Continuing our breakdown of the major categories for this year’s 82nd annual Academy Awards, here is our analysis of the nominees eligible to receive the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.
Best Original Screenplay
The Golden Globes are often a useful bellwether, but since the Hollywood Foreign Press doesn’t separate Original and Adapted Screenplays, Up in the Air’s win there only suggests the outcome of the Adapted Screenplay category at the Oscars. Quentin Tarantino won the Critic’s Choice for his Inglourious Basterds screenplay so he has a good chance of winning. However, Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, who have two previous screenplay Oscars for No Country for Old Men and Fargo, have just as strong a chance for A Serious Man. Moreover, they won with the National Board of Review and the National Society of Film Critics so they may edge out Tarantino for the win. Mark Boal’s powerful screenplay for The Hurt Locker could pull a surprise win since it beat the Coens at the Writers Guild and the winners there typically win the Oscar as well. Less likely would be a win for Up which, though emotionally touching, may not be able to compete with the more serious fare offered by the other screenplays. The least likely winner would be Oren Moverman and Alessandro Camon’s screenplay for The Messenger, which, though powerful, is the nominee that has received the least nominations from other prestigious bodies.
THE HURT LOCKER - Mark Boal
Strengths: Tension and Criticism
Mark Boal, whose only other screenplay work is 2007’s In the Valley of Elah, created possibly the most suspenseful story of the category in his screenplay for The Hurt Locker. Whether it’s during a bomb-defusing scene or the way Boal slowly builds up the instability of Jeremy Renner’s character James, until he finally reaches a breaking point, the screenplay has an immense tension that carries throughout. Every scene in the film contains a level of unpredictability and it’s never clear if things will suddenly turn violent. One of the film’s best scenes shows James trying to defuse a bomb strapped to a panicking Afghan civilian. It appears there may not be enough time to defuse the bomb and the tension comes not only from the possibility that this innocent man may die, but the fear of what James’s inability to save him will do to his psyche. It is precisely through tension and fear that Boal creates a story that subtly criticizes war. Boal makes it clear that the violence and danger associated with war destroys James’s ability to live a normal life and the story becomes both haunting and tragic. In addition, the screenplay won against A Serious Man at the Writers Guild Awards and in past years, the winner there has typically gone on to win the Oscar.
Weaknesses: Range and Empathy
While some of the other nominated screenplays contain strong elements of comedy, albeit often dark, or even romance, The Hurt Locker is mostly deadly serious and this lack of range could keep it from beating the more varied competition. Boal excels at creating a tense and powerful story, but it does not offer much else besides tragedy and tension. This lack of range also extends to Renner’s character James in that though he is supposed to be an example of the destruction war wreaks, he can seem too frightening and it can be difficult to empathize with the character.
Odds: Has a Chance
INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS – Quentin Tarantino
Strengths: Characters and Dialogue
Quentin Tarantino, who won an Oscar for his screenplay of 1995’s Pulp Fiction, has always been commended for his skill at creating unique characters and clever dialogue and Inglourious Basterds is no different. In Colonel Hans Landa, played wonderfully by Best Supporting Actor nominee Christophe Waltz, Tarantino has created one of the most memorable characters of his career. However, as diabolical as Landa is, Tarantino never allows him to become too ridiculous; he is terrifying without being outlandish. Tarantino creates a rich ensemble of characters and though he brings them to the edge of absurdity, he still manages to make them believable. The dialogue is just as strong and though it lacks Tarantino’s usual effusion of pop culture references because of the story’s time period, it still has the same appeal and intelligence. One of the best scenes in the film is the opening, in which Landa interrogates a Frenchman who may be hiding a Jewish family. The loaded dialogue renders the scene immensely suspenseful and fascinating even though the characters simply sit at a table conversing for its majority.
Weaknesses: Pacing and Scope
Though the dialogue is strong throughout the film, it can also become a little taxing and hurt the film’s pacing. One scene in particular when the titular Basterds meet a German contact in a bar, seems to drag on and nearly breaks the film’s mounting tension. However, the largest issue facing the film is the scope of its characters. Tarantino intertwines the stories of a number of characters and some are more compelling than others. Most surprisingly, the Basterds themselves sometimes seems less interesting than the other characters and had Tarantino cut a few, he might have had a stronger chance.
Odds: Has a Chance
THE MESSENGER – Alessandro Camon and Oren Moverman
Strengths: Emotional Power and Character Development
With their tale of a young soldier who returns to America after being injured in Iraq only to have to finish his tour as a member of the Army’s Casualty Notification Services, first-time collaborators Camon and Moverman have one of the most emotionally powerful scripts of the group. Scenes showing casualty notifications are well written and the dialogue and the reactions never become melodramatic. The realism with which Camon and Moverman, also the film’s director, display grief, lends each notification an air of devastation and tragedy that is both believable and moving. Just as strong is the way each character develops throughout the film. Ben Foster’s character, Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery, becomes better at dealing with his emotions as the film progresses and his change is particularly interesting. One of the best scenes in the film comes when Montgomery delivers his first notification to a grieving father, played excellently by Steve Buscemi, who responds by angrily calling him a coward. Both the scene’s dialogue and Montgomery’s desire to explain himself are compelling to watch and the other scenes are just as strong.
Weaknesses: Ethical Questions and Momentum
Another significant aspect of the film is Montgomery’s budding romance with a woman to whom he delivers news of her husband’s death. While this aspect is certainly an interesting dynamic, Camon and Moverman fail to fully address the ethical problems with Montgomery’s actions. A supporting character makes brief reference to the potential problems, but the issue may have been better explored with a comment from Foster’s character. More importantly, the screenplay simply lacks the momentum of its competitors. Unlike them, the screenplay wasn’t nominated for any other major awards, which doesn’t bode well for its Oscar chances.
A SERIOUS MAN – Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Strengths: Past Wins and Satire
Considering the Coens received awards from the National Board of Review and the National Society of Film Critics for their screenplay of A Serious Man, they have a strong chance of winning. In addition, the Academy has awarded two out of three of their nominated screenplays in the past and since some critics have called A Serious Man their best film yet, they could win again. Like many of their previous films, the Coens rely heavily on satire and caricature to create the film’s dark comedy. Michael Stuhlbarg’s character Larry Gopnik is the serious man of the title, but the Coens make the world he inhabits as unserious as possible. Every scene and every line of dialogue serves the Coens’ purpose of questioning man’s relationship to God or even whether God exists at all. Some of the best scenes in the film come when Gopnik visits various rabbis in an attempt to understand his life’s hardships. The Coens’ unique examination of the role religion plays in everyday life makes for a fascinating film and they’ll likely be rewarded for it.
Weaknesses: Extremeness and Competition
As painfully amusing as Gopnik’s life can be, the film can sometimes become too ridiculous. Certainly many of the characters are supposed to seem like extreme personality types, but they can sometimes become overly annoying. Gopnik’s world can seem too unserious and it’s difficult to connect such a far-fetched world to real life. The film also faces some very strong competition. First of all, Quentin Tarantino’s screenplay for Inglourious Basterds could win. The Academy likes both Tarantino and the Coens, though considering A Serious Man was nominated at the Writers Guild of America Awards while Basterds wasn’t, they are hard to beat. Even more of a threat is Mark Boal’s screenplay for The Hurt Locker which beat the Coens at the Writers Guild.
UP – Bob Peterson, Pete Docter and Thomas McCarthy
Strengths: Comedy and Emotion
With Up, a tale of a curmudgeonly old man who takes a fantastic journey to South America with a talking dog and a precocious boy scout as his sidekicks, writers Bob Peterson, Pete Docter and Thomas McCarthy created the most light-hearted screenplay of the nominees. Like every Pixar film, Up is heavy on comedy. It is made of more than just visual laughs and the dialogue, especially every word that comes from the aforementioned talking dog’s muzzle, is quite clever. However, the real strength of the film comes from its emotional power. The characters are very well-rounded and the writers make the development of their connections believable. The best scene of the film, and one of the best of Pixar’s oeuvre, is an early and dialogue-less sequence that shows the entirety of the old man’s relationship with his wife. The scene is very powerful and brilliantly condenses a lifetime of emotion into a few brief images. The whole film is emotionally affecting and that quality is likely why it received a nomination.
Weaknesses: Seriousness and Originality
As emotionally compelling as Up is, it is also the least serious of the nominees and the Academy often favors more dramatic fare when it comes to screenplays. Furthermore, the characters and the story arc fit with the typical expectations of a Pixar or family film and even with the talking dogs, there isn’t really much originality when it comes to the character typology. The events of the film reinforce normal audience expectations rather than challenge them and Academy voters will likely choose something a little more daring.