Friday, February 19, 2016

Adapted Screenplay

I'm late. Let's get to this.

Writing (Adapted Screenplay):
  • Charles Randolph and Adam McKay for The Big Short
  • Nick Hornby for Brooklyn
  • Phyllis Nagy for Carol
  • Drew Goddard for The Martian
  • Emma Donoghue for Room

One of the most important things that The Big Short does is explain in basic but concrete terms the building blocks of the subprime mortgage crisis. One of the primary ways it does this is through the uses of sexposition and celebrity asides. In one instance, we cut to Anthony Bourdain explaining CDOs with a fish stew analogy, and in another we have Selena Gomez informing us on what synthetic CDOs are. The fourth wall is often broken in cutesy ways, and there was even an adorable throw-in regarding the Council of Elrond with Sean Bean present*. The Big Short benefits from a strong script with an excellent ability to make the complicated plain.

While Brooklyn was adorable and strong and chock full of entertaining and powerful women, the screenwriters really did themselves a disservice in minimizing the brilliant actresses it built up in the first act. They still exist, certainly, but they take on further background roles as Eilis' romantic interests are introduced. It isn't until near the end that it feels as though anyone other than Eilis herself has any real gravitas. Still then, there are a host of women all seemingly orbiting the men. Brooklyn had a real chance at slaying the Bechdel Test requirements and did so through the first half. Instead of writing a very strong coming-of-age story for a migrant woman, Nick Hornby can't escape the idea that Brooklyn should center on men and, in so doing, limits the film's true potential.

Carol's greatest strength is also its ultimate downfall as far as the Academy Awards goes. Phyllis Nagy actively makes a choice to center her screenplay around her queer women and to portray the men in her film through the queer eyes of those women. The men, then, turn out to be silly, needling, emotional, aloof, controlling, over-confident, and, to the point, completely unnecessary. Carol's estranged husband asks her to Christmas because he "doesn't want [her] to be alone," and she calmly responds that she's spending the day with her ex-lover, Abby. Later, when Carol asks Therese about her boyfriend back home, her response is a very simple, "I haven't though of him at all." Perhaps most amusingly, there's a scene in a cafe where Therese is set upon by a man trying to sell her on "notions." When he introduces himself to Carol, she doesn't even deign a response. He then openly states he doesn't even know what notions are and tries to join them on their trip to Chicago. He follows up by trying to sell Therese on magazines listing off several that he thinks she might be interested in. When she asks for the one thing she wants, Popular Photography, he simply doesn't have it. It is this honest queer eye of straight men that gives Carol its honesty. Unfortunately, it is in this decentering of the male voice that the Academy can't find a reason to give it a best picture nomination.

One of the things I had heard about The Martian before it premiered was about the difficulties of adapting the book to screen. The original text was considered to be too dense, too plodding, too dry to turn into a major film. Drew Goddard, though, did an admirable job of making an enjoyable, well-paced watch at the cost of seemingly nearly every non-action scene in the book. The choice to give Captain Lewis's character exposition through the regular use of disco tracks throughout wasn't just clever character building, but it helped bridge heavy moments in the film. There was some incredibly cheesy dialogue carried over from the book (I'm looking at you "I'm gonna have to science the shit out of this."), and that choice, while perhaps entertaining, feels downright silly.

Emma Donoghue created an incredible thriller out of Room. In the first half, Old Nick is the obvious menace, but it is the second half where her talent really shines. She never strays from the thriller genre, but instead she substitutes one monster for another. Instead of Old Nick terrorizing Ma and isolating Jack, it is the rest of society that falls into this role. Reporters hover at their hospital room. News trucks blockade their home. Strangers gifts are an ever-present reminder of the trauma. An interviewer questions Ma's judgement. At no point are the characters given a respite, and, really, they've only traded one room for another. The screenplay for Room is perhaps its greatest strength; too bad it got bungled in production.

To me, there's a clear division between Room, CarolThe Big Short and the other two films. I'm a terrible cynic, so I really don't expect the Academy voters to catch the nuance of women's experiences expressed in either Carol or Room. To be certain, The Big Short is phenomenally written, and I can't say it doesn't deserve the award. It certainly wrapped a lot of material together into a concise package, but I simply found the other two films more engaging and clever. If Room were an original screenplay, I would absolutely vote for it there, but its greatest strengths of theme aren't totally on its screenwriter. On the other hand, it is Carol's decision to eschew men altogether that truly strikes me as unique for major films.

Should win: Phyllis Nagy for Carol
Will win: Charles Randolph and Adam McKay for The Big Short

* The Council of Elrond is from The Lord of the Rings, the film adaptation of which Sean Bean starred in.

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