The year: 2505. Your viewing choices tonight: an oldie but a goodie — a picture called Ass, a feature-length screensaver of butt cheeks punctuated by the occasional fart — or the hit TV show Ow! My Balls, a connoisseur's compilation of nutsack whacks. Thanks to Mike Judge's Idiocracy, we have seen the future of entertainment 500 years from now, when the world is run by genetically shortchanged knuckle-draggers. And it's ... it's ... well, it may look uncannily like next year's network-TV slate and major-studio lineup if the WGA strike continues.
This time next year, we may be sitting in front of the tube glued to What's in Katie Couric's Colon? on CBS or watching Celebrity Poker Showdown: The Movie on 2,512 screens. So start stockpiling some of the many films in 2007 that were distinguished by strong, distinctive writing.
The movie of the moment, Joel and Ethan Coen's No Country for Old Men, is a model of careful adaptation: It honors the twangy talk as well as the taut silences of Cormac McCarthy's novel, finding the tough, cold heart of a book that sometimes reads like a classroom assignment in Hard-Boiled Lit. Screenwriting isn't just filling space with words. One of the movie's strengths is its ability to convey the inner workings of taciturn people in mere scraps of dialogue.
By contrast, the garrulous characters in Juno practically gesture offscreen to first-time screenwriter Diablo Cody every time they open their mouths. The movie's early scenes contain an emptied notebook's worth of hoarded quirks, slang, and catchphrases, as if a touring company of Heathers had moved into the 7-Eleven. More impressive is the way Cody flips the script on the adoptive yuppie couple played by Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman, reversing our sympathies for the chilly Garner and catching the juvenile self-absorption behind Bateman's Joe Cool affability.
Given the collaborative pile-on of filmmaking, though, getting a script to the screen with your authorial voice intact is a coup. In that regard, add Cody to a list that includes Aaron Sorkin — whose unmistakable rat-a-tat conversational rhythms convert the weapons stats and anti-Communist chicanery of Charlie Wilson's War into a globe-tilting His Girl Friday — and Noah Baumbach, who honed his gift for verbal vivisection to a cutting edge in Margot at the Wedding. This was the year that Knocked Up's DVD-extra looseness and clubby guy's-guy riffing made Judd Apatow the hottest brand name going in screen humor, elbowing aside effects-driven comedy for the spitballing tone of a writing session.
Only one screenwriter, however, gave a mostly female cast the kind of talky latitude that Apatow, the Coens, and Paul Thomas Anderson in There Will Be Blood allowed their male protagonists — and that feminist's name was Quentin Tarantino. His Death Proof segment of Grindhouse may be the most surprising script of the year, from its bifurcated structure to its deliberate subversion of psycho killer Stuntman Mike's machismo. If the strike has an upside, it's that the battle may give Tarantino, Cody, the Coens, and others lots of time to polish new scripts. The bad news is that we may find ourselves, like the viewers of Ass in Idiocracy, longing for the days of "great films, with plots! Where you cared about whose ass it was, and why it was farting!"