, but allowing the affair to be broken up into the appropriate key moments certainly aids the audience in engaging with the material. This is especially crucial if you’re trying to get mainstream crowds outside of your country to see your movie.
This leads into the other main reason this succeeds, and that’s the alterations to the presentation style. Wes Anderson’s film had several moments where the scene changed its own format, be it a transition from color to black-and-white, or live-action to animated and back again, or widescreen to 4:3 box for an aspect ratio. But there was no rhyme or reason to it.
With the much shorter chapters – which are only partially self-contained – The Worst Person in the World gives itself the freedom to experiment, like the segment that takes place in a moment frozen in time that somehow lasts an entire day. This is the script telegraphing to the audience that this is going to be a very brief flight of fancy – in keeping with Julie’s character – that doesn’t need to have any higher implications beyond the moment. It’s a diversion to enjoy as it happens and maybe let it inform the character going forward, but it won’t be a distraction, and that’s the key point.
Playing with chapters is a fun literary device, and the best filmmakers and writers use it to great effect (The Favourite immediately springs to mind), but there has to a be a point to it. Anderson lost sight of that I think this time around. But Vogt and Trier used it in an absolutely appropriate manner, enhancing their lead character while also delivering brief moments of isolated levity amongst the proceedings in a way that didn’t drag out the story or create too many side tangents.
1) Licorice Pizza
3) The Worst Person in the World
4) King Richard
5) Don’t Look Up
Who do you think should win? Vote now in the poll below!
Up Next, tomorrow is an off day for Oscar coverage, but when we resume on Thursday, it’s the Main Event. Ten films enter, one film leaves… with Bill’s vote for Best Picture!
Join the conversation in the comments below! How do you judge good writing? Am I anywhere near that level? Am I incredibly vain and insecure for asking that? Let me know!