Everyone Has Reversals

Story Lessons, Big and Small (Warning: Spoilers!)

July 26, 2005

Writing a life

Normally, I hate biopics. They're long, they're cheesy, and there's always some kind of artificial climax-- the character achieves fame, or loses fame, or dies. These flicks are often slow and weirdly structured because, guess what? Our lives aren't lived in three acts.

Know why I liked Cinderella Man? It didn't pretend to tell a whole life story. How can you? It's a life, man! Instead, this little boxing pic (I can say that 'cause it'll get neglected for next year's Oscars, unless Renee is rewarded yet again) does what a good biopic should: chooses a key time or series of events in a character's life and follows it closely. In this case, the film follows the few key years in Jim Braddock's life and career that anyone cares about: his low-level fame as a possible contender, his fall from grace, and his return. All set in the direst few years of the depression. The stakes are laid out simply-- he needs to work to feed his family, and his best work is in the ring. I don't think I've ever seen a biopic in which the last act is so driven, so focused-- it all comes down to one, long fight, in which everything --his family, and his life-- is on the line.

I wouldn't argue it's a great film, but at least it moved forward with purpose. No time spent in Braddock's childhood, falling in love with boxing as he fended off schoolyard bullies. Because, I mean, really, who would care?

Finding the protagonist

Finding Neverland was an absolutely beautiful film. That I'll likely never watch a second time. Why?

Looking back on it, it feels slight, and slow. The problem? None of the characters except Peter, the child, feels like they have any meat on their bones. They're not characters I feel the need to go a second round with. This is because the film posits J.M. Barrie as the hero of the show, and he's not-- he's just a playwright who needs to write a good play. He doesn't have to change, he doesn't have to grow, and worst of all, he doesn't truly suffer. He just looks sort of uncomfortable at times. The worst that happens to him? Kate Winslet's mother's mean to him, and so's his wife. Compare that to Peter's world-- his father's dead and his mother's dying, and he's growing up way too fast and the magic has all but gone from his life-- and you can see where the real heart of the story is. Peter should've been the protagonist, here. That, or the spine of the film should've been Barrie working at Peter the whole way through... Peter being his biggest challenge ever. Neither is true, and we're left with a protagonist who wanders prettily but softly through his own story.

Just because he's the famous one doesn't mean he has to be the hero! Look at
Amadeus as an example. Or Quills.

July 24, 2005

What am I hoping for?

In Good Company has so many things going for it... likeable actors, some lovely, unpredictable scenes, a hip soundtrack. So why does it fizzle so completely by the end?

It's a question of tension. At first, we're on board with the characters-- middle-aged Dennis Quaid suddenly replaced at work by wunderkind Topher Grace. Topher falls for Dennis's daughter. A great set-up. The film trailers really well. But then... we realize the likely candidate for protagonist isn't Dennis Quaid, the has-been... he's pretty much a great guy and doesn't really have a whole lot of changing to do. So our guy must be Topher. The guy with a Porsche and nothing meaningful in his life.

Well, Topher's romance is over pretty early. The romance doesn't cause Topher to change in any way, and he's not really responsible for the end of the affair. And when things go badly at work, it' s largely because of elements out of his hands-- a corporate culture thing. And he and Dennis even seem to be white-flagging it. So we're left going into the third act with no sense of what the ultimate *problem* in this story is. What does Topher have to do, ultimately? Stand up to Dennis? He seems to want to become a man more like Dennis, so should his ultimate dilemma be, he's got to quit this soul-sucking job and get a life?

The issue here is with the central dramatic question. That question that drives the story, and tells us who to root for and what we're rooting for. The story sets up a couple of good questions-- what'll happen to the romance when Dennis finds out Topher's dating his daughter? Who will triumph as the king of the office, young or old, arrogant or down to earth? Or will they somehow bridge the gap between generations? None of these lines is followed through. Some of these questions are answered too early, some not really at all. So what we're left with is a kind of waiting without knowing what we're waiting for. Which is death to third acts. We need to know what's at stake and what our protagonist has to do, otherwise the third act is just more stuff happening. Especially in a case like this, where it's so clear how satisfying the climax could have been... Topher throwing everything material/superficial away for the sake of the real life he's chosen.