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Understanding Screenwriting #71: Cedar Rapids, Unknown, Just Go With It, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #71: <em>Cedar Rapids</em>, <em>Unknown</em>, <em>Just Go With It</em>, & More

Coming Up in This Colum: Cedar Rapids, Unknown, Just Go With It, On the Beach (2000), The Magnificent Ambersons (2001), but first…

Fan Mail: I was recently emailing back and forth with Ed Gonzalez, the capo di tutti capi of Slant Magazine, about our readers. I made the point that I really appreciated the readers of Understanding Screenwriting because compared to readers who write into other blogs, etc, the comments from my peeps—unless of course they are flogging the Hero’s Journey—are never less than interesting.

Exhibit A is David Ehrenstein’s putting La Dolce Vita (1960), which I dealt with in the last column, in some historical perspective. I did not know about the incident he mentions that foreshadowed the final scene. I was also taken with his comment on the connection of that period in Italy to the Berlusconi years. How true.

Olaf Barthel, along with David, made some perceptive comments about The Illusionist.

Matt Maul took me to task “in a friendly way, or course” (see what I mean about the readers) for not mentioning Ricardo Montalban’s performance in Mystery Street. I was going to throw in a word or two about Montalban, but sometimes I at least try to restrain myself about actors. As readers know, I do get into performances, sometimes more than I should in a column on screenwriting, but you can see the connection, as in several films I deal with this time around. Montalban of course is terrific in the film, as in several others he did around the same time. Look at him in Border Incident (1949) as well.

Cedar Rapids (2011. Written by Phil Johnston. 86 minutes.)

Mr. Deeds goes to Cedar Rapids: Well, it sounds like something Robert Riskin might have whipped up for Frank Capra. Tim Lippe, a small town Wisconsin insurance salesman, is assigned to attend a convention in Cedar Rapids after the death of the agent who usually goes. Lippe, who has never been out of his small town, gets involved with a lot of strange people at the convention, such as the freewheeling Dean “Deanzie” Zigler, who does his best to loosen Lippe up. There is also the very straight black salesman Ronald Wilkes, and a “one of the boys” saleswoman Joan Ostrowski-Fox. They introduce him to the wild convention life, and help him outwit Orin Helgesson, the corrupt leader of the convention.

But where is Riskin when you need him? Riskin’s Longfellow Deeds and Sydney Buchman’s Jefferson Smith are naïve small-town guys, but they are not stupid. Lippe seems stupid from the get-go, especially for an insurance salesman who surely has had to deal with a lot of the vicissitudes of life in his work. You cannot tell it from the character on the screen. He seems like a complete blank. And it comes as a complete shock when we learn early in the film that he is having an affair with his former schoolteacher, Marci Vanderhei. How did he manage that? We have no idea. We get a hint late in the film why she is getting it on with him, but only a hint.

Since Lippe does not seem to have a brain in his head, he has no reactions to what he discovers on his trip. Johnston has not developed the character enough so that there are any reactions he can have. Look at how Deeds and Smith react to the new worlds they find themselves in. The film is not helped by having Ed Helms in his first starring role as Lippe. Helms has done mostly voiceover work and character parts in films. As Stu, the one straight guy among the goofballs in The Hangover (2009: see US#28), Helms was a nice counterbalance to the crazies. But he simply does not have the charisma to carrying a leading role. The director cuts to him for reaction shots, but there is nothing there. Look at the reactions we get from Gary Cooper as Deeds and James Stewart as Smith.

The other characters are not particularly well developed, either. Deanzie is a standard issue wild character and would be a perfect fit for John C. Reilly, but Johnston does not give him anything fresh to play. Isiah Whitlock Jr. is very limited by the character of Wilkes. On the other hand, Johnston has given Anne Heche a lot to do with Ostrowski-Fox, and she is easily the best thing in the picture. And the payoff for her is that at the end of the film, the three guys agree to go off to a cabin in the woods, and the shots with the credits show only them and not her. It may have occurred to somebody connected with the film that they really ought to have included her, because we then get another set of shots under the credits, this time with the three of them starting their own insurance company.

For a better way to do a modern version of a Riskin script, look at the Judd Apatow-Steve Carell screenplay for The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005). Andy is innocent, at least in the sense that he has not had sex, but he is also not stupid. He knows what he is missing, and pushed by his buddies, he eventually finds true love. We know Andy and the writers give him not only a lot of things to react to, but reactions that are true to his character. It also helps that you have Carell playing Andy, who uses his deadpan reactions much better than Helms does his.

Unknown (2011. Screenplay by Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell, based on the novel Out of My Head by Didier van Cauwelaert. 113 minutes.)

Unknown

Smarter than Taken: Two years ago, Taken (see US#20) established Liam Neeson as a kickass action hero. This is his followup film to that one. As I wrote about Taken, it was a simple, sometimes simple-minded, B-movie thriller: Ex-spy learns his daughter has been kidnapped in Paris and he goes there and kills people until he rescues her. Unknown is a lot smarter (and considerably longer), with Neeson’s Martin Harris not opening up his cans of whoop-ass until late in the film.

Although the film is longer than Taken, the pacing is just as quick. We are only ten minutes into the film when Harris, a scientist who is visiting Berlin for a conference, is in an automobile accident. He wakes up in the hospital four days later, and when he goes to his hotel, nobody, including his wife, recognizes him. The story has a number of plot holes (I just thought of another one as I wrote the previous line), but many of them are so far into the picture I would be giving away too many of the twists if I told them. But here is one fairly early in the picture. When Harris wakes up from his coma, he wants to go to the American Embassy so he can prove who he is. He is told by his doctor that the Embassy is closed for four days because it is the Thanksgiving weekend. As WikiLeaks has so nicely shown, the American Foreign Service is not as incompetent as some people seem to think they are. There would at least be a skeleton staff on duty just in case, say, a deposed Middle East dictator wanted asylum in Germany. There are bigger holes in the plot, and this being an A picture, we care about them a little more than we did in Taken.

About half an hour in, after Harris has had no luck proving he is who he says he is, he is about to assume the accident screwed up his brain when people start to try to kill him. The single most suspenseful scene in the film is Harris trying to get to a pair of scissors to protect himself. Harris gets some help later from the taxi driver who was in the crash with him, as well as a former Stasi agent Jurgen, who is now sort of a seedy private eye. He is a nice character, if a little reminiscent of the former Stasi officer in The International, which came out about the same time as Taken. Jurgen is played by the great German actor Bruno Ganz, and the writers give him a great scene with Frank Langella as Rodney Coe, an old acquaintance of Harris.

The twists begin to pile up in the last half-hour and most of them are convincing at the time, although you may have second thoughts on the way home. The biggest one of all is also the trickiest, since it suddenly makes one of the most sympathetic characters definitely unsympathetic, but the boys write themselves out of that one very nicely. And I was delighted to see at the end that two of the major surviving characters get on board a train to get out of Berlin. There may well be an Unknown 2 and I would vote for it to be a great train thriller.

Ah, one other thing. In my comments on Taken, I mentioned that Neeson had had some “work” done on his eyes. He has either had a little more done, or his face has just adjusted to the original work, but he looks human in this film. Even when he’s opening up those cans of whoop-ass.

Just Go With It (2011. Screenplay by Allan Loeb and Timothy Dowling, based on the screenplay by I.A.L. Diamond, based on the stage play by Abe Burrows, adapted from the French play by Pierre Barillet & Jean-Pierre Grédy. 117 minutes.)

Just Go With It

Remakes, take one: This was originally a French boulevard farce, Fleur de Cactus. A man must convince his mistress he is married, so he gets his office assistant to pretend to be his wife. The assistant turns out to be in love with him. It was adapted for Broadway under the title Cactus Flower by a master of stage comedy, Abe Burrows. Starring Lauren Bacall as the assistant, it ran for three years. The movie of Cactus Flower came out in 1969, with the 54-year-old Ingrid Bergman as the assistant. In this version the man is a dentist, and he has accidentally proposed to his younger girlfriend, so he enlists the assistant to help him out of it. In all these versions, the focus is on the assistant as a woman of a certain age. She is the star and she ends up with the guy. The problem with the 1969 film was that the young girlfriend was played by a new and fresh Goldie Hawn who stole the picture and won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

I never saw the stage play, and I only saw the movie once when it came out, but the film and presumably the two earlier plays were clearly the work of people who understood the craft of comedy writing. That is less true of this newer version of the tale, although some of that may come from the fact that this version is intended as a star vehicle for Adam Sandler as the guy. The script as written may be better than it sounds in the film, since Sandler is obviously riffing on the lines. In some scenes he plays, reasonably well, what’s written and in others he is just larking about. We are never quite sure which Adam Sandler is going to show up in which shot.

Burrows and Diamond didn’t write that kind of material. The plotting here is incredibly sloppy. Midway through the film the whole cast goes off to Hawaii on the whim of one of the assistant’s kids. That gives us some scenes of Sandler and the kids, but they seem tacked on, and a golf scene with the kids stops the momentum of the film, which was never strong in the first place. The scenic shots of Hawaii also slow things down. If I wanted this much Hawaiian scenery, I’d either go there or stay home and watch Hawaii Five-0. I happened to be showing Buster Keaton’s 1925 classic Seven Chances in my film history class at Los Angeles City College a few days after I saw Just Go With It and the narrative and visual eloquence of the Keaton film put this one to shame. As James Agee said of the silent film comedians, “they knew, and sweated to obey, the laws of their craft.”

Sandler’s Danny is no longer a dentist, but a plastic surgeon, which means we get a lot of plastic surgery jokes before the film kicks into gear. We also get a backstory about how Danny was left at the altar and has been using the gimmick of pretending to be in a bad marriage as a way to get girls. The backstory is supposed to make Danny sympathetic, but it just makes clear he has been a horndog most of his life. Early on he meets Palmer, a young and apparently flawless beauty, who also teaches elementary school. She is played by swimsuit model Brooklyn Decker, who is not unpleasant, but is no Goldie Hawn. If Goldie Hawn stole the ’69 version from Ingrid Bergman, Jennifer Aniston steals this one from Sandler as well as Decker. Unlike Bergman and Bacall, Aniston looks like what the forties look like now, i.e. late twenties in 1960s terms. After we and the guys in the film have ogled Decker in a bikini, Aniston strips down to her bikini. And blows Decker off the screen. Along with her natural likability, Aniston works everything into her favor. Unlike Sandler, Aniston sticks to the character and the lines the writers have written for her. Amazing what sticking to the script can do for you.

On the Beach (2000. Screenplay by David Williamson and Bill Kerby, based on the screenplay by John Paxton and the novel by Nevil Shute. 195 minutes.)

On the Beach

Remakes, take two: Shute’s 1958 novel and the 1959 film written by Paxton were big successes in their day because they were very much a part of their time. That time was the height of the Cold War with its fear of annihilation by nuclear war. Shute’s novel came out only 13 years after the use of atomic bombs at the end of the World War II, and we were very much toe-to-toe with the Russkies, as a character in a slightly later film on the same subject put it. The story of the novel and the ’59 film deals with an American submarine in the aftermath of nuclear war. Egypt attacked American forces, and the Americans assumed the attack came from Russia. Boom, boom, BOOM. The submarine gets to Australia, but the clouds of radiation are eventually going to overtake the Southern Hemisphere as well. Everybody is going to die. The story deals with the last months of life on earth, with the focus on a relatively small set of characters: the captain of the submarine, an alcoholic party girl, a scientist who predicted the whole mess and a young Australian naval officer and his wife. At the end the Aussie couple and the scientist are dead, the submarine is going out to sea so the men can die there, and the party girl is left on the shore watching the sub leave. Not exactly material for the feel-good movie of the year.

The producer of the 1959 film was Stanley Kramer, noted for his messages pictures, such as The Defiant Ones (1958) and Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner (1967). The writer he picked was John Paxton, who was best known for his films noir, such as the 1944 Murder, My Sweet and the 1946 Cornered, but he also did messages pictures, such as the 1947 Crossfire. According to an interview Paxton did with J.D. Marshall in Blueprint on Babylon, Paxton wanted to focus on the characters, but Kramer ended up cutting or condensing those scenes to make the message stronger. One banner that Kramer kept returning to was “There is still time.” Can’t get more messagey than that. Kramer, like Darryl F. Zanuck before him, loaded up his message films with star power. Gregory Peck is Cmdr. Towers, Ava Gardner is Moira the party girl, Fred Astaire (in his first dramatic role) is Julien the scientist and Anthony Perkins is the young Australian officer.

Because of the cast and its aura of “importance,” the film was a hit, grossing more in its year than Some Came Running and The Horse Soldiers, but less than North by Northwest and Some Like it Hot. When I saw the film for a second time a few years later, I was more impressed with it as a star vehicle than as a message picture. Then, as I wrote in my book American Audiences on Movies and Moviegoing,

“I saw it in a theatre in 1995, and it dated in an odd way. An early scene in the picture identifies the year it takes place as 1964, which immediately took the later audience out of the story, since we knew several things the picture does not. The world did not end in 1964. The threat of nuclear weapons continues, but not in the way the film suggests, and there has been more damage from nuclear power than weapons. On the one hand, a 1995 viewing was a relief for the audience that knows it did not happen. On the other hand, the political events that took place between the time of the film’s release and 1995 indicated the kind of stupidity the film suggests in human behavior is still very much with us, if not more so. Who knows how the film will play in another thirty-five years?”

The 2000 version was an Australian film made for cable television. I didn’t have cable at the time, so I finally caught up with it on DVD. They have updated it to either 2004 or 2006, depending on the source you read, but the material is still dated, and for some of the same reasons the ’59 version seems dated. So far—keep your fingers crossed—there has not been a nuclear war. The war in the 2000 version comes between China and the United States over Taiwan, but that sounds more ’50s than ’00s (although with China you never know). Of course it seems even more dated watching it in 2011, since our nuclear weapons concern now is not massive war, but terrorists sneaking a bomb into a large populated area.

The credits make a point that the script is based on Paxton’s script as well as the novel, and I can’t help but wonder if the writers had unearthed his draft of the script, since the newer film does spend more time on the characters than the version Kramer made. The focus is more on the characters than the issues. David Williamson is a sharp Australian playwright and screenwriter, and he dealt with political issues very well in his plays and screenplays. Among the latter are Gallipoli (1981) and The Year of Living Dangerously (1982). It is possible that Williamson’s draft was smarter than the final film. The second writer on the film was Bill Kerby, and his credits including the 1978 Burt Reynolds action film Hooper, the story for The Rose (1978), and a 2000 television movie Little Richard, about exactly whom the title tells you it is about. Since Williamson gets the first credit, he probably worked on it first and Kerby second.

The characterization is a mixed bag. The submarine captain is identified in the dialogue as a Commander, but his shoulderboards have four stripes, indicating he is a Captain. He does not behave like any Captain I knew in the Navy, and I don’t think that is just Armand Assante’s all-over-the map performance. Rachel Ward is Moira, and a lot less is made of her drinking than in the first film. Ward does not have the sad, fading beauty quality that made Gardner so memorable, but she is a whole lot livelier and more fun to be around. Just what you want if the world is ending. In the ’59 version Julien was her cousin, but in this version he is her ex-husband. He is played by Ward’s real-life husband Bryan Brown, and he is a lot more energetic than Astaire was and gets some good scenes with Ward and the others as well.

The film uses its additional running time (it is 62 minutes longer) not only for characterization but to expand on what the submarine finds on a trip back to America. The ’59 version just gave us empty street scenes, but this version has some scenes of rotting corpses. In the ’59 version Julien drives in a suicide auto race and after managing to survive that, he kills himself in a closed garage with his car. The newer version apparently cannot afford a race, so it just has Julien driving wildly on an empty race track and killing himself in the most unconvincing car crash in recent memory. In the end of the film, the submarine goes out to sea and Ward’s Moira is standing on the shore as Gardner’s did. Then they kill the ending by Assante’s Towers walking up to her. He’s left his ship. Some Captain he is.

The Magnificent Ambersons (2001. Based on a screenplay by Orson Welles, based on the novel by Booth Tarkington. 150 minutes)

The Magnificent Ambersons

Remakes, take three: The hype on this made-for-television version was that they were going back to shoot Welles’s original screenplay, finally Giving the World the Story the Way ORSON WELLES Wanted it to be Seen, before those awful, terrible people at RKO cut it to shreds back in 1942. Two problems with that. The first is that Welles’s original screenplay is not as good as his film. Yes, it is longer and more detailed, but there are a lot of long dialogue scenes that should have been and were cut, and many of the cuts were by Welles. I may be one of the few film historians in captivity that insists that the ending of the film is better than the one in script.

The second problem is that they have not shot Welles’s script. I assume they do not list any other screenwriters than Welles for publicity reasons. Having read Welles’s script, I will point out to you some of the changes. (I read the script at Miles Kreuger’s Institute of the American Musical. Additional material on the script is from Charles Higham’s 1970 book The Films of Orson Welles, which includes an appendix of cuts and changes in the 1942 film. I am even more surprised than you that I have not read Robert Carringer’s 1993 book The Magnificent Ambersons: A Reconstruction, in which the author of the classic The Making of Citizen Kane gives you the original screenplay, along with notes and production photos.)

The script starts, as does the 1942 film, with a wonderful prologue that lays out the history of the Ambersons and each of the major characters. We see why young Eugene Morgan failed in his wooing of Isabel Amberson and how she ended up spoiling her only son, Georgie Minafer. The prologue finishes with various townspeople saying they hoped to live to see Georgie get his comeuppance. It is one of the great movie openings of all time. The 2001 version opens with Eugene and his daughter Lucy coming back to Indianapolis many years later and attending a ball at the Amberson mansion. So we have to get all the backstory in flashbacks, which slow down the momentum of the film.

In Welles’s script and the ’42 film, Georgie is a spoiled rich kid who seems totally clueless about the real world. In the newer version he seems more like a psychopath. In The Making of the Magnificent Ambersons featurette on the DVD, Alfonso Arau, the director, talks about how in this version they could bring out the Oepidus complex Georgie has about his mother. Huh? Where did that come from? Not from either Tarkington or Welles. If anything, the person with the complex is Isabel, who is extremely protective of Georgie, but there is very little in Tarkington or Welles to suggest there is anything sexual about it. This change distorts the material, and the film is not helped by having Jonathan Rhys Meyers play Georgie as a thoroughly unpleasant fellow. Tim Holt’s 1942 Georgie has his obnoxious moments, but there is a likable stupidity about him. When asked what he wants to be in life, Georgie replies, in both versions, “A yachtsman.” Holt’s Georgie is perfectly serious, which makes the line funny, while Meyers’s Georgie thinks it is funny, which it isn’t without Holt’s attitude. Because of the focus on Isabel and Georgie the film either loses completely or skates overt the social observations of Tarkington and Welles about the rich, the world in which these characters live, and the industrial and social changes in society during the times the film takes place.

One problem I always had with the 1942 is that, for all the talk about Georgie getting his comeuppance, we never see it in the film. Georgie is run over by a car, and while Welles had it in his script, it is not in the film. There are just a couple of comments by by-standers and a notice in a (Kane) newspaper. Nor in Welles’s script do we see Georgie after the accident. In the ’01 film we see the accident, but the film has dropped the use of the term comeuppance, so it does not have the impact it should. In the script there is a scene with Eugene writing a letter to the now-dead Isabel describing the scene in the hospital between Georgie and Lucy. The 2001 film keeps that, but I prefer the way the information gets conveyed in the final scene in the ’42 film, where the discussion is directly between Eugene and Fanny outside the hospital room. Yes, this was made by somebody other than Welles, but it is more condensed and more direct. In the 2001 version we see Georgie, Lucy, Eugene and Fanny in the hospital room. If the rest of the picture was better, this ending (followed by Eugene writing his letter to Isabel) might have worked.

When things go wrong in a script, everything else seems to fall apart. The ’42 version was filmed on the RKO lot, with the studio technicians creating a very convincing turn-of-the-century Indianapolis. The ’01 version was shot in…Ireland. In the featurette a point is made that Irish mansions look like mansions the Ambersons may have had. Uh, no. I grew up in Bloomington, 52 miles south of Indianapolis, and visited the city a lot. I never saw anything that looked like the houses in this version. A long CGI shot of what is supposed to be Indianapolis shows a small town down in a valley. Indianapolis is mostly flat. Welles of course was from the Midwest, had known the novel for years and had done a radio adaptation for his Mercury Theatre of the Air. Alfonso Arau is from Mexico and seems in the featurette to be more concerned about the Oedipal relationship between Georgie and Isabel.

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.