a theatre, film & pop culture review
Missing: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2
This category is kind of fun if only because two playwrights are represented — unless you count Sorkin, and then it’s three (but we theatre folks don’t really claim him anymore, do we?). Unfortunately, The Ides of March is a terrible film adapted from an almost-as-terrible play, Farragut North, by Beau Willimon. Inspired by the young playwright’s days working for Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York and the former governor of Vermont, Howard Dean, Willimon’s got a knack for campaign trail politico-talk, which can be feisty and fast-paced when the campaign managers are spinning as they go. But in 2008 when the play premiered, the allegory to the then-current presidential election was practically non-existent, and the film, with its materialization of the idealized president (who never makes an appearance in the play) and its addition of a pregnancy plot that is both highly predictable and even more highly melodramatic, has an even shakier connection to our upcoming presidential campaign. None of Ides feels urgent or relevant — it actually seems outdated, which is amusing/depressing since it felt that way four years ago. But Beau isn’t entirely to blame: George Clooney and Grant Heslov — the pair that brought us the Oscar-nominated screenplay, Good Night, and Good Luck, also had a hand in the less-than-stellar adaptation.
Our other playwright is John Logan who, truth be told, is much more of a screenwriter these days (which we can be thankful for as his Tony Award-winning Red is one of the most overproduced and underwhelming plays of late): he has two nominations already under his belt (The Aviator, Gladiator) and now an animated feature has also been added to his roster (Rango — we’ll get to that mess later). And, lord help us, but he’s in the process of adapting Jersey Boys, the musical, for the silver screen. Needless to say, the man gets work continually, so there’s got to be something to this nomination for his adaptation of Brian Selznick’s children’s book. Logan’s Hugo keeps the dialogue spare and slims down the large cast of characters to focus more on the emotional journey of the Dickens-like orphan title character. He beefed up the villainous train inspector — because every movie’s gotta have a clear antagonist, right? — and when it was later decided that the film would be shot in 3D, he found ways for the characters to move more perceptively through the space: going through tunnels and inside the automaton and even the film camera and of course, that crafty Doberman. Logan’s work, however, is too meandering and indulgent in the side characters for a lot of critics, and really, this is a director’s piece anyway and therefore Marty’s show.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is adapted from John le Carré’s novel, which was also adapted into a popular 1970s TV mini series. This is a first nomination for husband-wife screenwriting team Peter Straughan and Bridget O’Connor (who sadly passed away before the film was finished) that had the difficult task of condensing the complicated Cold War thriller into an accessible film with actual human characters. Whether you think they succeeded (I do not) probably doesn’t matter: At this point, TTSS isn’t a really a contender.
What Sorkin and crew (Steven Zaillian and Stan Chervin) have going for them is that they already have two Oscars between them, and they also had the toughest task with their adaptation of Michael Lewis’s book about an idea. These guys had to build a narrative around a bunch of statistical data — and then create some character to boot. The end result of Moneyball works, but it’s not nearly as slick as Sorkin’s The Social Network, nor did it win the WGA Award or the USC Scriptor Award.
But The Descendants did win all those writing awards, and it’s officially become the frontrunner here. Based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, it’s one of those dramedies that Alexander Payne is so famous for: Matt King, “the backup parent” of two daughters, discovers his comatose wife was having an affair all while he’s trying to decide what to do with a family trust of over 25,000 acres of pristine Hawaiian land. Writer-director Payne, who won an Oscar for his pretentious adapted screenplay of Sideways, doesn’t typically show a fondness for his rather unlikable characters, but here, the work is surprisingly and deeply sad, with only a little of the harsh quirkiness that he usually applies so generously. At this point, Payne and his co-writers Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, are pretty much guaranteed a (deserved) win.