Understanding Screenwriting #125
Still Alice, Wild, Paddington, Downton Abbey, and Two and a Half Men.
By Tom Stempel.
What Did They Forget?
(2014. Screenplay by Richard Glazer and Wash Westmoreland, based on the novel by Lisa Genova. 101 minutes.)
Alice Howland is a linguistics professor at Columbia University who is stricken with early onset Alzheimer’s (she’s only in her fifties). Her doctor and her family deal with her decline. Simple and straightforward, it’s a good opportunity for Julianne Moore to give one of her patented great performances, which she does. But the script misses a lot it could have covered, which I would guess comes from limitations of the novel.
The idea of a linguistics professor losing her memory for words is a great idea, but after it is established as an ironic point, it’s not really dealt with. What we see is Alice dealing with the problem the way any ordinary person would (word memory exercises, writing notes to herself, etc.). What specifically would a linguistics professor do in this situation? If you are giving your main character an occupation, then take advantage of it. Look at what John Michael Hayes does with Jeff’s being a photographer in Rear Window (1954): his pictures of the garden, his telephoto lens, and of course his flashbulbs. How does Alice and her mind deal with this? It also never occurs to anybody in the film that there must be several Alzheimer’s researchers in New York who would sell their grandmothers into white slavery to get their hands on a linguist with Alzheimer’s. Filmmakers could do a lot with researchers and Alice herself playing with her mind.
The writers’ focus is on her family dealing with her condition, but again, they don’t get into this as perceptively as they could. Everybody reacts in dramatic terms to everything, which is a common problem with disease-of-the-week movies. Years ago I was at a party where the woman who owned the house had a disabled son, and what struck me was how undramatic her dealings with her son were. If you are making a film about a dramatic situation, you of course want to play up the drama, but a little realistic counterpoint might not be out of place. Now, with my usual tradition of contradicting myself, another problem with the script is that the writers don’t dig into the dramatic elements as much as they could. John, her husband, is just a pillar, and a rather bland one, of support. He is a physician, and although we get no details about his work, late in the picture he is offered a job at the Mayo Clinic. When Alice refuses to move—she wants to stay with familiar surroundings and friends as long as possible—he agrees not to take the job. We get no sense of what that means to him. Did he really want the job? What it just an idea? Was he thinking about the medial researchers at the Mayo Clinic who offered to sell him their grandmothers…we never know.
Because everybody is so bloody genteel, we also miss the element of dark humor that shows up in dealing with situations like this. When my father told my wife and me my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, our reaction (not to Dad) was, “It took them this long to realize that?” since it had been clear to my wife and myself for some time. When my wife and I were dealing with her breast cancer in 1987, I was in put In Charge of Humor and Hugs, and the humor got rather tasteless but very funny. I suspect the reason the writers do not include something like that is that viewers outside the situation themselves may find the tasteless too much. But one of the prime directives for writers is to try to go beyond what others have done.
The one character the writers give the most interesting scenes to is Alice’s younger daughter Lydia, who is truly conflicted over the situation. This leads to the best scenes in the film, which are edgy rather than genteel. In them you see how far the writers could have taken the material. The film is certainly a vehicle for Julianne Moore, but if the script were better, she could have given an even better performance.
(2014. Screenplay by Nick Hornby, based on the book Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed. 115 minutes.)
You may remember that in my last column I got on Unbroken’s case for the writers assuming that since it was a true story, all you had to do was present the facts. That turns out to be the problem with this film, although it is not as bad at it as Unbroken is. Hornby makes a better effort at bringing out the interior life of the main character. We get a sense of why Cheryl Strayed suddenly took off for a 1,100 mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail: her marriage failed and more importantly, her mother died. We get several flashbacks (so the movie is not all “on the trail”) of Cheryl and her mom, so we feel the strength and texture of their relationship. We get flashbacks of the end of the marriage, and Cheryl’s adventures with drugs and sex. So Hornby makes it clear why she is going.
The problem with the script is that once Cheryl is on the road, we don’t get as strong a sense as we could of what this experience means to her. Hornby is not the only screenwriter ever to try to deal with this and he is certainly not the only writer not to manage it. One of the most difficult elements of screenwriting is getting across to the audience what something means. We can show what people do and say, but getting across the meaning of those acts and words is tricky. It can be done. In the 1938 movie Jezebel we all remember the stunning moment when Bette Davis’s character shows up at a ball in a red dress (even though the movie is black and white). The reason the moment is so stunning is that the four writers have spent 15 minutes or so before the scene making clear what her wearing a red dress will mean. What we get in Wild are shots of Cheryl looking at the scenery in various ways, but Hornby has not found a way to show or tell us what’s in her head. The director, Jean-Marc Vallée, also directed The Dallas Buyer’s Club (2013), and he piles on the close-ups here of Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl the same way he did with the close-ups of Matthew McConaughey in the earlier film. Because Hornby has not provided us with the emotional details, the close-ups don’t work.
Vallée also fails to use the scenery well, and since the scenery is the second major character in the film, that’s a disaster. He has no real sense of the emotional meaning of the landscape, or any sense of its power. I know some of the areas around where the story takes place, and they are much more impressive in real life than in this film. Vallée and his cinematographer should have looked at several years’ worth of Sierra Club Calendars to get a handle on it. Or they could have looked at Budd Boetticher’s Ranown films and their use of the Alabama Hills. For a further discussion of the meaning of landscape in the Boetticher films, and films in general, see my item on Seven Men From Now in US#99.
A Minor Film with Major Virtues
(2014. Written by Paul King, screen story by Hamish McColl and Paul King, based on the character by Michael Bond. 95 minutes.)
Paddington Bear has been around since 1958, when the first book by Michael Bond was published. There have been piles of books since then, selling over 35 million copies around the world, a television series in the seventies, and now finally a film. Making a movie about a bear who talks, using CGI to place him among real actors and locations; you can imagine how much of that can go wrong.
It doesn’t. It’s not the major cinematic event of the decade, but it is beautifully done and well proportioned. Paul King, who directed as well as developed the story and wrote the script, keeps a tight rein on the story. There is not a wasted moment in the script, and he delivers on a lot of lively slapstick action, including my favorite, Paddington in a bathtub riding down the stairways of the Brown house in flood. You may prefer the imitation Mission: Impossible Millicent does. She is after Paddington for her own sentimental and evil reasons. Yes, both sentimental and evil. King’s script is a very smart one and always keeps you involved.
He also has a great cast. Colin Firth was doing the voice of Paddington last year, but he and everybody else decided his voice was not just right for it. So they ended up with Ben Wishaw, whose voice and readings are perfect. Mr. Brown, the equivalent of Mr. Banks in Mary Poppins, is played by Lord Grantham his ownself, Hugh Bonneville, and the film provides a wonderful meta-moment of seeing Lord Grantham in drag as a cleaning lady. Mrs. Banks is played by Sally Hawkins, late as Cate Blanchett’s sister in Blue Jasmine, so she brings a little something delightfully off-kilter to the part.
King has started off with a great script and everything else seemed to fall into place. Not so fast. As we have seen on many occasions, good scripts can get made into bad movies. As I have said before, the production of the film needs somebody to keep everybody on the same page. I am sure King did that, but you should know that the producer of this was David Heyman. Doesn’t ring a bell? He produced all of the Harry Potter movies. Another prime directive is to find yourself a good producer.
Back at the Abbey
(2014. Season five written by Julian Fellowes. Approximately 600 minutes.)
This season took a long time to get up a head of steam, especially in comparison with earlier seasons. The plotting in the first half of the season was rather mechanical, and Fellowes did not get many great scenes out of it. Lady Edith spent a lot of time worrying about Marigold, her illegitimate daughter now living with the Drewes and hoping that Marigold’s father is still alive. He’s not and she eventually takes the baby, but it’s a long slog. Lady Mary actually has sex with Tony Gillingham, but it is not satisfactory. The triangle between her, Tony, and another man is totally uninteresting, mainly because it is difficult for us to tell the two men apart. Neither are a challenge for Mary, and the actors look too much alike. The cops are still after one or the other of the Bateses for the murder of Green, but the police work is sloppy, and the legal representation of Bates and Anna is a disgrace. Horace Rumpole would have gotten them both off a couple of seasons ago. Bates’s return in the season finale after running away is only mildly heartstopping, unlike Matt’s return from the War in Episode 3 of Season 2. Fellowes had brilliantly structured that scene, as opposed to Bates just showing up here.
This season didn’t really begin to pick up until the end of the end of Episode 5. Rose has been doing charity work among exiled Russians. Violet, the Dowager Countess, accompanies her on one of her trips. One person they meet is Prince Kuragin, whom Violet met on a trip to Russia in 1872. It is clear that there was more to it than that, and the story plays out during the rest of the season. Violet arranges for Shrimpy, her son in the Foreign Service, to try to find Kuragin’s wife, which he does. The princess is returned to the prince, even though it is clear the prince would rather hang out with Violet. Fellowes does not handle the meeting of Violet and the princess as well as he could, and we get the full story only later as Violet tells the details to Isobel, Matt’s mother. It comes as something of an anti-climax after the good earlier scenes between the prince and Violet. Violet and Isobel have become friends. When Lord Merton proposes to Isobel and Violet seems not to be in favor of the marriage, we assume it is just the Dowager Countess meddling. Fellowes gives us a nice scene where Violet explains to Isobel that Isobel is one of the few friends she has these days and she would be lonely without her.
Mary spends most of the season without a man in her life, but things look up in the final episode. The family has gone off to a hunting party at a castle rented by Rose’s new father-in-law (whom Mary arranges to have put in his place by siccing Barrows on him, knowing that Barrows can be counted to do some nasty stuff—a nice touch that she recognizes that). A friend of one of the uninvited guests is Henry Talbot. We are not given a distinctive introductory scene for him; we just see him hanging around the hunt. Since he is played by Matthew Goode, one of the few hunky British actors of his generation, aside from Benedict Cumberbatch, who has not previously appeared in Downton Abbey, we suspect he is going to have an important role. As soon as Henry and Mary start talking, we realize he is perfect for her. He is gorgeous, charismatic (Goode recently was Finn Polmar on The Good Wife) and he takes no shit from Mary, what I think would be a major requirement for dealing with her. On the other hand, he loves fast cars. Given how she lost Matt, I was surprised how excited she was to see Henry’s car. We will see how that works out in Season 6.
Oh yes, I do know that Dame Maggie has talked about leaving the show after Season 6. She may feel that Fellowes cannot top the Violet-Kuragin story of this season, but limitations of this season aside, I have every faith that Fellowes can find something interesting for Violet to do or say.
Goodbye Alan, Walden, Jake, Berta, Lyndsey, Evelyn, and sort of Charlie
Two and a Half Men (2015. “Of Course He’s Dead,” episode teleplay by Chuck Lorre & Lee Ahronson & Don Reo & Jim Patterson. One hour.)
This is the fifteenth time I have written about the show. The first thirteen were back at The House Next Door (http://www.slantmagazine.com/house: you can look for the columns in the search box as: “Understanding Screenwriting” “Two and a Half Men”). I was a huge fan of this show in its earlier years. It was often tasteless, but even more often funny, one of the more inventive rehashes of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple. The two times I saw a filming of the show, I was particularly impressed with Charlie Sheen’s comic chops. Sheen and showrunner Chuck Lorre disagreed about a lot of things and Sheen left the show in 2011, and I have only written about it a couple of times since then. I dealt with the transition the show did in US #82. We find out that playboy/songwriter Charlie Harper is dead, probably pushed in front of a train Paris by his stalker Rose. That’s why there’s a closed casket at the service in California. One of the many women upset by Charlie notes that spitting on a coffin is not as satisfying as spitting in someone’s face. The funereal service was one of the great scenes in the series, where Charlie’s brother Alan tries to say nice things about Charlie, but his ex-girl friends keep interrupting with nothing good to say about him. In that episode (“Nice to Meet You, Walden Schmidt, Part One” written by Chuck Lorre, Lee Aronson, Eddie Gorodetsky, Jim Patterson) we are then introduced to the guy who will now own the house, depressed millionaire Walden Schmidt. For reasons that only partially made sense, Walden allows Alan and his son Jake to stay in the house. The problem I had, which I mentioned in US #82, was not only was this illogical, but Walden was not as interesting a character as Charlie, and Ashton Kutcher had nowhere near the comic chops that Sheen had. I continued to watch the show, but it was a shadow of its former self.
This final episode starts with a bonehead move. Alan and Walden come to think that Charlie may still be alive and they start contacting his ex girlfriends. This is a direct callback to the funeral scene, but without that scene’s dynamics. Instead of the actors playing off each other in a single scene, it is just one short bit after another. In the meanwhile we see Rose is keeping “something” in a well in the basement of her house, and since whatever it was climbs up a rope made of bowling shirts, Charlie’s favorite attire, we pretty much know it’s Charlie. Why he has never escaped in past four years is only the first of many unexplained elements in the episode. Charlie, whom we don’t see, manages to get his hands on his song royalties and starts spreading money around to various people, but threatening to do harm to them. Eventually Rose shows up and explains to Alan and Walden what happened on their “honeymoon” in Paris and that Charlie is alive and loose. The problem is that we have not yet seen Charlie. The honeymoon flashback is done in simple animation, but the episode is promising us we will get Charlie, and in the form of Charlie Sheen. The lead-up to the broadcasting of the episode implied that Lorre and Sheen had made enough peace to work out an appearance.
But he does not appear. We get a lot of mildly (very mildly) amusing meta-jokes and Jon Cryer (Alan) and Kutcher (who has improved his comic skills over the last four years) making faces at the camera. We get a scene where Alan and Walden go to the police and explain the whole story of the entire series, which the detective rightly thinks is ridiculous. The scene as written might have worked, but they got Arnold Schwarzenegger to play the cop, and he simply does not have the comic precision to make it work. After way too much filler material (one truism of television writing is that half-hour sitcom writers have trouble writing a full hour, and vice versa; the rhythms are completely different), we see what appears to be the back of Charlie Sheen. He comes to the house’s front door. We don’t see his face, but…a piano drops on him. Then we see Lorre sitting in a director’s chair in front of the set. He says Sheen’s catchphrase, “Winning,” and…a piano falls on him. According to Lorre’s “vanity card” (a set of titles in the end credits with a message from Lorre), they tried to work out a deal with Sheen, but he wouldn’t do the scene Lorre wanted to do (more or less what we see on the screen) and Lorre wouldn’t do the scene Sheen wanted. So, the finale, as often happens in television series, just dribbles out.
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