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Understanding Screenwriting #9: Rachel Getting Married, Body of Lies, How I Met Your Mother, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #9: <em>Rachel Getting Married</em>, <em>Body of Lies</em>, <em>How I Met Your Mother</em>, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Rachel Getting Married; Body of Lies; Beverly Hills Chihuahua; How I Met Your Mother; Boston Legal; ER; Crash; Mad Men; First Middle Passage of TV Season, but first…

Fan Mail: Just a brief word on Randy’s comment about Mad Men’s “recontextualizing” of the Carousel projector. Most good shows and films do that all the time. It becomes apparent when you watch something a second time and see how well the filmmakers (yes, I would include directors here) have set elements up that pay off in later ways, such as adding to the meaning of a later scene. See below for some examples in this column’s items.

Rachel Getting Married (2008. Written by Jenny Lumet. 113 minutes): An unpleasant woman shows up for her sister’s wedding and causes all kinds of—wait a minute, didn’t we see this picture last year and wasn’t it called Margot at the Wedding? Well, this one has more music in it. Which is not necessarily a good thing.

The good news is that Lumet has created a terrific main character, Kym, who has been let out of rehab to go to the wedding. She is played by Anne Hathaway. Yes, the cute sweety of The Princess Diaries. But there is nothing sweet about her Kym, and Hathaway tears into the part the way Halle Berry and Charlize Theron tore into their de-glamorized roles in Monster’s Ball and Monster, respectively. Maybe they should have titled this one Monster at the Wedding. What is it anyway about ugly that brings out the most ferocious sides of beautiful actresses?

The first problem with the script is that Lumet does not know what to do with Kym after she has several disruptive scenes with her family. In the second half of the film I think we are supposed to believe that she has come to terms with her family, but that is not really worked out in scenes.

The second problem is that the other characterizations in the script are variable. Rachel, the sister getting married, is strong and has several good scenes with Kym, and Paul, their father, has some nice moments. But Sidney, the groom, is a complete blank, as are his parents. O.K., the film is about Rachel and her family, but Lumet could give the others at least a line or two to define them. Look at Sabrina Dhawan’s screenplay for Monsoon Wedding as an example of how to do it. Carol, the girls’ stepmom, is a nothing part, although since she is played by the great Anna Deavere Smith you keep expecting a great scene with her. There may have been one that got cut. Abby, the girls’ birth mother, is a tricky part, since it appears she walked out on the girls and her husband, as she seems to again here at the end. But Debra Winger is playing Abby, and she has always been one of the most present actresses on film, so she is miscast as someone who keeps fading away.

Because the characterizations are not as sharp as they need to be, scenes that might work don’t. At one point Paul and Sidney get into a discussion of how to load a dishwasher and have a contest to see whose way is faster. Since Paul has not been established as competitive and Sidney has not been established at all, the scene just sits there. According to interviews with Lumet, the scene was inspired by a real life incident in which her father and a friend of his got into that discussion. You know the scene was more interesting in real life when you realize her father is director Sidney Lumet and his friend was Bob Fosse.

Because the script runs out of steam in the last third, the director Jonathan Demme has loaded up the film with a variety of musicians. Watching the last third is like going to a movie and having a concert break out. The music takes us away from the story and the characters.

As does the camerawork. Demme, to give it a “home movie”/documentary feel, has overused a handheld camera. Two problems: first, the shaky-cam look is something that direct cinema filmmakers gave up on in the late sixties. Look at Albert Maysles’s camerawork in the 1969 documentary Salesman, where you can hardly tell it is handheld. Fiction film and television makers continued to use it (Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives and Homicide: Life on the Street), but it is simply annoying. They should have handed out Dramamine at screenings of Rodger Dodger in 2003. The second problem is that the shaky-cam distracts from the performances. In several shots in Rachel, I was so busy trying to find Hathaway’s face in the frame that I missed the emotion she was expressing.

Body of Lies (2008. Screenplay by William Monahan, based on the novel by David Ignatius. 128 minutes): The C.I.A. mucking about in the Middle East, dealing with terrorist and suave local security people—wait a minute, didn’t we see this picture last year and wasn’t it called The Kingdom? No, totally different. That was about the F.B.I. mucking about, etc. and this one is about the C.I.A..

Body of Lies starts out with a rousing scene: British police try to capture terrorists in their home, but one of the terrorists blows up himself, his family, his house, and several of the British police. Action movies these days tend to start off with BIG action sequences, and since this film is directed by Ridley Scott, who directed Black Hawk Down and Gladiator, you can bet he makes it very rousing. But then the story turns conventional: C.I.A. guy on the ground in the Middle East, Ferris, is trying to track down the biggest terrorist of them all. No, not bin Laden, but a fictional one. After all, you don’t spend several million dollars and a year or so of production on a real person who might be caught or killed while you are spending the time and money.

You can see why the C.I.A. wants to get this guy. On the basis of the first hour of the film, he is a lot more efficient than Al Qaeda has turned out to be. He pulls off as many terrorist attacks in Europe in a month than actual terrorists have pulled off in the last eight years. Since there are only a couple of minor mentions of Iraq, this may the first post-Iraq War movie. The focus is entirely on the terrorists, or at least this James Bond villain super-terrorist.

The first hour is mostly conventional stuff, with Ferris running around various countries. His boss at the C.I.A. is Ed Hoffman, whose first scene, briefing some unnamed politicians, suggests he and the film understand asymmetrical warfare: we are high tech and the terrorists are low tech, which means they can get the better of us by very simple means. The film only comes back to that in one of the best scenes in the second half: a character in the middle of the desert is kidnapped by people in four cars, who drive around him so much they create a dust cloud. Our cameras in a spy plane cannot see what happens in the dust, and the four cars drive off in different directions, leaving Hoffman and us to wonder which car the victim is in, and recontextualizing Hoffman’s first scene. If only the rest of the script was that smart and inventive.

I wrote in my last column about American Gangster, also directed by Ridley Scott, and mentioned how it spends way too much time setting up the story and not enough time developing the most interesting narrative elements. There is a similar problem here. About an hour into the picture Ferris comes up with a great idea (that would probably not work in real life, but this is the movies, so…): Set up a completely bogus terrorist ring that will bring the super-terrorist out to confront them. That is the story the picture should have been about. As it stands, it gets rushed into the third quarter of the film, and you can watch all the opportunities that story has just fly by, with Monahan not having the time to develop that story line properly.

Now what if they had told that story? It would have been a better film, but would it have made the film a commercial hit? Probably not, since there has been no indication at the box office in the last year or so that more than a small minority of the movie-going community wants to see films about the Middle East. Which is why Body of Lies, with its hotshot director and two BIG stars (Di Caprio and Crowe) was outgrossed in its first weekend by the second weekend of ... Beverly Hills Chihuahua.

Beverly Hills Chihuahua(2008. Screenplay by Analisa LaBianco and Jeff Bushell, story by Jeff Bushell. 91 minutes): Why do we go to see a movie?

I mentioned in US#3 that I had liked the trailers for Tropic Thunder, but then was put off by the scenes I saw on talk shows. The Beverly Hills Chihuahua trailer made it look like a silly movie, with what were probably the only good jokes in the film in the trailer. The reviews were generally awful. It was the top of the box office its first weekend, but that can be accounted for by people simply wanting to get away from all the bad financial news and the never-ending presidential campaign. But then it topped its second weekend. OK, the financial news was still bad, and the campaign was still never-ending, although they are rumors the latter will stop soon. Sometimes I’ll see a movie I hadn’t planned to because it turns out to be a big hit, but I was not yet convinced by this one. Then Drew Barrymore, who voices the title character, Chloe, showed up on Leno with a clip. It was not just jokes, but the movie seem to have developed ... characters.

Beverly Hills Chihuahua is a silly movie. But it is not a stupid silly movie. It’s a smart silly movie. The characters, yes, even, or especially, the dogs are well drawn. Chloe is the pampered pet of cosmetics tycoon Vivian, who leaves her in the care of her scatterbrained niece Rachel, who manages to lose her on a trip to Mexico. Chloe is established as spoiled, but early on in the Mexico section he watches part of a Day of the Dead celebration and likes it. Well, yes, it would appeal to her love of the gaudy, but it also suggests she may be more open to another culture than her human owners. One problem with American indie films like Rachel Getting Married is that the characters are hermetically sealed in their own little universe and never get out of it. And when they do, as in Body of Lies, they screw up. Beverly Hills Chihuahua is a little cheerier than that.

Chloe is rescued by Delgado, another dog. He is Charlie Alnutt to her Rose Sayer. He is an ex-police dog with a secret and a very gruff manner. LaBianco and Bushell have written some good reactions for him, and good scenes with Chloe. One sharp scene, in a train yard, riffs on Brief Encounter, The Defiant Ones, and In the Line of Fire in the course of about a minute without being obvious about it. Delgado is such a strong character that an unspoken triangle develops between him, Chloe, and Papi, the dog belonging to Vivian’s landscaper who ends up in Mexico hunting for Chloe with Rachel. Papi is feisty and smart-mouthed, getting one of the best lines in the picture. When the Mexican police are reluctant to swing into action, he says, “We are Mexicans, not Mexican’ts.”

One complaint critics had was that the film was demeaning to Mexico and Mexicans. It isn’t. The film loves Mexico and Mexican culture. The Mexicans, both human and canine, are no sillier than the gringos, both human and canine, and some of them, like Delgado and Monte, are smarter. Monte is the chief of a Wild Bunch of Chihuahuas who rescue Chloe and Delgado, and instill pride in Chloe for being a Chihuahua. That sounds funny, and it is, because the word “Chihuahua” is essentially funny, but the scene is also touching. Having Plácido Domingo doing the voice helps. I will not tell you, by the way, who does the voice of Delgado. You could look it up, but see the film without knowing and see if you can guess. Amazing what an actor can do if he does not have to be seen.

OK, I will admit this is not a great movie, but it is a much better one than other critics have told you. It is yet another example, along with Chaplin and Eastwood where the public was way ahead of the critics.

How I Met Your Mother(2008. Episode “Intervention” written by Stephen Lloyd. 30 minutes): Every good show eventually has an episode everyone connected with it would just like to forget. This will be one of those.

Lily and Marshall are moving out of the apartment they share with Ted, who is also moving out. He is going to Jersey to live with Stella, who does not appear in this episode at all. The gang begins to have memories of interventions they have had for each other: an alcoholic friend, Lily’s fake English accent, Robin’s bad tan. None of these connect, nor are particularly funny in themselves. The discussion leads to the discovery that the gang had planned an intervention with Ted about his marrying Stella, but decided not to do it. His persuades them to have the intervention now. See the problem the showrunners have by jumping ahead at the beginning of the season? We are seeing something semi-re-created that we should have seen “live” when the idea came to the gang. Ted and Marshall decide to stay in the apartment, which makes sense only in keeping the cast in enough proximity they can continue to interact. Robin decides not to move to Japan. Then they all go to their bar and decide to go. Not exactly firm decision makers, are they? But they decide to meet back at the bar a year later. We jump ahead a year and they are back at the bar, but say they are going back up to their apartment. That’s a lot of dancing around just to keep everything the same.

And there is still no additional development of the Barney-loves-Robin storyline.

Boston Legal (2008. Episode “True Love” written by David E. Kelley. 60 minutes): Remember Phoebe from two weeks ago? The lawyer Alan Shore was once truly in love with? You don’t think a smart writer like David E. Kelley would let her get away, do you? She’s ba-a-a-ck.

She shows up in the middle of an Alan-Denny sleepover with the distressing news that her husband, “the best cardiologist in Boston,” as she tells Alan several times, has been arrested for murder. He agrees to take the case, although Denny, in one his more lucid moments, tells him to get out of it. Denny says that if he loses the case, he will embarrass himself in front of the woman he loves. If he wins, he will lose Phoebe. Alan continues on the case, of course. Phoebe tells Alan he still loves her, and that she loves him, but she is staying with her husband no matter the outcome.

In Act III (of the five acts Kelley uses; see what I told in US#6 about dividing up stories into however many acts you want?), Alan tells Phoebe he will not call her husband to the stand, since he is so cold and unsympathetic. He will call Phoebe, and he hopes that she will be more convincing to the jury than she is to him. What Kelley does is make us uncertain about Phoebe, but also about Alan, given Denny’s warning. Phoebe seems cold, but not as much as her husband. We don’t know what her motives are. All of this gives Ally Walker, who plays Phoebe, a lot to work with, which she does beautifully.

In Act IV, Phoebe tells the jury that her husband did leave the house the night of the murder, which she had been denying. She later tells Alan she was afraid of perjury. Is she lying? On the stand? To Alan? Alan talks to the husband, and then attacks Phoebe on the stand, asking her if she had had treatment for mental illness and had pulled a knife on her daughter. She denies this, but Alan plants the seed that she might have committed the murder.

Act V: the verdict is Not Guilty. Phoebe shows up in Alan’s office and admits she planned the defense, especially after he told her she was not convincing. She told her husband to tell Alan the “bad” things about her. The husband cannot be tried again because of double jeopardy, and there is no physical evidence linking her to the murder. She denied on the stand all the charges Alan made, which Alan presented in court, so she is technically not guilty of perjury. She and her husband get away free, and Alan is devastated, which we have not often seen in this show. In their final patio scene Denny tells Alan he knew she was guilty all along, but did not tell Alan. He had to find it out for himself.

This is not a typical Boston Legal episode. None of the law firm’s other characters show up, and we are focused only the one case. This gives Kelley and his cast a chance to get into the main characters with more depth than usual, as well as giving us a femme fatale in the great film noir tradition. Because of the time spent with her, we get the plot twists and turns as part of her character. And because she means so much to Alan, we get greater insight into him. By the end we actually feel sorry for him, not something that usually occurs on this show.

ER (2008. Episode “The Book of Abby” written by David Zabel. 60 minutes): How do you send off Abby Lockhart?

She has been a character on ER for ten years. She has gone from being a nurse to a doctor, had relapses as an alcoholic, dealt with a totally wacko mother, got pregnant and married, had marital difficulties, and who remembers what else? So you want to do right by her, and by Maura Tierney, the actress playing her. But this is the final season and there are going to be a lot of good-byes (they killed Pratt a few weeks before, and as I have said, nobody is safe).

The solution Zabel, who has been writing on the show since 2001, finds is to make it a typical day at County for her. We see her first in her apartment, which has been cleaned out, then coming to work, going to the locker with her nametag on it, and dealing immediately with a gunshot victim. She tells Neela that she does not want a big goodbye party, and Zabel manages to avoid one. Abby has to deal with the new Dr. Banfield, but even that is low key, although you could make the scene in which Banfield assumes Abby is new on the job into something bigger. It is more in keeping with the tone of the episode not to make it bigger.

Abby does take time to go up to surgery to watch Neela operate on the gunshot victim, and she comments on the new furniture in the observation room, a nice counterpoint to the drama. Abby goes with Sam to a hearing in which Sam may be disciplined. Abby tells off the administrators in a very conventional “on the nose” speech that tells us and them everything we already know about the ER and the people who work there. But her exit line, as she leaves the meeting, is great. She turns at the door and says, “Don’t make me come back here.”

Zabel has found another nice moment closer to the end. Abby takes the nametag over her locker and is about to leave with it when nurse Haleh says she cannot take it with her. Haleh then reveals a wall where the nametags of former doctors and nurses have been placed. We recognize many of the names. Nice detail. Nice finish for Abby and Tierney.

Crash (2008. “Episode One” written by Glenn Mazzara and Ted Mann & Randy Huggins. 52 minutes): And yes, it is based on or inspired by the 2005 film Crash, screenplay by Paul Haggis & Bobby Moresco, story by Paul Haggis, but they somehow leave that out of the credits. One can see why.

Crash was one of the worst screenplays ever to win an Academy Award. Its view of race in Los Angeles was incredibly simplistic: everybody in LA is racist and all it takes to erupt in racist behavior is a slight shove. The view of race was that of the white, liberal, Westide of LA, NYMBY (Not in my back yard) crowd: there is a lot of racism out there and I am not guilty of it, but I may be and I certainly don’t want any of those Terminally Swarthy (in Joe Morgenstern’s great phrase) people coming to my neighborhood and robbing and killing me, raping my wife, forcing my kids to listen to rap and eat tacos and lowering property values.

Race in LA is a lot more complex and nuanced than the movie Crash captured. There are people who are obsessed with race, people who don’t think about it at all (and not just white people in this category), and people who think about it on certain occasions, just to name the major categories. Sometimes race is very much part of the public discussion (the first O.J. Simpson trial), sometimes not (the Lakers). Sometimes it is just an undercurrent, without rising to the level of public discussion. Race in LA is not as often seen in terms of the emotional violence as the movie Crash shows.

The focus of the television series has been shifted away from race as an issue, which is all to the good. The cast, at least as of the pilot, is multi-racial, although so far none of the recurring characters are Latino, which right away makes it unreal. What takes the place of race is a more general form of anger. Everybody ends up yelling at everybody else. Which is not LA. We tend to be very laid back, polite, and pleasant. Before we stick the knife in your back.

Obviously what the series needs is the sociological sophistication of Beverly Hills Chihuahua.

Mad Men (2008. Episode “The Mountain King” written by Matthew Weiner and Robin Veith. 60 minutes): As I have mentioned before, one of the recurring themes in this series is the relationships between men and women, and Weiner and Veith pull off a beaut in this episode. Through a flashback, we find that Don has been approached by the widow of the “real” Don Draper. So we assume there will be legal and emotional complications. Guess again. She is the person he went to see after he skipped out on the convention in Los Angeles, and she lives in San Pedro, one of working class areas of the Los Angeles area. What we see is that our Don and Anna developed a relationship over the years. But not a romantic relationship. She is almost like a big sister to him, and freely gave him a “divorce” so that as Don Draper he can marry Betty. He is more open with Anna than he is with anybody else on the show. We learn a lot about Don (and her) in a series of beautifully written flashbacks. Perhaps what has been bothering Don the first two seasons, especially in his relationship with Betty, is that he does not have the warm relationship with anybody else that he has had with Anna.

The First Middle Passage of the 2008-2009 Television Season: Last season’s cliffhangers have been dealt with and shows are now being prepared for their November sweeps episodes. As we saw above, Phoebe is gone from Boston Legal and Abby has left ER. In Ugly Betty’s “Betty Suarez Land” they ended the Hilda and Troy romance and sent Alexis off to Europe, ending the storyline about her son. In CSI’s “The Happy Place” the CSIs are back investigating regular, i.e., weird, cases, with Sara leaving and Grissom thinking about what that means for him. Two and a Half Men still has not yet come to grips with Jake’s adolescence, and How I Met Your Mother’s “Shelter Island” episode broke up Ted and Stella and brought Robin back from Japan, while Barney has been reduced to merely wanting to sleep with Robin.

Meanwhile The Ex-List’s “Protect and Serve” (which still has Dianne Ruggiero’s name attached as executive producer, although not as the writer of this episode) has reduced the raunch element. Bella’s friend (and not her roommate, as I wrote in the last column) Vivian is now not talking about shaving her private parts. She is wearing a bikini at the beach, and her male high school students flirt with her, which leads to the school principal giving her a hard time. Bikinis for the CSI: Miami crowd, but God forbid anybody should talk about anything sexual. And Bella did not sleep with the ex-boyfriend she meets in this episode. God forbid a network series should have a really sexually active woman in the lead rather than as the kooky best friend.

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.