WARNING: Major film nerd writing ahead.
The pre-Oscar nominations by the Writers Guild of America are out, and the usual past Oscar winners and nominees are nominated this year. We have Aaron Sorkin (Oscar for adapted screenplay for The Social Network; this nomination is for Being the Ricardos), Adam McKay (Oscar for adapted screenplay for The Big Short; this nomination is for Don’t Look Up); and lastly, the legendary Tony-winning playwright Tony Kushner (Oscar nominations for adapted screenplays for Lincoln and Munich, both directed by Steven Spielberg; this nomination is for Spielberg’s West Side Story.)
I know—who am I to critique the work of these great writers? Just someone who found an irritating flaw in all these screenplays, and who still thinks that Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog script (not nominated by the WGA) may well be the best of the year. (I haven’t seen everything, of course.)
Being the Ricardos by Aaron Sorkin
Apparently, Sorkin likes to create constriction and conflict in his scripts, according to an interview with TCM’s Ben Markiewicz. He also loves structures that confine and compress, evident in the structures of both The Social Network and The Trial of the Chicago Seven. But he misuses his creative license here, and contorts history to the breaking point. In short, Sorkin takes events that happened over a period of years and squeezes them all into one week. There are three big conflicts: Lucy’s having registered as a Communist in her younger years, Lucy discovering she is pregnant and having to figure out what that means for her show, and Lucy discovering that Desi was unfaithful. These are all great dramatic stories in the lives of this famous couple, but they didn’t happen at the same time. Lucy’s trouble with her Communist registration was in 1953. Her pregnancy was a year earlier. And Desi was a serial philanderer for years, and Lucy knew it; in fact, she threatened divorce a few years into their marriage for this reason (among others). To have her “discover” this fact during this one week makes her look naïve and stupid, which she was anything but.
This crunching of information is something that documentaries do, and purported fact-based films needs to be careful about. It’s an exhilarating ride that Sorkin takes us on, and Nicole Kidman and J.K. Simmons in particular are excellent. But it seems either a bit lazy or just too “artistically creative” to impose such a structure on the real history of real people. We’re living in an age where some will think that Sharon Tate survived the Manson Gang, where we stopped Hitler, and that Queens Elizabeth and her cousin Mary actually met face-to-face. And don’t even get me started about the gross historical injustice done to Queen Anne in The Favourite (well-acted but howlingly and wrongly inaccurate on so many counts. See https://film-prof.com/2019/01/26/the-favourite-a-death-knell-for-truth-in-film/)
Lucy and Desi Arnaz and the Ricardos make for a fascinating story. It’s just didn’t occur in one Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Week.
Don’t Look Up by Adam McKay
In short, this script had the same weakness as his Oscar-winning screenplay for The Big Short. And that problem is attitude. McKay is a smart-aleck (the word I am using when I really mean a word that is two letters shorter). I found it arrogant and alienating in The Big Short, and Don’t Look Up is even more infected with the attitude. The film is filled with Oscar winners and nominees (Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Jonah Hill, etc.) trying their best, which can be fun at times. The tone, however, is all over the place, which is part direction and part screenplay.
McKay wants to be deadly serious about this allegorical climate change screed, but the only serious parts of the film are the acting from DiCaprio and Lawrence. Blanchett (who really is wonderful) and Tyler Perry are just too ridiculous, and therefore too much, and therefore too alienating. Streep is in a world of her own—a comic one, to be sure, and demonstrative of her incredible range. But it’s hard to take political and media satire seriously when the parts are so over the top. The strongest statement being made here is how smart the screenwriter thinks he is, not what’s wrong with this world.
What helped Ant-Man (written by McKay) be funny is just getting in the way in Don’t Look Up. McKay has a lot to say. He just needs to be less of a smart-aleck.
West Side Story by Toni Kushner
Less is being written about the screenplay of this marvelous film than about its director (Steven Spielberg) and its shining new stars (Ariana DeBose, Rachel Zegler, Mike Faist), and that’s as it should be. But by going back to the play rather than the 1961 classic film, and by wanting to “clarify” some things, Kushner did a great deal of expansion. Too much, in fact. I’m not quibbling about the use of Spanish, the rearrangement of the songs (though I think one big goof was made there: https://film-prof.com/2021/12/18/west-side-story-2021/) or the backstory fleshed out for Tony, or the greater attention given to Chino, etc., etc. It’s that Kushner tends to overwrite (see Lincoln), making the playwright’s mistake of relying on words and not enough on cinematic language). His “clarifications” about Tony make his story clearer, and help us to see his ferocious side, but it robs him of the mystery needed to add heft to this already difficult character. Plus, the story can temporarily lose focus and power by expanding too much. To paraphrase Emperor Joseph II (Jeffrey Jones) in Amadeus, “There are simply too many words.”