Where laffers have the edge

Despite Oscar's 'serious' image, scribes tickle the Academy's funny bone

Whoever said Oscar prefers drama to comedy? It’s certainly not the case with the Academy’s scribe branch, which has recognized cutting-edge comic efforts from “Election” to “Adaptation” with nominations, if not the award itself.

Recent history shows the original screenplay winners often are those who scripted the year’s most provocative, talked-about comedies. The end of the last century, in fact, might be called Oscar’s Edgy Hit Parade, including such films as “Pulp Fiction,” “Fargo” and “American Beauty.”

The trend continued into this century with “Lost in Translation,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and even a foreign-language script, Pedro Almodovar’s “Talk to Her.”

That tradition is upheld this season with any given number of high-profile niche comedies. There’s Michael Arndt’s debut script for “Little Miss Sunshine,” the politically incorrect fest that is Jason Reitman’s adaptation of Christopher Buckley’s “Thank You for Smoking,” Aline Brosh McKenna’s streamlined adaptation of Lauren Weisberger’s catty “The Devil Wears Prada,” Zach Helm’s reality-bending “Stranger Than Fiction” and Alan Bennett’s redux of his play “The History Boys.”

The hallmark of today’s scripts is that it’s nearly impossible to tell where the comedy ends and the drama begins, or vice versa. “I’ve never felt a serious film is a film without jokes,” says Bennett. “Comedy is as serious as tragedy, in my view, and I’ve always mixed in the two.”

Unlike some nervous filmgoers, the veteran scribe is not at all bothered by his hero, a prof who fondles students’ genitalia. “No, I never had a teacher like Hector; I wish I had,” says Bennett. “My teachers were conscientious but also quite dull.”

With his extensive resume, Bennett has a few years on at least two of this year’s most buzzed-about screenwriters.

An NYU film school grad, Arndt recently toiled as a freelance script reader. “A lot of scripts weren’t bad, but they weren’t finished,” Arndt recalls. “I remember reading ‘Election.’ When I finished reading that, I felt, ‘That’s a movie!’ It was ready to shoot.”

He took that lesson quite seriously: “I tried writing other stuff with all the characters getting killed at the end, so with ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ I decided I wanted to write something that ended unbelievably wonderful.”

Arndt started at the very end. “This little fat girl gets up there and you think it’s a disaster and she rocks the house away,” he says. “Then, to write the rest, you reverse-engineer the story and think, who is this little girl and who is her family?”

For this novice screenwriter, “Edgy means not bubble-wrapped in the usual Hollywood sanctimonies. Edgy is what people want to say when they say ‘realistic’ but they don’t. ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ is for its comic genre still a realistic look at a typical middle-class family and the stresses they’re under.”

Do comedies have the edge with the Acad voters? Reitman believes they do, at least in the scribe categories. “Political satires fare better than the average comedy,” he says, pointing to both “Bulworth” and “Wag the Dog.” “And the most important political comedy of our time, ‘Election,’ certainly was recognized for its screenplay above all things.”

Reitman knew he had to write and direct “Thank You for Smoking” as soon as he finished reading the book; he was then 17 and still in high school.

“This book spoke to the kind of film I would be as a film director,” he states without equivocation. “I had never read a book that was so gleefully non-PC and never apologized for itself. At the same time, it had a reasonable take on the libertarian point of view. It didn’t go overboard. It said that people should take responsibility for their own actions.”

“Thank You for Smoking” certainly scared a lot of people before it found its way to the bigscreen, nearly a decade after it was published. “What sets it apart is it’s actually honest — and I’m talking about a movie that is spin,” Reitman says. ” ‘PC’ is just a way of saying lying: You’re lying to be polite, to be nice. The (Aaron Eckhart) character is constantly talking about the realities of smoking and says, ‘We’ve got to stop blaming cigarettes and take responsibility for our actions.'”

As for the movies’ notorious MOD Squad, those “Merchants of Death” guns-and-booze lobbyists who meet up with Eckhart’s tobacco spinner, Reitman is proud to point out, “Those are the most frank conversations you’ll see onscreen. And that’s what makes it exciting and what makes it funny.”

And edgy.

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