Michael Phillips on 2013 screenplays up for Oscars

Oscar-nominated or not, a screenplay remains a halfway thing until it goes before the cameras. Similarly, a movie is only a movie until the post-screening discussion, whether that discussion takes place in your head, alone, or with strangers in a room. At that point a movie becomes a Socratic debate. Unless it's "The Lego Movie," which everybody seems to like a lot.


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Of the original screenplays up for Academy Awards this year, two of the five deserve that debate, if only because they're terrific as opposed to pretty good, and utterly different from each other as well as from most other scripts. (As for the three others, "Blue Jasmine," "Dallas Buyers Club" and "Nebraska" fall in the broad, fair-to-pretty-good range. How Woody Allen failed to credit the late Tennessee Williams for his film's glaring inspiration, "A Streetcar Named Desire," is a mystery indeed.)

The second time I saw "Her," the plaintive futuristic romance written and directed by Spike Jonze, it was with a crowd. Jonze and I held a discussion with the audience afterward. One woman said it was the most moving comedy she'd seen in years. The film's central relationship, though not its only one and not the one we're left with at the final shot, concerns a man who invents other people's correspondence for hire, at a company known as BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, and the object of his affection, a Siri-like operating system. She is literally in the protagonist's ear, like a lovely, illusory bug of infinite intelligence and empathy.

Another hand shot up at the screening discussion. "To me," the woman said, "what you've just shown us is scarier than anything in 'The Hunger Games'!" Jonze smiled, prodded her a bit and then responded by saying the world he created in "Her" isn't necessarily one he endorses. He just thought it was possible, intriguing, and in some ways already here.

A weak screenplay plays it down the middle, trying to appease all comers. "Her" plays it down the middle in the best possible fashion: Half the time you're watching it you're thinking it's charming, delightful, ridiculous, sad, funny — often in the same scene. The other half of the time you're hypnotized by the hazy, pleasant but, yes, alienating universe on screen. Jonze deals with emotional claustrophobia in a benign yet remote Los Angeles, where everyone's meds seem to be working a little too well. But love can bloom in this place. It is an optimistic picture in the end, and it comes down squarely on the side of human-on-human relationships in all their difficulty.

This is why "Her" is the film of 2013, worthy (and perhaps destined to win) of the original screenplay Oscar. Jonze, whose previous features include "Being John Malkovich" and "Where the Wild Things Are," isn't a futurist, really. He's more of a tomorrow-ist, which is a futurist whose time is a few hours from now.

Another script I loved last year was "American Hustle," which the director David O. Russell rewrote from Eric Warren Singer's earlier screenplay titled "American Bullshit." (Neither title is great; it's probably time to retire the "American" routine.) "Her" progresses in a clean, yet surprising, direction following the Joaquin Phoenix character, Theodore Twombly. "American Hustle" by contrast is like a clown car, with characters and plotlines spilling out as it careens around the 1970s.

Russell hasn't much interest in telling the facts and drawing the connections involved in the FBI sting operation known as ABSCAM. At times I had trouble keeping the double crosses straight. It's the spirit of fakery and invention that makes the movie fly. Russell's on-the-nose thesis is simple: We're all con artists, one way or another. The combed-over con played by Christian Bale states the thesis flatly in a voiceover.

But even so, the film's detours are all wonderful, and they're rich in comic panache. This is a love story which declares that honest love is possible even among weasels. Many find the end result a mess. I see it as a stew. And it's worth seeing the movie just to hear how often, and how amusingly, Russell has his characters deal with the newfangled WIN button-era wonder, the microwave, which Bale's character keeps calling "the science oven."

The adapted screenplays up for Oscars this year include one fictional work written by three ongoing collaborators ("Before Midnight," credited to director Richard Linklater and costars Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke). Another is "Captain Phillips," which screenwriter Billy Ray cleverly fashioned from Phillips' own account of the Somali pirate hijacking of a cargo ship. Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope's "Philomena" is getting a very good ride, and it's an effective enough vehicle for the on-screen duo of Coogan and top-billed Judi Dench. The one script that isn't remotely Oscar-worthy, Terence Winter's "Wolf of Wall Street," certainly doesn't lack for forward momentum or colorful bad behavior. What it lacks is a b.s. detector, any sort of modulation or selectivity — and, even in director Martin Scorsese's hands, a compelling reason to exist.

The script I admire most in this category, John Ridley's adaptation of the 1853 Solomon Northup memoir "12 Years a Slave," accomplishes what last year's "Lincoln" screenplay by Tony Kushner achieved so eloquently. Honoring the source material without becoming unduly beholden to it, it sounds like a true mid-19th century artifact. The argot has the ring of another era, yet it's lively and speakable. The storytelling is sharp, often painful, always moving forward, like director Steve McQueen's most vivid imagistic detail: the two shots of the paddlewheel churning away, oblivious to the craft's role in an ignoble chapter of American history not long past.

Some adore "The Wolf of Wall Street"; fewer, probably, don't think much of "12 Years a Slave." The debates roll on, into a new day, whatever happens with the statuettes March 2.

Michael Phillips is the Tribune's film critic.

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