Good Reads: “Midnight In Paris” & “The Descendants”

Hey y’all, welcome to Good Reads where we look into what makes the screenplay winners Oscar worthy. 2014, 2013 and 2012 are already covered, now it’s time to look back on two winners that added their statues to a mini collection – Woody Allen’s fourth and Alexander Payne’s second. Next week, The King’s Speech and The Social Network are up.

“Midnight In Paris”

written by Woody Allen

We know Woody Allen has no shortage of ideas. ‘Scripts are easy’ says Owen Wilson’s Gil, ‘novels are hard.’ Yeah, easy for some. Allen is still cranking scripts out on a yearly basis. Although he never shows up (hence my lack of image of the man himself here), he seems to always be an option on the Oscar ballot. 25 years and nine writing nominations after his third award for Hannah And Her Sisters, the Academy gave him another nod of recognition. From the options, it’s an ideal choice, Midnight in Paris has all the Allen tropes in a fantastical breezy package.

Once again, we feel that awful pained feeling that must forever be in the pit of Allen’s stomach of his longing to live in the 1920s. He takes his frequent theme of nostalgia head on here with a protagonist that he would have almost definitely played himself had it been produced a couple decades earlier. But what’s most thoughtful about it is the recursive idea that people always felt nostalgic for an earlier time. We’ll just never be satisfied – but there’s freedom there, why not be satisfied with the present?

The film is also distinctly about creative writing, and Allen choses no better authority on writers than Ernest Hemingway. It takes a bold writer to take historical figures like what Allen does here, and Hemingway’s portrayal is certainly the highlight especially his first scene near the end of the conversation where he offers tough love advice for Gil. Let’s check out Allen’s insights and how he makes it dynamic dialogue (from page 26):

Note Allen’s lack of description. The only instances of writing action are for entrances and exits. He lets the dialogue do the talking, leaving a lot open to the actors as far as movement goes.

“The Descendants”

written by Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon & Jim Rash

It’s an Alexander Payne film. You know the type of post-Election dramedy you’re in for. You would think that Jim Rash could inject some eccentricity into it but The Descendants is grounded, if somewhat slight, and ultimately deeply human. It makes it clear from the outset – it’s about subverting image. A Hawaiian paradise has its trouble and their people have their tragedies.

While it may fall for some cheap tricks, especially with the ill-advised stoner character and youngest daughter who aren’t the best choice of comic relief to balance out the pack, the other characters are richly realized. Even a brief scene of ordinary conflict wherein Matt King confronts the driver of the jet ski carries a gut-wrenching and unexpected weight. The wife never speaks but her contradictions are explored to paint a picture of her part in their lives. It’s patient, well-measured and detailed writing, while also sticking close to screenwriting conventions. It’s a film about forgiveness, so restraint is key to the tone.

It’s tough to pick a highlight scene. It’s a script that works best in the little moments and quips as well as the overall bigger picture. Any individual scene works best because of the acting. One of it most memorable moments is where Matt tells his daughter Alex about how they pulled her mom’s plug, which leads to her telling him about the affair. Let’s watch how the characters deal with two bombshells while demonstrating Matt as a struggling father figure (from page 32):

It’s a shame that Faxon and Rash’s The Way, Way Back doesn’t have the same polish. Can we just get Sam Rockwell edited into The Descendants somehow?

2011 has a big slate of great unconventional scripts: The Artist, Moneyball, Shame, Take Shelter, Drive, Submarine, Beginners, A Separation. My favourite is actually the Best Picture winner The Artist, as much as I like Midnight in Paris I was disappointed when it lost. It’s where all the charm and ingenuity lies. Reading it however (and it’s a brisk 40 pages) I did find that the ostensible French-English translation does not do it any favours. This plus Allen love probably contributed to its loss.

Your thoughts on the screenplays of Midnight In Paris and The Descendants?

What were your favourite scripts, scenes, or characters of 2011? Post in the comments below!