Sunday, February 15, 2015

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Adapted Screenplay

Miles Teller (left) and JK Simmons star in the Best Picture-nominated Whiplash.

Each day as we make our way to the Academy Awards ceremony Feb. 22, Last Cinema Standing will take an in-depth look at each of the categories, sorting out the highs, the lows, and everything in between. Check back right here for analysis, predictions, and gripes as we inch toward the Dolby Theater and that world-famous red carpet.

Best Adapted Screenplay

The nominees are:

American Sniper, written by Jason Hall
The Imitation Game, written by Graham Moore
Inherent Vice, written by Paul Thomas Anderson
The Theory of Everything, written by Anthony McCarten
Whiplash, written by Damien Chazelle

The Writers Guild of America hosted its annual awards ceremony Saturday night. For best original screenplay, the writers chose Wes Anderson and Hugo Guinness’ The Grand Budapest Hotel, and for adapted, they chose Graham Moore’s The Imitation Game. This has a number of people picking those two films for the same awards at the Oscars. Though it is certainly possible, the outcome is by no means a sure thing.

While the writers’ branch of the Academy does not have the same kind of eligibility issues as the music branch has shown, the Writers Guild has some very specific guidelines for what can and cannot compete for its awards. Every year, these guidelines prevent a number of top contenders from competing against each other, making the Writers Guild awards a poor bellwether at best.

Recent history shows missing out with the Writers Guild means little when it comes to the Academy Awards. Just last year, John Ridley won the Oscar for adapting 12 Years a Slave, despite not being eligible with the Writers Guild. Two-time Academy Award winner Quentin Tarantino has never competed at the Writers Guild. The point being: It is a nice feather in the cap for a contender, but it is hardly a golden ticket to the Dolby Theater stage.

As with Best Original Screenplay, a little Best Picture heat does not hurt an Adapted Screenplay contender, and four of the five nominees this year are in the mix for the top prize. None is a likely threat to win Best Picture, but the heat is enough. The fifth nominee, the most deserving and least likely winner, is a beloved auteur whose film did not do as well with the Academy as it might have, but his films rarely do.

Overall, I would call this a fairly weak category this year – not because this is the worst lineup I have ever seen but because the two most likely winners are middling films about British science geniuses that almost completely ignore science, one is a terrible script that was turned into a passable movie by a great director, the best film and script in the lineup is the least likely winner, and the last nominee comes from a brilliant script that has no business in this category because it is most certainly an original screenplay and not an adaptation.

The Theory of Everything – McCarten made an interesting choice in deciding to adapt the memoir of Stephen Hawking’s first wife, Jane Hawking, rather than a more conventional biography of the famed mathematician. The shift in perspective is an intriguing direction for such a film, but due to the obvious interest Stephen Hawking’s life draws, McCarten is forced to straddle the line between telling a story about a world-renowned theoretical physicist and the scientist’s long-suffering wife. McCarten is intermittently successful.

One wishes he had committed fully to telling Jane Hawking’s unique story of love, strength, and perseverance rather than attempting to combine her story with her husband’s. What results is a biopic about Stephen Hawking that seems strangely more interested in his relationship than with his world-changing science. McCarten is clearly a talented writer, and for what he was attempting, the screenplay has a loose, natural feel to it. It would have been nice to see what McCarten could have done had he focused solely on Jane Hawking.

The Imitation Game – From one film about a brilliant man to another film with similar issues, Moore zeroes in on the events of Alan Turing’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) life around World War II and his part in cracking the German enigma code. Spoilers for those who do not know their history, but Turing cracks the code and helps win the war. It is a thrilling story about one man’s mathematical and technical genius saving the lives of millions. Unfortunately, nowhere in the film are we shown the process of Turing’s work. We must simply take it on faith that he is a genius. Turing says as much in the film.

It is a structural mess, bouncing around from the war to Turing’s childhood to his final years, when he was persecuted by the British government for his homosexuality. While the film wants to make a larger point about that persecution, it treads so lightly around the issue of Turing’s sexuality that it undercuts its message of tolerance by fearing the audience might not be tolerant of a gay war hero. I said as much in my review that there is a great film to be made from telling Turing’s life story. This is not it, and much of the fault lies in Moore’s lacking screenplay.

Whiplash – I love Whiplash, and Chazelle’s script absolutely shines. It is sharp, funny, and insightful in ways that few others are. It is also wholly original. Due to a weird quirk in the eligibility guidelines brought to light during the nominating process, Chazelle’s script was forced to compete in the Adapted Screenplay category rather than Original, where it rightly belongs. You can read more about it here, but the short version is that Chazelle filmed a scene from the feature script as a proof of concept to raise money to make the film. Though the “short” came from Chazelle’s original screenplay, the Academy rules dictate the feature is an adaptation of the short. It makes no sense, but here we are.

Luckily, the error did not cost Chazelle a well deserved nomination, despite being caught long after nominating ballots were already in hand. Chazelle is a fierce young talent, and any recognition his film gets has been hard earned. Whiplash is a complex portrait of two obsessives that does not paint either as a villain or a hero. Chazelle’s script refuses to hold the audience’s hand through a dizzying series of power reversals and shifting sympathies that builds to a stunning climax. It is magnificent work that will hopefully give Chazelle the capital to continue making films.

American Sniper – I actually enjoyed American Sniper quite a bit. It is a well made action picture with a great central performance that manages to thrill while making engaged audiences think. Its script, however, is the least of its virtues. I would go so far as to say the film succeeds in spite of its script, and though director Clint Eastwood makes the most of what he is given, he does not start out with much. Eastwood famously does not interfere with the screenplays he chooses, shooting more or less the story that is on the page. While the final product is a good war film, Hall’s script would have benefited from a more authorial director.

Hall is to be commended for attempting to insert important questions about the war on terror and the nature of heroism, but the ham-fisted way he does so is to the film’s overall detriment. Too often, Hall has characters come out directly and state the themes of the film rather than allowing his ideas to develop organically through the plot. The film is structurally boring, as well, based as it is around Chris Kyle’s (Bradley Cooper) four tours in the Middle East. He falls into a pattern of home, deployed, home, deployed, etc., that becomes tiresome about halfway through the film.

Inherent Vice – Seeing Anderson in this group of writers is a bit like playing “One of these things is not like the other things.” While the other four nominees have a total of 12 feature screenplays among them, Anderson has written and directed seven features, each the brilliant vision of a once-in-a-generation auteur. Anderson has been nominated for six Academy Awards in his career, four for writing, one for directing, and one for producing his Best Picture-nominated There Will Be Blood. He will win an Oscar one day, but it will not be for this film.

I wish, however, that he were in the conversation because this is masterful work. Inherent Vice was one of my top 10 films of the year, and almost all of the credit for the film’s tremendous artistic success goes to Anderson. He adapted a basically unfilmable Thomas Pynchon novel into a stunning masterpiece that is as much a stoner comedy as it is a poignant examination of the death of the hippie dream. No one writes films like Anderson because no one takes the chances he does. His films, up to and including Inherent Vice, have always been as challenging as they are entertaining, and he will get his Oscar due – just not this time.

The final analysis

The two British biopics will probably duke this one out to the end. While The Imitation Game won the Writers Guild award, The Theory of Everything was not eligible. When these two films did go head to head at the British Academy of Film and Television Awards, McCarten came away the winner. Of course, the BAFTA win comes with the caveat that three years running, the Academy has gone a different direction in this category than its British counterpart.

Chazelle could swoop in at the last minute and take this as well if the love for Whiplash runs as deep as its Best Picture nomination suggests. Whiplash has yet to go up against any of these films as it has competed in the best original category at every other awards show. It should be a fun fight to the finish, and we will not know the winner until the envelope is opened.

Will win: The Theory of Everything
Should win: Inherent Vice
Wish it had been here: A Most Wanted Man

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