a theatre, film & pop culture review
The “unfilmable” Life of Pi was actually quite filmable, but that’s thanks to visionary director Ang Lee, not so much to David Magee’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s 2001 novel (in fact, we could’ve used less of those spiritual digressions, Magee).
Beasts of the Southern Wild is the critical, indie darling that could. Lucy Alibar expanded on her own play Juicy and Delicious for the screen, which acted as a mechanism for dealing with the possible loss of her father when he became very ill. Alibar has an exquisite way with language that flows, even from the mouth of a six-year-old, as easy poetry, and there’s some beautiful imagery with aurochs (extinct large, wild cattle) that appear when the little girl senses the impending loss of her dad and her world begins to fall apart. The emotional pull of the script is strong, but it’s also riddled with the clichés of poverty and — most damning in the wake of Hurricane Sandy — it sugarcoats a devastating natural disaster as a positive opportunity to bring family and community together. These two things may not have mattered so much if competition wasn’t so fierce, but Alibar can’t contend with the Hollywood heavyweights telling “real” stories.
And then there were three.
There’s Silver Linings Playbook, the romantic dramedy “about” mental illness. The problem with director-writer David O. Russell’s adaptation of Matthew Quick’s novel is that it masquerades as a serious commentary on how a man and his family deal with bipolar disorder when in fact it’s about how a “quirky” (ah, the negative connotation that word has developed) guy finds love with the equally “disturbed” girl next door who’s in mourning for her recently deceased husband. The characters are largely caricatures and all the machinations of the generic Hollywood rom com are trotted out one by one in an amateur-hour effort to keep the plot moving forward in ludicrous fashion (that climactic bet being the worst offender). The best way to describe this screenplay is that it could’ve been written by Diablo Cody, Queen of the Quirk. Which is too say it’s enjoyable in the way that any charming Reese Witherspoon rom com is enjoyable: despite the contrivances and hackneyed plotting of its script, not because the script is any good.
Because in my next post I’m going to have to defend Mark Boal’s fictional telling of a real-life event, let’s take a moment to acknowledge that Argo is not a documentary either, but also tells a “true story” as adapted from CIA operative Tony Mendez’s book, The Master of Disguise, and a 2007 Wired magazine article, “The Great Escape,” by journalist Joshuah Bearman about the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis. No one seems to care much about the many ways director Ben Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio embellished certain aspects (that thrilling airport climax in which any complication you could think could possibly happen, did) and severely downplayed others (the Canadian involvement in the rescue). But if it makes the movie more interesting, why the hell not, right? I’m all for the increased thrills, but the screenplay also indulges in schticky Hollywood hijinks and lots of what our friends at Newsweek would call “Muslim Rage.” Argo works really well, but like SLP, it’s not because of the screenplay.
The early frontrunner for this category was Lincoln, and while there’s currently whisperings of possible SLP or Argo spoilers, Lincoln is still the favored nominee. Despite collecting nearly 400 books on Lincoln and writing an initial draft of 500 pages, screenwriter and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Angels in America Tony Kushner didn’t simply want to hit the highlights of the 16th U.S. President’s life and career. So he and director Steven Spielberg (in their second collaboration following the 2005 Oscar-nominated Munich) began by focusing on the period of September 1863 to January 1864, and eventually limiting that focus to the final four months of Lincoln’s life. And what a four months they were.
Now, in the effort of full disclosure: I work for Mr. Kushner’s publisher. This would (possibly) make me biased if everyone didn’t already, justly, believe what I’m about to write: Lincoln is political thriller and history lesson rolled into one – and the result is the best kind of presidential biography. Kushner’s dense, literary passages paint vivid and persuasive pleas by early lobbyists as they cleverly manipulate twenty unsuspecting Democrats into voting for the Amendment; perfectly pitched rejoinders by the silver-tongued abolitionist, Pennsylvania Rep. Thaddeus Stevens; the resentment verging on hysteria of a brokenhearted mother ; and the credible patter of dozens of other characters, all of which Kushner deftly juggles to create vistas of the intimately personal and the largely political. The playwright wrote Lincoln because, upset at today’s widespread lack of faith in governance, he wished to tell a story that “shows that you can achieve miraculous, beautiful things through the democratic system.” It’s a beautiful sentiment, and a beautiful, award-worthy screenplay.