2019: Screenwriting for the Ages

Pleased as I was to see Parasite win so many big ones at the Academy Awards this year, I would have been just as happy, or maybe more so, if either Noah Baumbach or Rian Johnson had won the Best Original Screenplay award.

Thinking about them – and I’ve been thinking about all three a lot lately – you could feel like we’re in a great period for feature film screenwriting.

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Knives Out. A detail that passes for comedy may come back in a very big way.

Three totally different genres, and all three with a very human feel for detail. Parasite, written by Bong Joon-ho and Han Jin-won, has that super-satisfying walk through the looking glass around its midpoint, when the former housekeeper returns with shocking news.

Also, a few times in Parasite, a little extra attention gets paid to one detail about the rich family’s perception of the poor family it’s suddenly gotten intimate with: they don’t smell good, these unwashed people from the ghetto. It’s played for dark laughs, and in a typical drama, this might lead to a detail that makes the denouement a bit richer, but this is no ordinary drama. It leads to the decisive move in the final act: the father taking the insult to heart, shall we say.

Knives Out, written by Johnson, is a very self-conscious comedy, rich with winks at the audience. A detective story, the cross-cutting between time and scenes in the initial round of interrogations provides characterization about the major players at a breakneck speed. You never doubt for a moment that you’re in good hands with this story-teller.

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Marriage Story. Lulled into a sense that you can see where the story is going,.

Like Parasite, it has turns that upset your understanding of the whole story – again and again. And it also has lots of consequential details hidden as comedy that turn out to be plenty consequential.

I couldn’t get into Brick, Johnson’s breakthrough back in 2006, but have to concede that his dedication to this genre of detective fiction-obsessed detective stories has really paid off. It’s as funny as A Band Apart and as timely as The Third Man probably felt, and it gets all the playfulness of Wes Anderson across without his twee excesses.

Baumbach just keeps getting better too. Friends complained that Marriage Story lacked plot or was too depressing, but I found it very satisfying. I laughed a lot and couldn’t sleep afterward.

It too has a successfully-executed momentous turn in the plot – when it’s clear that the “nice guy” lawyer played by Alan Alda isn’t up to his opponent. (I love that Laura Dern is winning awards for her role, but what a part Baumbach wrote for her.) That Charlie (Adam Driver) is such an underhandedly distant kind of dad throughout the film, then for his attempt to prove his own playful side to go so disastrously at the end, ranks this writing with the best of Woody Allen at the height of his powers from Manhattan to Hannah and Her Sisters.

If I have one complaint about Marriage Story, it’s the score. I know Randy Newman is a songwriter’s songwriter, and, like Tom Waits, it’s heretical to say anything negative about him, but I found his score treacly. So much so, I wondered at times if it were being played for irony, giving a Douglas Sirk kind of middlebrow tone to a film about the clash between the New York theater world and the L.A. TV world. I honestly don’t get it.

Last year was the first time in about thirty years that I lived outside of a metropolitan area that has lots of cinemas, and it’s sinking in how important the Oscar nominations are to so many people, how they determine what you can actually see on a big screen. Sure, I’d have seen more of the Best Foreign Language Film nominees if I were still in the city, but up here the other people who care about cinema are much more likely to have seen the same 10 or so films you did in the past six months, and the awards and awards speculation go a long way toward defining that list, for better or worse.

In any case, a lot of great writing is still happening.

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