Oscar hopefuls make ’em laugh

Unexpected laughs leaven screenplay nominees

Although comedies like “The Hangover” got stiffed by the Academy, humor is liberally represented in 2009’s nominated screenplays — albeit in subtle ways, befitting an unusually introspective and intense pic roster.

There was no place in this year’s writing honorees for gross-out slapstick or even traditional jokes (imagine a post-orgasmic “I’ll have what she’s having” in “The Messenger”). But scribes agree with Nick Hornby (“An Education”) that humor is “a natural part of the process.” Mark Boal of “The Hurt Locker” puts it metaphorically: “Humor is the melody that keeps you listening.”

A huge “Up” belly laugh when talking dog Dug springs to attention with a cry of “Squirrel!” exemplifies what one might call the “humor of recognition.” To co-scripter (with Pete Docter and Tom McCarthy) Bob Peterson, “The audience fills in how they’ve seen their dogs laze around and something suddenly captures their attention.”

Recalling times we’ve strained to find a fast-moving queue, we roar when “Up in the Air” protagonist Ryan Bingham explains how to get through airport security quickly. Amusing memories of sexual experimentation kick in when a handy banana is enlisted as a teaching tool in “An Education,” a scene Hornby calls “ghastly, embarrassing and funny.”

Geoffrey Fletcher adapted Sapphire’s “famously unrelenting and unflinching” novel “Push” into the screenplay “Precious,” yet he believes “there’s room for levity in all things, and it may creep up in life in ways you don’t expect.” For instance, we laugh and nod when the heroine Precious, taking refuge with intellectual same-sex partners, hears the women talking and observes: “They talk like TV channels I don’t watch.”

“TV is her window on the outside world and a part of all our lives,” Fletcher explains. “We can relate to this awkwardness as she tries to understand this strange domestic situation, and makes this beautiful humanist assessment of it.”

A second tactic, the “humor of incongruity,” is useful for the deadly serious films on the list. Says Boal, “Humor allows you to discharge the tension and ramp it up again to a higher level.”

Thus the mood is both lightened and heightened in Oren Moverman and Alessandro Camon’s “The Messenger,” when two Army reps approach a group of playground mothers wondering which of their men is gone, and Woody Harrelson’s character mutters, “Could be worse. Could be Christmas.” To Camon, “Humor doesn’t undercut the moment; it underscores the moment.”

Surprise enhances the intensity when in “The Hurt Locker” an AWOL sergeant (Jeremy Renner), held at gunpoint by a guard, explains he was off the base at a Baghdad whorehouse, and the guard responds, “I’ll let you in if you tell me where it is.”

Camon notes, “People who deal with death on a professional basis always use gallows humor to make it through the day,” and Boal agrees: “Everybody’s afraid. Whenever people start shooting, there’s a natural physiological reaction, and humor helps you deal with it.”

Droll incongruity has its place in unabashed farces, too. “In the Loop’s” collaborators (Armando Iannucci, Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell and Tony Roche) hilariously tie behavior to their antiwar theme when a pugnacious general (James Gandolfini) calculates Iraq troop strength with the only tool at hand, a child’s plastic calculator complete with tinkling chimes.

The riskiest tactic of all is the “hu-mor of incredulity,” emerging from jaw-droppingly off-the-wall behavior. The Coen brothers’ “A Serious Man” is a cavalcade of astonishment: A dead neighbor visits the man he cuckolded; a venerable rabbi quotes Grace Slick lyrics from a confiscated radio.

Incredulity is the principal stock in trade of Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds,” from the conceit of summoning the entire Reich High Command to a crummy cinema for its final reckoning, to Brad Pitt announcing “Arrivederci” in a cornpone accent as he impersonates an Italian diplomat. (Tarantino says, “I can’t help but write a funny line. I can’t help but go for it.”)

Similarly, the aliens’ appetite for cat food and a brisk trade in “prawn” flesh complement the cinema-verite dizziness of “District 9” (which, according to Neill Blomkamp’s DVD commentary, he and Terri Tatchell intended as a satirical comedy all along).

When “Precious” is most fraught, imprecations thrown by mother Mary (Mo’Nique) at her hapless daughter are so beyond the pale that “some gasp, others laugh, but it’s a different kind of laughter,” Fletcher reports. “People tell me they understand it’s a way to get through a painful moment.”

Whichever tactics are selected, of course, have to be appropriate to the film’s fabric and the characters’ world. Peterson puts the simplest cap on the matter: “You’re close to comedy when you tell the truth.”

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