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Understanding Screenwriting #38: Precious, The Princess and the Frog, Me and Orson Welles, The Big Sleep, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #38: Precious, The Princess and the Frog, Me and Orson Welles, The Big Sleep, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire, The Princess and the Frog, Me and Orson Welles, Screenwriting: History, Theory and Practice (book), The Big Trail, Remember the Night, The Big Sleep, Men of a Certain Age, 30 Rock, but first…

Fan Mail: In the last batch, there were only a couple of comments, both discussing a couple of movies I haven’t seen, so let’s get right to the good stuff.

Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (2009. Screenplay by Geoffrey Fletcher, based on the novel by Sapphire. 110 minutes): Not The Blind Side.

I know this has been a critics’ darling since Sundance, yadda, yadda, yadda, and I really wanted to like it, but since I have a reputation to uphold, I have to tell you that I did not think it was as good as The Blind Side, which covers similar territory.

Precious (to use the short form of the title—what an agent Sapphire must have) gets off to a reasonably good start. We see a red scarf in a nicely composed shot that tells us that however gritty the film is going to be, this is still going to be an aestheticized version, with the occasional beautiful imagery as a counterpoint. Given the horrible things I had read happen in the movie, that was a relief. And the director does follow through on that, although his visions of Precious’s dreams seem increasingly conventional. (Granted her dreams probably are, but the script handles this better.) Meanwhile the director shoots a lot of the “real” scenes in the shaky-cam style that is so annoying and which grates against the fantasy style.

The script starts with a voiceover by Precious and if you feel inclined to take one of my compare and contrast essay exams, write a paper comparing the lead character’s first-person voiceover in this film to Ryan Bingham’s in Up in the Air. He is a talker and talks in the voiceover just as he does in real life. He has such a gift of gab we want to hear whatever he has to say. Precious hardly ever speaks up in class, where we first see her. She’s the kind of quiet kid teachers tend to ignore. But her voiceover tells us her mind is working full-tilt and looking at the world in interesting ways. Even before she says anything in dialogue, we like her and want to follow her through the movie. Nice introduction to the character, and it sets up better than the visuals do the difference between her interior and exterior life.

So Precious, a quiet, obese, African-American sixteen year-old goes home to her apartment in Harlem in 1987. We meet Mary, her mother from Hell. Mary spends most of her time watching television and yelling at Precious. A little of this goes a long way. Mary is a one-note character and gets just as tiresome for us to watch as she must be for Precious to deal with. Yes, she does have some reasons to be angry with Precious, since her boyfriend, Precious’s father, has raped Precious and gotten her pregnant. Twice. The first baby has Down’s syndrome and lives with Mary’s mother. But Fletcher has not given Mary any counterpoint to play. Mo’Nique, the comedian and talk show host, plays Mary as well as she can, which is considerable, but the script limits what she can do. How about a moment, before the big scene at the end, where we get some sense that Mary loves Precious in one way or another. That would not only be more interesting for Mo’Nique to act as well as for us to watch, since it would make her even scarier than she already is—we and Precious would never be sure which Mary is showing up.

The white principal at Precious’s school gets her enrolled in an alternative school and Precious’s teacher, Ms. Rain, has her students write every day in their journals. We begin to get Precious’s words coming out and not just in voiceover. The process of education has begun, which is what the film is going to be about. And here it begins to get into conventional territory. The girls in the class are the standard-issue juvenile delinquents we have seen since The Blackboard Jungle (1955) and To Sir, With Love (1967). And Ms. Rain is the same paragon of virtue that Glenn Ford and Sidney Poitier were in those two films, respectively. She announces in class the first day her name is Blu Rain, to laughter from the class. Now, what does the screenwriter do with that? Nothing. Would it have killed Fletcher to run in a gag about her parents being sixties hippies? She is played by Paula Paton, who like Mo’Nique does what she can, but the script limits her. If you objected to the white folks helping the overweight black boy in The Blind Side, notice that Ms. Rain is the lightest skinned black person in the film. And just to appeal to the liberal crowd, we and Precious find out she is gay. So of course she is a saint. Would it have killed them to make Ms. Rain a very dark-skinned black lesbian who is more butch than God? And her lover, who seems to walk around her apartment with half her robe off most of the time, is so understanding of Ms. Rain bringing Precious home to stay with them that I wanted to puke. Isn’t she getting tired of all this? The scene in the two women’s apartment lets Precious have a voiceover that, like the rest of the movie, is decidedly anti-male. (A male nurse is a slight exception to that.) If Ms. Rain and her lover were the only lesbians I’d met, I’d think they were all perfect as well. The Blind Side gives Leigh Anne and Miss Sue a lot more texture as characters than any of the supporting roles in this film, and manages to be politically incorrect about it as well. Since The Blind Side has both white and black characters, we get a view of race relations in America today. With Precious’s virtually all-black cast and limited story, we only get another view of the black underclass, and without the nuances that The Blind Side has. The brief scene with Michael’s mother in the latter film gives us a richer character than do all the Mary scenes in the former.

So Precious has her second baby and we get a couple of nice scenes in the hospital when her classmates come to visit. Then she has to go home and Mary goes full-tilt psycho, throwing them out and dropping a television set down the stairwell that nearly kills Precious and the baby. Meanwhile Precious has been telling her life story to Mrs. Weiss in the Welfare office and we are sneaking into Oprah country. The actress playing Mrs. Weiss is someone named Mariah Carey, only one of whose previous movies (The Bachelor [1999]) I have seen, and I don’t remember her from it. Like Mo’Nique and Paton she does what she can and does it very well. If she can resist Hollywood shaving off her moustache and trying to turn her into a glamor girl, Carey may have a future.

The big finish is an extended scene in the Welfare office in which Mary confesses that she let her boyfriend have sex with Precious, starting when she was three. The scene goes on forever, like an episode of Oprah, and not in a good way. There is very little drama to the scene (Mary would like Precious to come home, Precious understandably does not want to), just relentless confessing of how everybody feels. There is a reason why most therapy scenes are so boring to watch on film: they are all talk, and very little happens. That it happens here is part of the Oprah-ization of our culture: if we just talk about how we FEEL, everything will be OK. Because then we will all be self-empowered. Self-empowerment has its limitations, such as often making it difficult if not impossible to get along with other people. The self-help books make it clear you have to take charge of your own life, but they say very little about how you then deal with others. That’s because most self-help books are aimed at women who are trying to get over trying to be all things to all people and need to develop a little independence. Guys, for better and for worse, already have that independence and don’t need to learn how to do it. Imagine the scene in the Welfare office, but with Precious’s father wanting to get back together with her, and you can imagine the howls of protest from Oprah and her fans.

And so Precious does not go home with Mary, but takes off down the street with her two children. And the “take control of your own life” vibe of the last half of the movie suggests this is a good thing. Let’s recap: here is a now seventeen-year-old girl who is homeless, has two babies, one with Down’s Syndrome, no husband or other means of support, and no high school diploma or GED. I really don’t see that as a happy ending.

Avatar (2009. Written by James Cameron. 162 minutes): The emperor’s old clothes.

 

Avatar

Well, it’s not as bad as Titanic, which is a relief. We don’t have all that romantic dialogue with Kate and Leo that sounded like a bunch of song cues, and the final song over the credits is not sung in as screechy-voiced a way as “My Heart Will Go On.” And the water CGI effects are a vast improvement. If you want my detailed take on the script problems with Titanic, see the chapter on it in the book version of Understanding Screenwriting.

As more than one commentator on it has mentioned, Avatar borrows from a lot of movies. I am going to avoid even the minimal listmaking of sources I did in US#24 on Monsters and Aliens, but I will point out a few. The picture starts out with us on our way to a planet where a mining crew is at work. When we get there we feel right at home. The crew recalls the team in Cameron’s Aliens (1986). Here is Sigourney Weaver (not playing Ripley here, but always welcome, and she at least tries to give the humorless Cameron’s flat dialogue a little light touch) and there is a macho Latina fighter formerly played by Jenette Goldstein, currently played by the also always-welcome Michelle Rodriguez. So what’s going on? For all the location and crew’s familiarity, Cameron is still facing the bane of all science fiction movies: how do you establish the world we will be living in during the running time of the film. His answer is talk. Cameron immediately starts with voiceover narration by Jake Sully, the paraplegic Marine. Unfortunately, Sam Worthington plays Sully with a typical Marine clenched jaw, which means some of his narration is incomprehensible. There are quicker and better ways to set up the situation. The scientists at the base want to use Sully’s DNA, which is similar to his dead brother’s, to let him become an avatar: part human, part Na’vi, so he can learn about the Na’vi inhabitants of the planet. He agrees to this and lets himself be put in a sleeping pod and wakes up as his Na’vi self. Cameron handles these transitions nicely, but once he is out on the planet, the movie turns into Dances with Wolves (1990). Sully’s Na’vi learns to love the other Na’vi, especially Neytiri, the female who is appointed his minder. She is the most interesting character in the film, much more so than Angelina Jolie’s minder in Wanted. Thanks to Cameron’s writing, Zoe Saldana’s “performance,” and the way that performance has been manipulated by computers, she shows a greater variety of emotion than any other character in the film. It would be a much better picture if Cameron gave the other characters the kind of nuances he gives Neytiri. The other characters are pretty much one-note, although Sully has two notes that seem to contradict each other: in his human form he seems to be a gung-ho Marine. In his Na’vi form, he seems to be a sensitive guy. I suppose you could defend this as the planet making him into a nice guy, but the writing does not do it.

So what we get are other-planet versions of scenes we have seen before. At one point Sully must “break” a flying animal so he can ride it. For all the technological wizardry, it is a “breaking the horse” scene from a hundred westerns. The dialogue Cameron gives to the Na’vi sounds like the dialogue given to the Native Americans in westerns, which along with the computer-generated characters makes them awfully close to Jar Jar Binks. When the Na’vi rise up against the military, we are back in They Died With Their Boots On (1941) or Little Big Man (1970). Except that Cameron gets sloppy about the mechanics. Where did the Na’vi suddenly get the voice communicators in their necklaces? We have not seen any sign of that kind of technology in the film before. And where did the Na’vi get the weapons they now carry? OK, maybe they got some from the military, but that many? And where did the Improvised Explosive Devices Sully uses come from? You could say the final assault on the Na’vi, in addition to conjuring up the helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now (1979), is also similar to battle with the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi (1983), except that Lucas is more inventive. He has the Ewoks fight in the way guerilla groups have always fought, rather than as Cameron does, turning them into a full-scale conventional army. And here the film reveals itself to be very much a Bush-era critique of the military. Cameron has given the military and the people dealing with them very Bush-era slogans, including “shock and awe.” The colonel leading the charge is very Rumsfeldian. So we are encouraged to cheer for the Na’vi, standing in for the Iraqis and Afghanis, defeating a very conventionally American-looking army. The father of my granddaughter’s boyfriend is on the politically conservative side, and this bothered him a lot about the film.

As I have mentioned many times in here, if you are writing for film, you are writing for performance. Normally I mean that in relation to the actors, but in a picture like this, you are also writing for the performance of the designers, CGI people, et al. For all the hype about Avatar being a “game changer,” the visuals and the effects are not all that stunning. The planet looks like a botanical garden designed by a lighting designer for a Vegas show: phosphorescent purple and blue plants. The performance capture works with Neytiri, but not as well with the others. And the 3-D does not add a thing to the picture. I ducked once when something was thrown out at the audience, but that was about it.

The audience I saw the picture with, on the Saturday morning after Christmas, seemed more dutiful than impressed. There were no “Awww” sounds and when the credits started, they got up to leave. When I saw the original Star Wars on opening day, the audience stayed through the credits applauding. Now granted, that audience had a little botanical help, but still…

The Princess and the Frog (2009. Screenplay by Ron Clements & John Musker, and Rob Edwards, story by Ron Clements & John Musker and Greg Erb and Jason Oremland, plus several other people who helped on the story and are listed in the film but not on the IMDb or the official website of the film. 97 minutes): The emperor’s old drawings.

 

The Princess and the Frog

I am not sure you will entirely trust my judgment on this one, since I saw it immediately after Avatar and anything, especially if it was an hour shorter, would seem better. But this one had me at hello. We meet two little girls, Charlotte, a spoiled white southern belle, and Tiana, the black daughter of the woman who sews things for the white family. The seamstress is reading the story of the frog and the princess to the kids. Obviously the movie is going to be about the white girl, this being Disney and all. Except it’s not. We follow Tiana home with her mother. Wow, talk about a game changer: a black girl as a Disney princess. So we meet Tiana’s dad and see the happy family. We know the mom is not long for this world, since there is an over-abundance of dead mothers in Disney cartoons.

THE MOTHER DOES NOT DIE. Now that’s a real game changer, more so than anything in Avatar. In the Obama era, that is a bigger whoop than a mere black princess. OK, the father dies, but that’s a small price to pay. Tiana grows up to be voiced by Anika Noni Rose. You know she was wonderful in The No. 1 Lady’s Detective Agency (see US#23), but you may not know she started on Broadway in Caroline, or Change, and the writers have given her a lot to do here. She sings, she has great lines, which she delivers beautifully.

We pretty much know what is coming and the storytelling takes us there with great confidence. When John Lasseter, the head of Pixar, took over as head of all Disney animation, he made two basic decisions. The first was to get back into hand-drawn, or 2-D, animation. Now that’s class, since it would have been very self-protective of Lasseter just to stick to the computer animation that he has taken to such heights. His second decision was to bring back to the studio Clements and Musker, who worked on the last great spurt of Disney 2-D animation in the late eighties and early nineties. They know their medium. (The backstory of the film is from Danny Munso’s article in the November/December 2009 Creative Screenwriting.)

The writers have created a nice gallery of characters. They have provided a great setting by putting it in New Orleans. They have provided places for Randy Newman to write several terrific songs. And they don’t dawdle. After slogging through Avatar, it was nice to see something that not only has a great sense of humor, but does not waste a second of its 97 minutes. If you have to draw (almost) everything, you don’t waste time. The gags come quickly and do not overstay their welcome. The kids in the audience seemed to get the gags even quicker than I did, and I am no slouch in that area. The writers have also provided great opportunities for the performance of the designers. There are shots of the bayou that have a greater sense of three-dimensionality than anything in Avatar, and without those stupid glasses.

The storytelling is inventive, and no more so than at the end. The prince and Tiana are still frogs, and he has passed up the chance to kiss Charlotte, marry her, and use her money to get Tiana the restaurant she has been dreaming about. He and Tiana are in love and decide to live happily ever after as frogs in the bayou. OK, but the writers (and probably Lasseter, who has one of the best story minds in the business) understood that we really want to see Tiana and the prince back in human form (in an animated film? Yes, because we are so caught up in the story) and working her restaurant. So how to do it? You’ll have to see the movie, but the kids and I squealed with delight. And there was applause at the end of the film. Which there had not been for Avatar.

Me and Orson Welles (2008. Screenplay by Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo, based on the novel by Robert Kaplow. 114 minutes): Where is Mank when you need him?

 

Me and Orson Welles

The Palmos have worked behind the scenes on movies for years, she as a production manager and he as an assistant director, among other jobs. According to Peter Debruge’s article in the November/December 2009 Creative Screenwriting, they found the novel browsing in a bookstore. They started writing a screenplay from it without getting the rights. When they showed a draft to director Richard Linklater, with whom they had worked, he got the rights and directed the film. This is the Palmos’s first produced script, and they make a bunch of rookie mistakes.

The film follows Richard, a teenaged boy who gets picked to appear on stage with Orson Welles in his 1937 production of Julius Caesar. You remember the production, or at least the legends about it, don’t you? Welles had the cast dressed as contemporary fascists, borrowed the lighting scheme from Albert Speer’s “Cathedral of Lights” (see Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will for a demonstration), and had the cast turn machine guns on the audience and fire blanks at them. Aside from the modern costumes, the other two details are left out. We see that the lighting is spectacular, but there is no reference to Speer. Well, why not? Because the script already has a lot of bald-faced exposition, done in the most flat-footed way possible. I was wondering why that was so, and then I read Debruge’s article, and the giveaway is that the book was a “young adult” novel. Obviously the book had to explain to its young adult readers who the hell Orson Welles was and what he did. The Palmos, maybe correctly, assumed they had to do the same thing with a movie audience. I am not sure they did, and if they did, they could have laid the information in a little more subtly. The dialogue in general is very flat. What was called for was a real screenwriter to goose it up. (And if you don’t know that Mank was Herman J. Mankiewicz, maybe you shouldn’t yet be reading this column. Or rather, maybe it will be crucial for your education.)

The writers write some nice characters, especially Richard, the secretary Sonja, and Welles. Linklater’s direction tends to just sit and watch the characters talk and react, and the actors do a nice job. Zac Efron plays Richard and gets a lot more up on the screen that you might expect, given his High School Musical experience. Claire Danes, well, Claire Danes, enough said. Christian McKay is ten years too old for the 22 year-old Welles, but he has the look and the tone. Unfortunately, like the screenplay for Amelia (see US#36), the Palmos have not given him enough of the genius to play. The Speer reference and the machine guns simply would not have fit in with the “young adult” tone of the film.

And if you are going to make a film not just for young adults, why not go all the way, not only with the Wellesian style, but letting Richard sleep with Sonja. He turns down a perfect opportunity to do so. I can see why Kaplow handled it that way, but surely you could sneak it past the ratings board in a movie.

ScreenwritingScreenwriting: History, Theory and Practice (2009. Book by Steven Maras. 227 pages): Stop the Presses!

Academics take screenwriting seriously!

One of the problems I faced early in my career of writing about screenwriting was that academia generally did not take the study of screenwriting seriously. In those days (late 60s/70s) the auteur theory held sway. This affected the book publishing business as well. My biography of Nunnally Johnson was turned down by over thirty publishers, most of them twice, because I was determined to deal with his contributions as a screenwriter. When I insisted that was the heart of the book, one editor gave me a look that said, “What planet are you from? I read Andrew Sarris. I know directors make it up as they go along.”

Things have changed, as Maras’s book will show you. He is a Senior Lecturer and Chair of the Media and Communications Department at the University of Sydney (Australia), and his book looks at how academics have been dealing with, as the subtitle says, the history, theory, and practice of screenwriting. In very interesting ways, thank you very much. A lot of the issues that I have dealt with in relatively, OK, very, casual ways in this column are also being discussed among academics. You may get through the book quicker than I did, since I paused almost every page to think over the issues he was discussing. Sometimes I agreed with Maras and/or the people he was quoting, sometimes I didn’t. If you want to think seriously about screenwriting, you ought to pick this one up.

The Big Trail (1930. No credited screenplay. Story by Hal G. Evarts. 125 minutes): The big version.

 

The Big Trail

The old Fox studio had had a considerable success with John Ford’s 1924 The Iron Horse. When sound came in and they had a hit with the first western shot in sound, In Old Arizona (1929), the studio decided to shoot the works and do a big sound western in a new widescreen process called Grandeur. The studio got Evarts, who had written the story for William S. Hart’s last great western Tumbleweeds (1925), to come up with a story of a wagon train. Evarts sort of follows the story of The Iron Horse, with the hero, Breck Coleman, going along on the trek so he can get revenge on two men who killed his friend. That story is better integrated in The Big Trail than it is in The Iron Horse.

For years the only version that was available was the 35mm version shot simultaneously with the widescreen version, but Fox found the original and restored it. It plays better than the 35mm version because we get more of the epic scope of the trek. This would be writing for the performance of the 70mm camera. The problem is that the actors have not yet completely figured out how to say dialogue on film. Tully Marshall, whose film career essentially began playing the High Priest of Bel in Intolerance in 1916, adjusts better to sound than does former stage actor Tyrone Power (senior, the father of the better known one), who keeps pausing as he would on stage. Breck is played by a young guy just out of the prop department. His real name was Marion Morrison, but for this film the studio changed his name to John Wayne. He’s not bad, but he’s not “John Wayne” yet. And since the picture came out in early 1930 and only two theaters were equipped to show it in Grandeur, it bombed and Wayne went into B westerns until 1939. But if you have a big screen TV and you love westerns, you may find the movie entertaining.

Remember the Night (1940. Original Screenplay by Preston Sturges. 94 minutes): Writers versus directors.

 

Remember the Night

Mitchell Leisen, the director of this film, was almost single-handedly responsible for the move of screenwriters to directing in the early forties. Here is Billy Wilder on Leisen: “Leisen spent more time with Edith Head worrying about the pleats on a skirt than he did with us [Wilder and Charles Brackett] on the script. He didn’t argue over scenes. He didn’t know shit about construction. And he didn’t care. All he did was he fucked up the script…” And those are just the opening lines in a quote in Maurice Zolotow’s 1977 book Billy Wilder in Hollywood. Preston Sturges did not think too highly of Leisen either, and Remember the Night is the last script Sturges wrote before he turned to directing.

David Chierichetti, Leisen’s first biographer (Hollywood Director, 1973), is a little more sympathetic toward Leisen, but he did look at the scripts for this film. You can understand why Sturges disliked Leisen. According to Chierichetti, Sturges’s script was 130 pages, way too long for the kind of romantic drama the picture turned out to be. So Leisen cut it down. Mostly his cuts were long speeches Sturges had given to John Sargent, the deputy district attorney handling the case of Lee Leander, accused of shoplifting. As written by Sturges, Sargent is a fast-talking wheeler-dealer. Leisen thought, and he may have been right, that Fred MacMurray, who was cast as John, simply was not up to the demands of Sturges’s speeches. Or he may have simply thought that MacMurray was too much the all-American nice guy he had been playing in the thirties. It took Billy Wilder to see the darker side of MacMurray in Double Indemnity four years later; that MacMurray could have played Sturges’s character. The problem with Leisen’s cuts and his conventional direction of MacMurray is that when the plot requires us to see his manipulative side in the last twenty minutes of the film, we don’t believe it.

Some of Sturges’s comedy elements survive. The defense attorney at the beginning of the film would fit neatly into any other Sturges vehicle. Leisen did not cut his speeches. Lee Leander has the edge we expect of Sturges’s women. She is played by Barbara Stanwyck, whom Sturges used the next year in The Lady Eve. Leisen had a reputation as a woman’s director, and he certainly privileges Stanwyck over MacMurray in both the coverage and the composition and lighting of the shots. She of course delivers, but when did Stanwyck ever not deliver?

The story, which Sturges sets up so it is almost convincing (and Leisen does his part in these scenes with his direction of MacMurray and Stanwyck), has John not wanting Lee to spend Christmas in jail, since he got a continuance on her case. He is driving back home to Indiana for Christmas, and when he learns she grew up near his hometown, he takes her back with him. They meet her mother, who wants nothing to do with her (Sturges’s version was sharper: the mother had a second daughter who was also in trouble with the law). So John takes Lee home with him and his mother and aunt like her. Sturges satirizes small town America, some of which survives in the film, and some of which was shot but dropped. Leisen sets a quieter tone in the Indiana scenes than Sturges would have, and the film becomes more of a romantic drama than a romantic comedy. In other words, more of a Leisen film than a Sturges one. It is a nice movie of its kind, but thank God Preston started directing.

The Big Sleep (1946. Screenplay by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett & Jules Furthman, from the novel by Raymond Chandler. 114 minutes): Silence.

 

The Big Sleep

This is not a full-scale piece on the writing of this film, but just a minor note. The film was running on Turner Classic Movies, and I had it on while bringing in the groceries, talking on the phone, and some other stuff. I, like nearly everybody else in the known universe, love the dialogue in this film, but what struck me watching it in an off and on way was how silent a lot of the film is. There are a lot of moments in the film where there is no dialogue. We are watching Marlowe watch people and figuring out what possible actions he can take. They didn’t need dialogue, they had screenwriters. OK, except for Faulkner, but he was fun to have around.

Men of a Certain Age (2009. Various writers. 60-minute episodes): Why would we spend time with these people?

 

Men of a Certain Age

Several critics have liked this new show, but having seen three episodes, it does not really work for me. The setup is that three guys in their late forties, Joe, Owen and Terry, go for hikes in the hills, sit around in a restaurant and talk about their problems. OK, if their problems were that interesting to hear about. Joe runs a party supply store, which could provide the writers with interesting characters to come for Joe to deal with. No such luck. Joe also has a gambling problem, which introduced us to his bookie, who is not that interesting either. Owen is a car salesman, working at his father’s dealership. How are you going to make a car salesman sympathetic to an audience? They haven’t found a way. His father is always on his case, so Owen seems like a wuss not to stand up to him. Owen is played by Andre Braugher, and the role does not play to his strength, which is a primal power. Terry is an unsuccessful actor who is the epitome of the Peter Pan Syndrome. None of the supporting characters show any signs of breaking out as somebody worth watching as well.

30 Rock (2009. “Secret Santa” episode. Written by Tina Fey. 30 minutes): Tina Fey’s Christmas present to Alec Baldwin.

 

30 Rock

So just after I got done in my last column complaining that this season of 30 Rock has been uninspired, Tina Fey uncorks not only the best episode of the season, but one of their best episodes ever. As often, there are several plot lines. The first is Liz’s decision to give Jack a Christmas present, although she is warned by Jack’s assistant that Jack is, who would have guessed, the master of giving presents. After several false starts on her part, she and Jack decide to give presents that cost no money. More false starts on Liz’s part. Jack ends up giving her a ticket from a “gender neutral” production of The Crucible in high school in which she played John Proctor. And it’s framed in wood from the school’s stage. And you thought the reference to the production was just a throwaway gag in an earlier scene. Obviously Liz’s present, whatever it will be, is fated to be a big disaster. Yes and no.

Jack, meanwhile, is dealing with NBC/Universal (the show has not caught up yet with the company being bought by Comcast, but that may well bring out the best in the writers) having purchased You.Face, the social networking site. Yes, the name is obvious, but out of it comes a high school friend of Jack’s, Nancy, contacting him. He acted with her in a show in high school. He got to kiss her, but only in the show, and had a mad crush on her. She is coming to New York with her teenage kids and would like to see him. She shows up in Jack’s office and, be still my heart, it’s Julianne Moore. In an earthy mode as a lower-class Boston native, complete with accent. Great idea for a character to pair off with Jack, and even more inspired to get Moore. You would expect something more elegant with her, but if Meryl Streep can have as much fun as she is having these days in a variety of roles, why not Moore? The scenes between Nancy and Jack are terrific, giving us a romantic side to Jack we have not seen, as well as a look at where he started as a person. And the chemistry between Moore and Baldwin is breathtaking. They have dinner, but don’t kiss. She has to go back to Boston on the train the next morning, but the train gets delayed. She comes to his office and they kiss, and she goes back to her husband. How come the train was delayed? Liz called in a bomb threat to Pennsylvania Station as a Christmas present to Jack.

Which in turn reaffirms Kenneth’s belief in God, since the F.B.I. arrives at the office to arrest the three writers whose phone Liz had used to call in the threat. The writers had pretended to be of another, made-up religion to get out of Kenneth’s elaborate Secret Santa system. This got Kenneth questioning God, since He had not punished them. And now they get punished, and his faith is restored. As well as mine in the show. Thanks Tina, that was a great present.

Tom Stempel is the author of several books on film. His most recent is Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays.