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Understanding Screenwriting #111: 42, The Company You Keep, Renoir, In the House, To the Wonder, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #111: <em>42</em>, <em>The Company You Keep</em>, <em>Renoir</em>, <em>In the House</em>, <em>To the Wonder</em>, & More

Coming Up In This Column: 42, The Company You Keep, Renoir, In the House, To the Wonder, Billy & Ray, Looper, The Barbarian, but first…

Fan Mail: I was delighted to see David Ehrenstein back in the comments section and not just because he more or less agreed with me about On the Road. In the past several years I’ve come to feel that my column isn’t complete until David weighs in on it. The other three comments were on Evil Dead. “Syvology” is obviously a genre fan and gave up thinking I could teach him anything when I used the terms “horror movie” and “scary movie” interchangeably. “Buck Theorem” thought the script was worse than I did, especially the exposition, which I thought at least established the characters. The most perceptive comments were from “Dersu DeLarge,” who felt that since I liked some of the humor in this Evil Dead, I might appreciate the humor in the others. I may have to look into that.

42 (2013; written by Brian Helgeland; 128 minutes.)

Almost worthy. Many reviews have pointed out that this is a very conventional screen biography of Jackie Robinson. It is. In the film, he and his wife pretty much say and do what we expect they said and did. But Brian Helgeland is a pretty good screenwriter, and he’s done some nice work here. To keep his focus tight, he’s smart to limit himself to just two years in Robinson’s life, 1945 to ’47, starting with Dodger owner Branch Rickey deciding he’ll make Robinson the first black major-league baseball player. We watch Robinson in the minor leagues learning how to deal with all the small shit that comes down on him there, and then we see him putting that experience to work on the big shit when he’s called up to The Show.

Helgeland gives us some nice scenes to fill out the structure. The best is an extended sequence showing Robinson playing for the Dodgers. While at bat, he’s harassed by Ben Chapman, the manager of the Phillies. Chapman is using all the racial epithets he knows, which are many. Helgeland lets this scene run long enough so we can feel what it was like to be Robinson. The scene also runs long because Helgeland is giving us a lot of reactions, particularly among Robinson’s Dodger teammates. Many of those teammates did not want him on the team, but the overt racism obviously bothers them, and we can see them change their minds as the scene progresses. At the end of his at-bat, Robinson goes into the tunnel from the dugout and explodes in rage, smashing his bat against the wall. Rickey comes to the tunnel, reminding Robinson that he chose him because he wanted someone “who has the guts not to fight back.” This scene gets two great payoffs later, one with Chapman having to do a make-nice photo shoot with Robinson, the other with a title at the end that tells us what happened to him.

While that scene is a justifiably obvious one, there are some nice subtle ones as well. In the press box, one reporter says that Robinson is as fast as he is because blacks have an extra long bone in their feet. Whereupon Robinson hits a home run, and another reporter asks the first one if Robinson can hit like that because of the bone. We see the reactions of the other reporters as they realize how stupid the first man’s comment was.

Late in the film, Rickey (some people love Harrison Ford’s performance; I think it’s too over the top) finally tells Robinson why he wanted to be the first owner to bring up a black player. It’s not exactly what you might expect. In another scene, after Robinson has begun to turn fans around, Rickey tells him that he saw a little white boy on a sandlot park trying to play like Robinson. Many of the script’s high points are those subtle moments, which keep us from feeling that 42 is hitting us over the head like an old Stanley Kramer message picture.

The Company You Keep (2013; screenplay by Lem Dobbs; based on the novel by Neil Gordon; 121 minutes.)

The Company You Keep

Actors at half throttle. This has one of the best casts recently assembled for a film: Robert Redford (who also directed), Shia LaBeouf, Julie Christie, Susan Sarandon, Nick Nolte—and that’s just half of the stars. But without good writing, the actors aren’t going to be as effective as they can be. This is another one of those cases.

Sharon Solarz (Sarandon), a ’60s-era radical who’s been on the lamb for 30 years (the chronology is a bit off, probably because the novel was written 10 years ago), turns herself in. Ben (LaBeouf), a young local newspaper reporter, gets a jailhouse interview with her. Sharon explains her situation and defends her actions. Okay, but where’s the drama? There’s no real tension in the scene. Jim Grant (Redford) learns about the case, drops his daughter at his brother’s, and lights out for the territories. Ben figures out Jim is really a former revolutionary and goes to see various former revolutionaries. We first we get scenes of Jim and Donal (Nolte) talking about the past. Again, not much dramatic tension. The same with Jim’s other scenes with other former friends. Dobbs simply hasn’t given the actors enough to play.

We also have no idea why Jim is trying to track down Mimi (Julie Christie). We know it’s important to him, but it’s a very long time before we have any idea why, and there’s not a lot of drama during the wait. And the payoff scene when they finally meet is more of the general discussion. All the actors are as good as the script lets them be, which isn’t that good.

Renoir (2012; screenplay by Gilles Bourdos and Jérôme Tonnerre, with the collaboration of Michel Spinoza; based on the book Le Tableau Amoureux by Jacques Renoir; 111 minutes.)

Renoir

Flesh. In the spring of 2010, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) had a stunning exhibition of French Impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s late work. Most of the paintings were of young female nudes, and what struck me about them was there lack of lecherousness. Their tone seemed nostalgic toward women in Renoir’s past, both real and imagined. Renoir is the film equivalent of a coffee-table volume accompanying the exhibition.

The film begins with Andrée Heuschling, riding her bicycle through the countryside at Côte d’Azur, photographed like a series of Impressionist paintings. Andrée, soon nicknamed Dedee, walks through the house in a very straightforward, unseductive way. She gets to Renoir’s studio and tells him his late wife had suggested she pose for him. We can see why: Christa Theret, who plays her, has the coloring of a Renoir painting. Soon they’re at work, and it’s very clearly work for both of them. He’s driven, arthritic hands and all, to paint. Okay, but that’s just a situation. What makes it a movie? Shortly Renoir’s middle son, Jean (yes, that Jean Renoir), comes home from World War I (it’s 1915) on convalescent leave. Jean and Dedee hit it off: She says his father always paints her fatter than she is (and he does), and Jean says Dad always painted him to look like a girl (and he did). Not only is Theret good as Dedee, but Vincent Rottiers looks and acts very much like the young Jean, and Michel Bouquet is great as the painter. The casting of those three is perfect, given the way the script draws the characters.

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