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Understanding Screenwriting #101: Celeste & Jesse Forever, Hello I Must be Going, Raiders of the Lost Ark, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #101: <em>Celeste & Jesse Forever</em>, <em>Hello I Must be Going</em>, <em>Raiders of the Lost Ark</em>, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Celeste & Jesse Forever, Hello I Must be Going, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Helen (stage play), The Beautiful Blonde From Bashful Bend, but first…

Fan Mail: Hell is freezing over, since David E. and I agree yet again, this time on Five Fingers. It was Michael Wilson who came up with the name “Staviski” first rather than Mankiewicz, but he may well have been thinking about the Stavisky scandal.

As for Wilson on Lawrence of Arabia, the first chapter of the book Understanding Screenwriting is on Lawrence, and I certainly give Wilson his due. I am glad they finally added his name to the credits.

Celeste & Jesse Forever (2012. Written by Rashida Jones and Will McCormack. 92 minutes.)

Tricky: As my wife and I were leaving the theater after seeing this one, I said to her, “This one is going to be difficult to write about.” Lots of scripts, especially the obviously good and the obviously bad ones, are fairly easy to discuss. Others, like this one, not so much. On the surface, the script is rather straightforward. Celeste and Jesse have been best friends for years, got married, and are now divorced. They are trying to remain best friends. Sort of When Harry Met Sally… (1989) after the divorce. Problems ensue.

Jones and McCormack get the movie off to a fast start: we get a lovers’ montage that includes, at great speed, everything you have ever seen in any lovers’ montage. We’re glad to get it out of the way as soon as possible. Then we get an actual scene in which Celeste and Jess are having dinner with Beth and Tucker, another married couple. Celeste and Jesse get off on a collective improvisation in German accents. Typical things young marrieds in love do. Until Beth calls them on it. For God’s sake, she says, you guys are divorced, act like it. Nice early twist. Celeste is a trend-spotter who handles branding for companies and celebrities. Jesse is an artist but not working at it very hard, spending most of his day in the studio behind their house watching footage of old Olympic coverage and eating Cheetos. It’s obviously those differences that made them split up.

Celeste is established right away as the adult in the room. She’s smart, she’s hardworking, and she’s written a book called Shitegeist. So how is this smart woman going to handle this very friendly divorce? Not well. After establishing her as an adult, the writers turn her into an adolescent, and not even a smart adolescent. She gets insanely jealous when Jesse starts to date again, even more so when he gets a Belgium woman pregnant and marries her. Celeste starts doing drugs and drinking too much, all the while claiming she is not bothered by Jesse’s actions. Yes, yes, we all know women who are very together at work and a mess in their private lives. And to be fair, the several thirtysomething women sitting behind us laughed a lot in recognition at how Celeste behaves. But I found it difficult to laugh at a woman who had been established as so smart behaving so stupidly. And we get a lot of her behaving that way, so much so it becomes the focus of the whole film. She dates losers, she goes partying, and she even screws up at work, letting a vaguely obscene logo go out for a new client. The logo does end up working for the client in an odd way, but still. Rashida Jones not only is the co-writer, but plays Celeste. I have liked Jones’s work as an actor before, as in her scenes as the lawyer in The Social Network (2010). My guess is that like Zoe Kazan on Ruby Sparks (see US#100), she was determined to write flashy scenes for herself, but she doesn’t yet have a writer’s sense of how those scenes might play.

We spend so much time with Celeste being stupid that we don’t get much of the other characters. We see very little of Jesse’s changing life, and have no sense of what his new wife is like. Celeste and Jesse do have a scene late in the picture in which he tells her about how Veronica lets him do his work, and he says that Celeste always wanted to be in charge and keep Jesse in his stage of arrested development. It is the best scene in the picture because it digs deeper than any other scene. If the rest of the script had been up to this level, the picture would have been terrific. Instead we get more of Celeste being an idiot. At the wedding of Beth and Tucker…wait a minute: from the beginning of the film we have assumed they are married, with no indication that they were not. Suddenly this couple that have been together for ten years decide to have a fancy wedding in Rhode Island? The rest of the film is set in L.A. Obviously the writers felt they needed a big public event in which the drunken Celeste can make a fool of herself yet again, which she does. Eventually Celeste and Jesse have a quiet little scene where they agree to try to be friends again. I don’t hold out much hope. The script has not been nuanced enough to make us believe that scene.

Hello I Must Be Going (2012. Written by Sarah Koskoff. 95 minutes.)

Hello I Must Be Going

The Yasser Arafat of movies: This one was also a disappointment. I have been a huge fan of its star Melanie Lynskey since her 1994 debut as one of two teenage girls who commit murder in Heavenly Creatures. She has been doing great work ever since, as in last year’s Win Win and especially as Charlie’s stalker Rose. (Pop quiz: Rose was also the name of the character Lynskey’s co-star in Heavenly Creatures played in a movie. Who’s the co-star, what’s the movie, and what new secret have we recently learned about that film? Answers at the end of this item.) This film is her first starring role since Heavenly Creatures, and I had high hopes for it.

An acquaintance of mine told me several years ago that he could tell from the first shot of a movie whether the movie was going to work. I don’t have that kind of eye, but I could tell from the first scene that this one is in trouble. We come in on Lynskey as Amy in her bed. She has pictures on the wall, so we assume it’s her apartment, but as she gets up it becomes clear it is a room in a big house. We realize later that Amy, a 34-year-old divorcee has moved back in with her parents. The details of the room should have suggested that but don’t. I am a big believer in not telling the audience things until they need to know them, but this film is constantly late at telling us what we need to know. That may be Koskoff’s script (it’s her first produced feature) or it may be Todd Louiso’s direction. Amy is sulking and her mother, Ruth, comes in and gives her a hard time for just sulking about the house. Ruth, especially in Blythe Danner’s performance, dominates the scene, but it’s Amy’s movie, and the writer and director have not given her enough reactions to Ruth. The balance is just off.

Amy sulks some more. A lot. And it becomes just as tiresome to us as it does to her mother. We hate having to agree with her mom, since her mom is such a pain. What Koskoff needed to do was give Amy a greater variety of reactions and emotions to play. Lynskey tries, but if it’s not on the page, it’s not on the stage. Eventually Amy falls into a relationship with 19-year-old Jeremy, the stepson of a client Amy’s dad is trying to land. Amy and Jeremy’s dialogue is mostly flat, so we get very little texture to the relationship. We do get a nice bit when, after Amy and Jeremy have made love a couple of times, Ruth tells Amy that Jeremy’s mom Gwen thinks Jeremy is gay. The writer and director give Lynskey reactions to that to play. We also get a nice explanation later from Jeremy that he lets Gwen believe he’s gay because she is so accepting of it, which makes her feel good.

When Gwen catches Amy and Jeremy swimming naked in the family pool, we only get a mention later of what their explanation was. Koskoff doesn’t bother with what could be a terrific scene of the kids making up the story on the spot. Later when both families discover Amy and Jeremy in the act, we get their immediate reactions, which are shock, but we only get explanations after the fact of their responses to this. Again, another missed opportunity. By this point in the film I was thinking that Koskoff was living up to Abba Eben’s great line about how Yasser Arafat “never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” If you look up Koskoff and Louiso on the IMDb, you will discover that they both have a lot of experience as actors, so it was very surprising to me that they couldn’t come up with better scenes for the actors to play. They do have one good scene that shows you what the film should have been. Amy goes into the city to have lunch with her ex, David. It is a nice, edgy scene between Lynskey and Dan Futterman as David.

Ah, yes, the pop quiz. Lynskey’s co-star was Kate Winslet, and she played the young Rose in Titanic (1997). If you have read my Understanding Screenwriting book, you know I don’t think much of the script for that film and I don’t think Winslet’s performance is very good. You may have picked up an earlier Link of the Day here at the House to Winslet’s screen test for Titanic. You can see it here. The person commenting on it said you can see why she got the job. Yes, but what struck me is that she was much, much better in the test than in the film. Having a director who thinks he is the King of the World yelling at while you are in a tank of water in a 1912 dress doesn’t necessarily make for a good performance.

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