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Understanding Screenwriting #70 The Illusionist, No Strings Attached, From Prada to Nada, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #70: The Illusionist, No Strings Attached, From Prada to Nada, & More

Coming Up In This Column: The Illusionist, No Strings Attached, From Prada to Nada, The Company Men, Mystery Street, Le Amiche, La Dolce Vita, The Write Environment, Downton Abbey, Fairly Legal but first…

Fan Mail: First, I want to thank “Biglil,” who wrote in on US#68 to correct some factual errors in Pirate Radio. In today’s world I’m all for getting one’s facts straight, since there is so little of it going around.

Second, David Ehrenstein got the impression in my comments on The Dilemma in US#69 that I somehow had a beef with The Kids Are All Right. I don’t, as my comments in US#54 make clear. My point was that The Dilemma did not handle the mixture of comedy and drama as well as Kids and other films.

Third, in today’s bullets can’t kill it category, “Samm” insisted in a comment on US#69 they (and I am not sure what “they’” he was talking about) are all Hero’s Journey films. Sigh.

The Illusionist (2010. Screenplay by Sylvain Chomet, adapted from a screenplay by Jacques Tati. 80 minutes.)

Fools rush in: If you followed some of the Links of the Day about this film, you may be familiar with the controversy over it. Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote that he was reluctant to talk about the film, and he provided a link to Roger Ebert’s site, which provided more detail. The gist of it is that Tati’s grandson, Richard Tatischeff Scheil McDonald, is objecting to the film of The Illusionist because of the way Tati treated McDonald’s mother and grandmother. Tati and the grandmother were not married, and Tati left her and McDonald’s mother in Paris during the Occupation in World War II. McDonald seems to think that we judge artists by their morals. Thank goodness we don’t, or we would have to forego a lot of great art. It is very naïve to assume that great artists must be highly moral. Some of them are, but many are not. Richard Wagner was not, and neither was Picasso. Film directors are notoriously not nice people. As terrible as they could be as people, I would not want to do without the films of Hitchcock, Lang, Huston and Ford. Dorris Bowden Johnson, Rosasharon in The Grapes of Wrath (1940), once said, “John Ford was a terrible human being. But he was a great director.”

Still, Tati’s abandoning his mistress and their baby to the Occupation certainly should make us queasy, and I can understand Rosebaum’s reluctance to deal with the film. I, on the other hand, am always willing to jump into a nice murky mess like that. Part of what complicates the issue of this film is that Tati’s screenplay was written in the ’50s as a kind of letter to the child he left behind. He was obviously working out his presumably guilty feelings about his actions. According to the material McDonald provided Ebert, which one of Ebert’s readers wisely pointed out had not been fact-checked, Tati’s original screenplay deals with an illusionist traveling in Czechoslovakia. He meets a girl in her early teens, about the age of Helga, Tati’s daughter. She believes his magic is real, and a semi-father-daughter relationship develops. A young man exposes the illusionist’s tricks to the girl, and the illusionist and the girl part ways. Tati sent the script to Helga, and he may well have meant it only as a communication to her. He never made the film, and it is interesting that he never intended to star in it himself. It might have been too painful for him to do as an actor, or he may have intended it to be more dramatic than his comic films, or comic in a different style than his. His choice of a leading man was Pierre Étaix, just starting his film career, although with a background as a gag writer and nightclub performer.

Chomet is best known for his lively 2003 animated feature, The Triplets of Belleville. He got permission from the part of the Tati estate that controls the rights (not McDonald’s branch, obviously) to develop Tati’s script as an animated film. Well, Tati was known for his near wordless slapstick comedies, so that would seem to make sense. The basic story of The Illusionist, however, does not lend itself to that sort of film. The story, in both Tati and Chomet’s version, is more drama than comedy. I have no idea how much dialogue was in Tati’s script, but there is very little in Chomet’s, and it makes the film very confusing. We want to hear what these people say to each other. In Chomet’s version, the illusionist is French, but he is touring Scotland and lands in Edinburgh, so there is a logic in not having him and the girl being able to communicate verbally. Chomet unfortunately has not provided the visual characterization that would make up for that. He has modeled the illusionist on Tati: tall, wide in the middle, deadpan face and with a loping stride. Tati got a lot out of that as a performer, but Chomet does not with his animated version. Keep in mind that Tati did not intend to play the part himself. He may have recognized that his style as an actor was not going to work. Tati as a director worked more with long shots than closeups (with Tati’s body you want to see all of it), but this is a story that demands closeups. Chomet’s girl is bland, and we get none of the character animation with her that we got in Triplets of Belleville. There are one or two scenes (the illusionist working in a garage, and then later as a department store window model) that suggest classical Tati, but they are not central to the story, and Chomet’s animation is not up to Tati’s movement. Late in the picture, the characters are in a theater and we get a clip from Tati’s 1958 Mon Oncle. Chomet does himself no favors there.

The best thing about the film is the least Tati-ian thing about it. My wife, who spent time in Edinburgh in her youth, came out of the theater humming the backgrounds. Both the Scottish Highlands and the cityscapes are beautifully drawn. On the other hand, I have never seen as many buses in one film as we get here. My wife assures me that Edinburgh was like that in the ’50s.

No Strings Attached (2011. Screenplay by Elizabeth Meriwether, story by Mike Samonek and Elizabeth Meriwether. 108 minutes.)

It’s not Nora or Nancy: This is a so-so rom-com. The story may not seem that fresh to you. Boy and girl meet at summer camp, then again in college and yet again when they are young professionals. One is now a doctor doing a residency, the other a television production assistant hoping to become a writer. Because of their busy schedules, they agree to have sex with “no strings attached,” i.e., “fuck buddy”/“friends with benefits” sex. It’s so common in movies we have all these terms for it. And we know what is going to happen. In spite of their insistence they won’t, one of them falls in love with the other and complications ensue. Needless to say, they get together in the end. So why should we watch?

The doctor is the woman. And the production assistant is the guy. Well, that might be interesting for about a minute and a half. But the doctor is not what you would expect from a “woman screenwriter.” If this were a Nora Ephron script, Emma would be a neurotic ditz who loves food and whom we are encouraged to find “cute.” Emma is not neurotic and she is not a ditz. She eats fast food, when she can be reminded to eat. She is cute (Natalie Portman, given a lot more to do than she did in Black Swan), but not “cute.” Nor is this a Nancy Myers script. Emma does not live in a big house with a kitchen the size of James Cameron’s ego. Emma is a very modern professional woman, focused on her work. She lives in an apartment with three other residents, two of them women, the third a gay man. As happens when women live together, their menstrual cycles end up in synch, with even the gay guy having sympathetic pains. Which leads to the best joke in the film: Adam creates a “period mix tape” for Emma, with such songs as “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “I’ve Got the World on a String.” The two other women residents are not ditzes either, but just as professional as Emma. The closest we have to a woman ditz in the script is Lucy, Adam’s supervisor, and she is too smart and hardworking to be a ditz. She is something of a flake, however, and Lake Bell, who plays her is getting back at Nancy Myers (see my comments on It’s Complicated in US#39), by showing that she has real comics chops. When it looks like Adam may get together with her, we are rather torn. Emma is appealing in her own tough way, but Lucy has her charms.

One of the truisms of the screenwriting business is that men often have trouble writing women characters and women have trouble writing male characters. Meriwether’s Adam is a little too perfect. He is handsome (Ashton Kutcher, beginning to grow up), not neurotic at all, and just devoted to Emma. He never puts a foot wrong, which gets a little annoying. Would a real guy make a period mix tape? It’s a funny idea, but still. He also has some buddies he hangs out with but they are standard-issue buds. The most interesting male character is Alvin, Adam’s father, a former TV star. He is something of a lech and spends most of the film with Adam’s previous girlfriend, a British tart named Vanessa. This upsets Adam, which I think is supposed to show his dark side, but it’s more logical than neurotic.

In addition to the fact we see where the story is going, it doesn’t get there in a particularly fresh way. In the summer we are scheduled to get Friends With Benefits and we will see if the writers of that one (Will Gluck, Keith Merryman, and David A. Newman) handle similar material in a better way. That one will have Mila Kunis as Natalie Portman and Justin Timberlake as Ashton Kutcher.

From Prada to Nada (2011. Screenplay by Fina Torres & Luis Alfaro and Craig Frenandez, “From” the novel Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen. 107 minutes.)

Menos Clueless: As you may remember from US#32 and #33, I am a fan of Austen’s novel and films made from it, particularly the 1995 version that Emma Thompson wrote. So I couldn’t resist when this Latino version was sneaked into theaters. After all, if Amy Heckerling could transpose Emma into the Beverly Hills high school world of Clueless (1995), why not Sense in East Los Angeles? Unfortunately, as Spanish readers already learned from the snarky sub-head, this one is less than Clueless.

The setup is that Garbriel Dominguez Sr., an apparently well-to-do resident of Beverly Hills, dies, leaving two daughters, Nora and Mary. (Their mother died years ago, so no Latina Mrs. Dashwood.) He also left them with no money, since he had huge debts. There is also a son he had by another woman before he married their mother, and the son and his bitchy white wife Olivia (the equivalent of Fanny Dashwood) take over the house in an unclear bit of plotting. They intend to remodel and sell it to pay the debts. Nora is the Elinor of the story, Mary the Marianne, although she is closest to Cher in Clueless in her devotion to shopping. So instead of a nice cottage out in the country, the girls go off to live with their aunt in Latino East L.A. In Clueless, Heckerling found the closed society of a snobby upper class high school a perfect fit for the limitations of Austen’s world. The Latino culture the girls move into is much more free and lively. The writers could have solved the problem by making the aunt, Aurelia, a more conservative and restricting person, but she is just generally nice and helpful. Great in real life but less so in drama.

Nora wants to be a lawyer and has blinders on about that, which matches reasonably well at the beginning with Elinor. Her Edward Ferrars is Edward Ferris, Olivia’s brother. He hires her as a legal assistant at his law firm, but they admit their love in the middle of the film, and she ends up leaving the law firm and setting up a legal counseling service in the barrio. Wait a minute, she’s not a lawyer yet. Isn’t this practicing law without a license? And as a law student shouldn’t she know this, especially if she is that smart? Edward then gets engaged to a friend of Olivia’s, but writers here do not get him out of it in the interesting way Austen does. He just shows up at the end of the film and tells Nora he’s not engaged. In a tribute to Thompson, he does indeed say “My heart is and always will be yours.” You may remember the line is not in Austen. It’s cute here, rather than heart-stopping the way it is in the 1995 film.

Mary meanwhile has fallen in love with her “Willoughby,” a college teaching assistant, while not paying attention to the writers’ most inventive variation from Austen. Their “Colonel Brandon” is a younger guy whom Mary first takes to be a gangbanger. He fixes car mirrors without telling her, and then he turns out to be a budding artist who teaches painting to kids. A much better match for Mary than Colonel Brandon would have been.

One of the writers of the screenplay, Luis Alfaro, is much better known as a playwright. His version of Sophocles’s Electra, the 2005 play Electricidad, shows a much more vivid view of East L.A. than we get here. In addition to the aunt being all-purpose good, the other Latino characters are not as well defined as they need to be. In Electricidad, Alfaro uses several residents as a Greek chorus, but the friends of the aunt here just hang around. I have no idea if Alfaro’s work on the screenplay was softened by others, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the case. The 2002 film Real Women Have Curves has better drawn characters and a sharper view of life in East L.A. It deals with life in a garment-sewing sweatshop as more than just a quick joke that this film does.

Still, From Prada to Nada is not worthless. There are a few good jokes, and Camilla Belle is charming as Nora, given the limitations of the writing. Alexa Vega, whom you may remember as Carmen in the Spy Kids movies, is now all grown up and has some good comic chops. Like Kate Winslet, Marianne in the 1995 version, Vega steals a bunch of scenes from her elders. One flaw in the acting is April Bowlby as Olivia. It is a thankless part, and the writing makes her a one-note bitch (as opposed to Thompson making Fanny a two-note bitch). Bowlby was great as Kandi on Two and a Half Men, but outright bitchery does not seem to be within her range.

The Company Men (2010. Written by John Wells. 104 minutes.)

Not airborne: This film premiered at Sundance a year ago and only just got into theaters in late 2010. The reason for the delay is obvious: the distributors were trying to avoid Up in the Air (2009; see US#37). And with good reason. The films have a similar subject (people being fired in corporate downsizing), and Up in the Air handles it much better. Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner, working off Walter Kirn’s novel, found a unique way to deal with the subject: follow the guy who is hired to go around firing people. We hadn’t seen that character before. Nor had we seen the young woman business grad who accompanies him. Both of those characters, and the woman he has the romance with, are fully developed characters with all kinds of interesting edges. So we focus on them, but we also get short bits of (real-life) interviews with some of the people being fired. Those bits are used as a counterpoint to the story, and the story a counterpoint to them so they do not become monotonous and depressing.

Wells takes a more literal approach. We follow three executives, each of whom is fired from the same company over the course of the film. The first is hot-shot sales guy Bobby Walker. He is the one who cannot believe he was fired, even after it happens. He is in denial for a long time. The second is Phil Woodard, who gets depressed and kills himself. The third is Gene McClary, who eventually realizes he can become a consultant and sets up his own firm. Wells has not made any of these characters as distinctive and individual as Reitman and Turner made theirs. Once you get a sense of what each one is like, they behave true to form. One small exception is Gene, who turns out to be having an affair with Sally Wilcox, the legal affairs person who is handling the firings. But she is not particularly well drawn either. We are not surprised when she shows up in Gene’s new office and tells him she thinks she is going to be fired as well. The wives of the men are also standard issue.

By focusing on the men who were fired, the film becomes very repetitive. Any new job Bobby tries to get does not work out, until he joins Gene at the end. We are supposed to get a sense that Bobby has opened up a bit as a result of this experience, but we get that in a very conventional touch-football scene with him and people he’s met who are trying to find work as well. I kept waiting for something fresh, and it never came.

The company that Gene founds at the end is supposed to be a consulting company, but it appears to be developing into a shipbuilding company. The company they were fired from was downsizing their shipbuilding division, so what makes Gene and the others think they can make a go of it? Especially in these times. And what bank is going to finance them? Part of our current economic problem is that banks and financial institutions are hoarding money rather than investing it. What Wells sees as a happy ending strikes me as a real pie-in-the-sky idea.

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