Understanding Screenwriting #69: Barney’s Version, The Dilemma, Modern Family, & More

Great actors in great scenes do not necessarily a great movie make.

Understanding Screenwriting #69: Barney’s Version, The Dilemma, Modern Family, & More
Photo: Entertainment One

Coming Up In This Column: Barney’s Version, The Dilemma, Watching the Detectives, Friendly Persuasion, Harry’s Law, The Good Wife, Modern Family, Hot in Cleveland, Retired at 35, but first…

Fan Mail: David Ehrenstein did not believe me when I wrote that Lee Garmes’s cinematography on Shanghai Express (1932) was better than Bert Glennon’s on Blonde Venus the same year. All I can say is look at the two films. The ideas for the cinematography may be von Sternberg’s, but the execution is the cinematographer’s, and you can see the difference. As for David saying that von Sternberg thought of the script, the words, the characters, and the plot as only partial elements (David’s italics), that explains why I have trouble with a lot of von Sternberg’s work. I like directors who show a little more respect for at least the idea of the script.

Barney’s Version (2010. Screenplay by Michael Konyves, based on the novel by Mordecai Richler. 132 minutes.)

Great actors in great scenes do not necessarily a great movie make: I haven’t read Richler’s novel, but after seeing this movie I did what I did after It’s Kind of a Funny Story (see US#63) and went into the Barnes & Noble next to the multiplex and skimmed the book. Even just skimming I can see its appeal, as well as its structure. Richler writes it in the first person, so the novel really is Barney Panofsky’s version of his life. His entire life. You can see the problems Konyves faced. Richler sets it up that a friend of Barney’s has written a novel based on Barney’s life and Barney wants to set the record straight. That gives Richler a reason to let Barney wander all over his life, since in a novel you can have all kinds of digressions. Many years ago a friend of mine who had been writing screenplays decided to attempt a novel. I had written a couple of books by then, and after she had been writing a while, she said to me, “How come you didn’t tell me writing a book was so much easier than a screenplay?” You have no length limitations, you can get inside people’s heads, and it does not have to be dramatic. Richler takes advantage of all of those.

Konyves tries to give the script a little more structure. In the film, the book Barney is upset about is a supposed true-crime book by the detective who investigated the presumed murder of Boogie. Boogie was Barney’s best friend, whom Barney caught in bed with his second wife. Boogie disappeared immediately thereafter, and the detective has been on the case ever since. Fine, that could provide a structure, but there is a lot more in the novel that Konyves wants to get in. So we get some sequences at the beginning of Barney and his first wife in Rome, then the second wife (complete with cliched Jewish wedding), and finally Barney’s romance and marriage with Miriam, his third wife. You can see in the film why Konyves did not want to give up on some of that material, since it gives him some great scenes. After the first wife dies, Barney is visited by her father, and we get a sad, funny confrontation between the father, played by Saul Rubinek, and Barney, played by Paul Giamatti. Shortly thereafter we get Barney and his dad Izzy meeting the second wife’s family. It is a terrific scene that shows us the difference between the well-off Jews on her side, and Barney’s working class, former street cop dad. Izzy is played by Dustin Hoffman, whom you may not think was born to play Giamatti’s father, but they are a perfect match in their scenes.

At the wedding to the second wife, who as written and played is the stereotype of a Jewish wife (I felt sorry for Minnie Driver in the part), Barney meets Miriam, the true love of his life. Konyves has given her several great scenes, and Rosamund Pike gives one of her richest performances. After Barney catches Boogie and the second wife in bed, there is a great Boogie-Barney scene that is not just the yelling and screaming you might expect, because we already know from Barney’s expression that he sees this as an opportunity. Boogie is played by Scott Speedman, late of Felicity, and this is one of his best performances. We are not sure exactly what happens at the end of the scene; we just know that Boogie has gone missing. But then we get a lot more scenes of Barney’s marriage to Miriam and its breakup, which seems rather rushed in the film. We do finally figure out what happened to Boogie. It is a much more inventive ending than Richler has, even if it does borrow from a CSI episode, not surprising in that the director Richard J. Lewis has been a writer, producer and director on that show.

In addition to the great scenes that don’t pull the film together, the other problem is Barney’s character. Miriam describes him at one point as “incorrigible,” and we are supposed to love him for that, but he strikes me on film as being merely very ill-mannered. I suspect in the novel, Barney’s descriptions and explanations of his behavior soften the blow, but here is a difference between a novel and a film. Even though the film is called Barney’s Version, we are still looking at him somewhat more objectively than we get him in the book. The behavior he can explain away in the book is a little too in-our-face in the film. Giamatti is wonderful, but the character gets a little tiring.

The Dilemma (2011. Written by Alan Loeb. 110 minutes.)

The Dilemma

Tone: This came from what’s known as a “producer’s idea.” Ordinarily writers should be very cautious about “producer’s ideas.” The late Marvin Borowsky, who taught screenwriting at UCLA to such Oscar winners as Francis Ford Coppola and Nancy Dowd, used to warn his students about “producer’s ideas.” That usually means an idea of ripping off another film, or a current trend, or just an idea that would hardly last a scene, let alone a film. At least in this case, the idea was not a bad one. Brian Grazer and his partner Ron Howard had been talking about an incident in which one of them had seen who he thought was the wife of a friend with another man. Then he realized it was not the wife, but the two began talking about what might happen if it was. What do you do in this situation? They called in Loeb and pitched the idea to him. According to a piece in the January/February 2011 issue of Creative Screenwriting, Loeb says his reaction was that there was no drama: of course you would have to tell the friend. But then Loeb began to talk to other people and got all kinds of different responses, many of which end up in the script.

Ronny Valentine and Nick Brannen are best friends and automotive engineers. Ronny has a longtime girl friend Beth, and Nick is married to Geneva. One day in a botanical garden Ronny sees Geneva with Zip, a guy who is definitely not her husband. So the question comes up. Loeb spins out several variations on it, along with the big project Ronny and Nick are presenting to a major car company: an electric car that sounds and vibrates like the great old cars of the ’60s. That suggests the problem of the film as a whole. How are we to take their idea? Is it intended to be a serious proposal? In today’s world, it might be. Or is it intended as satire of men and their noisy toys? Loeb has not nailed down what the tone of this plot line is.

In the same way, he has not been consistent with the tone of the film. There are certain elements we are supposed to laugh at. Ronny falls into some poison plants in the garden, but the rash seems to go away quickly. Susan Warner, an executive at the major car company, sometimes talks like a guy, but Loeb has not delivered dialogue that would make that character work, and Queen Latifah is stranded onscreen in the part. For every sort of slapstick moment, there is a serious one. Near the end, Ronny’s family and friends stage an intervention because they think he is gambling. The intervention is written as half comedy (the leader is sort of a doofus) and half drama. As somebody commenting on the IMDb noted, there just are not that many funny lines. You can just imagine what Preston Sturges or Billy Wilder would have done with the situation. Or more recently Juno (2007) or last year’s The Kids Are All Right.

Ron Howard’s direction does not help, since he has not done a good comedy since, well, when? Maybe Parenthood in 1989, which does achieve the mixture of comedy and drama in the way this film would like to do. But Loeb’s script doesn’t manage it. Howard’s direction of the actors in the dramatic scenes is very good. Kevin James gives his best performance as Nick, and the reconciliation between Ronny and Beth is a nice scene, but it’s too late.

Watching the Detectives (2007. Written by Paul Soter. 94 minutes.)

Watching the Detectives

Writing badly for performance: As you know, one of my mantras is that if you are writing a screenplay, you are writing for performance: of the actors, the director, art director, et al. This film, which played at film festivals but never got a theatrical release, is an example of the writer trying to do that and going wrong.

The story is serviceable if familiar. Neil, almost a nerd, runs Gumshoe Video. We know he is devoted to film because in 2007 he only rents VHS tapes of classic movies and has no DVDs. Into his bland life comes Violet, all cutesy and fun and working to bring Neil out of what she thinks is his shell. After she hustles him into taking her to dinner, she gets him to go into the nearby Media Giant (read Blockbuster). They spend the night putting the DVDs in the wrong boxes. Later she sends two of her friends pretending to be cops to question Neil about the Media Giant caper. Just when Neil thinks they are about to sodomize him, Violet pops in and reveals it’s a joke. More hijinks ensue, and she eventually talks him into what he assumes is a fake holdup of a gambling club. Only it’s not fake, and after more hijinks they get out of town because, well, it’s true love.

OK, we allow for a little suspension of disbelief in movies like this. In real life Neil would probably run in the other direction after the first date or so, but we are used to quirky girls who loosen guys up. Bringing Up Baby (1938) or The Lady Eve (1941), anyone? The problem here is that Soter has written Violet as all ditz all the time. We don’t see the intelligence that we saw in the heroines of Baby and Eve. Violet here is played by the usually wonderful Lucy Liu (why do you think I bothered to watch this when it came up on cable?), who certainly proved in Ally McBeal she could do smart and funny. Soter, who also directed, keeps pushing Liu to the extremes of quirkiness, which just gets annoying. Soter has not written the part well, nor did he rethink it when he cast Liu, nor did he get a good performance out of her.

Friendly Persuasion (1956. Screenplay by Michael Wilson, with uncredited contributions by Jessamyn West and Robert Wilder, based on the book by Jessamyn West. 137 minutes.)

Friendly Persuasion

Thee I do not love as much as I did in 1956: This film was a big hit in 1956 and hugely popular as well (the two are not the same thing at all) in spite of its being released with no credited screenwriter. The only writing credit on the original prints was “From the book by Jessamyn West.”

Frank Capra was the first director to take a shot at the material, a collection of stories about life among the Quakers in Southern Indiana in the early years of the Civil War. When he got back from World War II, this was one of the projects he began. He hired Michael Wilson to write the screenplay, but in the political climate of 1947, a film about a group of pacifists did not seem very commercial. When Capra went under contract to Paramount in the late ’40s he brought the project with him, but the studio passed on it. Capra eventually sold it to William Wyler, who made it for Allied Artists in 1956. Capra’s biographer, Joseph McBride (Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success), suggests from his reading of the original manuscript of Capra’s memoir The Name Above the Title that Capra may have given up Friendly Persuasion because Michael Wilson had refused to answer questions for HUAC. One of McBride’s views of Capra is that in the HUAC period Capra was giving up on his left-wing friends and co-workers.

Wyler brought in the author of the stories, Jessamyn West, and she worked with Wyler’s brother Robert on revising the script. (The material on the project after the Wylers took it over is from Axel Madsen’s authorized biography William Wyler.) Wilson had come back from the war a determined pacifist and focused on one of the stories in the book, “The Battle of Finney’s Ford,” in which Josh, the son of the family, goes into combat but discovers he cannot kill. In the story, there is no battle, but Wilson felt it was more dramatic if the son was tested in battle and still maintains his convictions. Robert Wyler and West opened the script up a bit more, and it became more episodic. There are nice rustic scenes of the family and their farm and their pet goose, Samantha. On film these scenes today seem excessively cute, with humorous business in the Quakers using “thee” and “thy” instead of “you” and “your.” William Wyler was, unlike Capra, not a director who did cute very well, and the scenes trivialize the Quaker beliefs.

Jess, the father of the family, is played by Gary Cooper, and there was much discussion about whether he should take up his rifle and fight. Cooper assumed that his audience would want him to fight. On the other hand, John Huston, who read the script, thought that Jess should not even pick up his gun. The solution in the film is mixed. Josh, the son, goes to battle. He does kill Confederate soldiers, but he obviously feels conflicted about it. Jess does take up his rifle to go and find Josh, but runs into a Confederate soldier who wounds him. Jess gets the drop on him, but refuses to kill him, letting him go. Meanwhile, back at the farm, Confederate raiders have arrived. Eliza, Jess’s wife, tries to be pleasant to them, but when one of them tries to kill Samantha the goose, Eliza takes after him with a broom. Since she has been the most steadfast in her Quaker beliefs (only reluctantly letting Jess have an organ in the house, and then only in the attic), she should be just as emotionally upset at herself as Josh is, but the moment is played for laughs. The scenes in the second half of the film are more dramatic, and Wyler is more at home with them than he is in the first half. But the script never seriously tests the characters’ beliefs. There is no indication in the broom sequence that the family is in any real danger. Josh seems to recover from his battlefield experience very quickly, and Eliza’s “fall” is a comedy scene with no lasting effect on her.

When the film was completed, the credits submitted to the Writers Guild for arbitration listed Wilson, Robert Wyler and West. The arbitration panel awarded sole credit to Wilson. William Wyler said later, “I think it was a kind of backlash against the whole McCarthy trauma, with the Guild leaning over backwards so it couldn’t be accused of refusing Wilson anything on political grounds.” Keep in mind that directors are always upset when the writers they worked closest with are denied credit in the arbitration process. After the arbitration, Allied Artists refused to have Wilson’s solo credit on the film, since it felt it would have been too risky. The studio might have agreed to the three-way credit, but the Guild refused. Credits on the current prints of the film list only Michael Wilson.

Harry’s Law (2011. “Pilot,” written by David E. Kelley. 60 minutes.)

Harry’s Law

David’s back and Kathy’s got him: David Kelley’s last few series have not done that well, but now he is back with one with some potential. It’s a law show, of course, since it’s Kelley, but the difference here is the main character. Harry is a patent attorney who has grown to hate patent law. After getting fired from the firm, a guy trying to kill himself drops on Harry, and on the way home from the hospital Harry is hit by a car driven by another lawyer. So Harry sets up a criminal law firm in a building that used to be shoe store. The shoes are still there, and Harry’s assistant Jenna sells the shoes between clients. Sounds like a David E. Kelly show, right? What makes it different is that the part of Harry, originally written for a man, has been taken on by Kathy Bates.

Bates brings not only her physical heft, but her emotional and intellectual heft, to the part. When she is opening the office in a not-so-nice part of town, Damien comes in and offers her “protection.” She pulls out her gun, takes a picture of him on her cellphone, tells him she knows lots of attorneys and cops, some of whom are not above going beyond the law, and says that if anything happens to her, bad things will happen to Damien and his family. Then she tells him that when, not if, he needs a lawyer, she will represent him for free in return for protection. She does not show him her Stephen King autographed sledgehammer from Misery (1990), but we can assume it is behind one of the shoe display cases.

This being a Kelley show, we have the beginnings of some interesting supporting characters, especially the local citizens. Jenna is not that well defined at the moment, but Adam Branch is. He is the lawyer whose car hit Harry, and to pay her back, he takes a leave from his rich law firm to work in her office. By the end of the pilot, he has decided to stay. Yes, his tirade in court bears more than a passing resemblance to Kelley-written tirades of the past, but I guess that is just to make us feel at home. The one annoying character is a deputy district attorney played by Paul McCrane, the obnoxious Dr. Romano on ER He repeats everything he says, which gets old quickly. I am not sure if he is going to be a regular or not. Let’s hope not.

The Good Wife (2011. “Two Courts,” written by Ted Humphrey. 60 minutes.)

The Good Wife

Jury duty: You may remember that I like the way this show, unlike most law shows, actually deals with juries. Here is another episode that does. Alicia and Will are representing a young man accused of killing his father before dad could change his will. Since the client has a pile of money, the firm hires a jury consultant to study the jury and make recommendations to the lawyers. For this he gets $60,000 a week. Well, he says he has an 80% success record. OK, now which of our characters do you pair him off with? If you said Kalinda, come to the head of the class and get your Guild card. Why Kalinda? Because she is even more observant of people than the consultant is. We can tell from her reactions that she knows he is full of shit. Since Blake, the other investigator Bond brought with him to the firm, now tells Kalinda he is her boss, she is not in a good frame of mind. When Will wants to make sure she is behind him in his move to keep the firm, she hits him up for a big raise. When he objects, she points out how much they are paying the consultant. When she delivers some interesting information about Bond and Blake to Will, she gets the raise as well as not having to report to Blake.

The consultant suggests ways to work the case, including bringing out the prejudice the judge seems to have against Will and his firm. It’s Kalinda, though, that suggests the lawyers imply the apartment manager may have killed the father. The consultant suggests focusing on a psychiatrist who seems to be the leader of the jury. When the case is over, the jury comes back in 20 minutes, and the consultant assures Alicia and Will it means a not guilty verdict. Guess again. It’s guilty. After the trial, Alicia talks to the shrink in the hallway, which lawyers are allowed to do. He realized, as jurors do, all the tricks both sides were playing and said they didn’t make any difference. Alicia asks him why the guilty verdict. He replies, “He did it.” Lawyers everywhere ought to watch this episode to learn a great truth about trials: in spite of what lawyers (and screenwriters who write about them) think, it is the case rather than the lawyers that most affect the outcome of a trial.

Modern Family (2011. “Caught in the Act,” written by Steven Levitan & Jeff Richman. 30 minutes.)

Modern Family

Developing the idea: One storyline’s setup is simple. Phil and Claire’s three kids prepare them breakfast in bed and come into the bedroom just as, well, you saw the title of the episode. So then what do you do with that situation? In this case Phil and Claire stay in the bedroom trying to figure out how to handle this. That’s easy enough, but the writers have the kids sitting together downstairs trying to figure out how they are going to handle this. Before Phil and Claire come downstairs, the kids run away. The kids sit on a bench outside a convenience store and decide that the worst thing will be that their parents will want to talk to them about it. Ugh! Who wants that? So they decide they will just smile their way through “the talk.” We see them starting to do this before we get the flashback that tells us this is their plan. What all this does, especially the scenes with the kids, is give us a variety of attitudes about the events, which makes it more fun to watch than if it was all just gags.

Hot in Cleveland (2011. “Free Elka,” written by Suzanne Martin. 30 minutes.)

Hot in Cleveland

Spunk: So at the end of the last run of episodes, Elka was thrown into the slammer by Melanie’s cop boy friend for having a basement full of stolen goods. We open up with Elka, in her orange jumpsuit, playing the harmonica, then singing “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” There are probably any number of actresses of a certain age and beyond who could make that funny, but Betty White does it without moving an eyebrow. Talk about your writing for performance. Then her cellmate tells her to stop singing under penalty of some punishment. The cellmate turns over and we see it is Mary Tyler Moore. Now what can you do with these two, given their collective seven hundred years of experience and forty years of working together? Some of the jokes are obvious, some are not. I liked that Martin did not have to go too far for the “I hate spunk” line filched from the first episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

So the girls have to raise money for Elka’s bail. Victoria is supposedly rich, but she learns her financial manager has been arrested for tax evasion, and her reaction is, “I’ve been Madoffed,” which I thought was a funny line, but then I had never invested with Bernie. Hijinks ensue, Elka is freed, but it looks as though Joy is going to have to marry neighbor Rick to get a green card. Since he is played by Wayne “Newman!” Knight, you can see her reluctance.

No, the show is still not as smart and sophisticated as Modern Family or 30 Rock, but never underestimate the power of just plain funny.

Retired at 35 (2011. “Pilot,” written by Chris Case. 30 minutes.)

Retired at 35

Not yet even Hot in Cleveland, but maybe: This is put on by TVLand as a companion piece to Hot in Cleveland, and on the basis of the pilot it is not quite up to that level, but for reasons I’ll get to in a minute, it will be worth a second look.

David, a 35-year-old New Yorker, comes to visit his parents in Florida on his mother’s birthday. Yes, they are older and retired, but they seem to have lived there for a long time, since David runs into his old high school chum, Brandon, who is now a pool cleaner. At the bar where Brandon and David hang out, there is even the girl he had a crush on in high school, Jessica. But Ryan Michelle Bathe, who plays Jessica looks at least ten years younger than Jonathan McClain. So we get a lot of “old people in Florida” jokes while having a younger couple to root for. I mean, there are a lot of “old people in Florida” jokes.

David decides to quite the New York rat race and move in with Alan, his dad, especially after his mom, Elaine, decides to leave Alan and go off to Portugal to paint. Alan is played by George Segal and Elaine, who will be back in future episodes, is played by Jessica Walter. Yes, this is a far cry from Walter’s Lucille Bluth. So far, so-so. David and Brandon try to get Alan out on a date, and they set him up with Susan, a woman of a certain age they find at a Bingo game (see what I mean about the Florida jokes?). Alan gets a look at her and runs off, and Susan and David…end up in bed. Bet you did not see that coming. Or maybe you did, but stay tuned. David and Brandon are in the bar talking about what happened (it was apparently wonderful—go geezer power!) and in walks Alan…and Susan. They met up, he apologized, and here they are. Susan is a lot cooler about this than anybody else. Then Jessica (remember her?) comes over to the foursome and asks David how he knows…her mom. Now Bathe is very clearly black, and Susan is played by Christine Ebersole, who is white, which actually makes the joke work even better. So I for one am going to want to see where, if anywhere, they go with that.

Oh, yes, as one LA critic noted, George Segal apparently has it in his contract that he does get to play the banjo. That may or may not affect whether you want to watch the show.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

Tom Stempel

Tom Stempel is an American film scholar and critic. He is a professor emeritus in film at Los Angeles City College, where he taught from 1971 to 2011.

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