Everyone Has Reversals

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

November 28, 2005

Untwist Me, Foul Wench

Concerning the case of the fine film
Mystic River and its damaging coda.

Mystic River
follows the struggles of three men who’ve been connected to one another since a traumatic incident in their childhoods. As adults, Sean, Tim, and Kevin have a guarded but genuine friendship. When Sean’s teenage daughter is murdered, old tensions come to the surface. While Kevin sets out to find the killer, Sean struggles with his increasing belief that maybe Tim is the one who killed his daughter—and we wonder, too. Finally, after we’ve learned (without Sean knowing) that Tim is, in fact, guilty of a killing, but not the killing of Sean’s daughter, we watch as Sean has the biggest decision of his life to make: to kill Tim, or not to kill Tim?

Decisions like this are the stuff of great drama and great tragedy. The way that moment of decision is built is completely organic to both Sean and Tim’s characters.

And then, in the closing moments of the film... dun dun dun! Sean has a moment with his wife, and it turns out it was Lady Macbeth, er, The Wicked Stepmother, uh, Six the Cylon, um, Laura Linney all along. The coda implies that Laura was manipulating her husband somehow. Well…
what? Why? How? When? And all those other good questions.

This “twist” isn’t just unnecessary—it actually taints the experience of viewing the film. You don’t need a twist when the movie clearly plays out impossible decisions with terrible consequences for characters we empathize with. We were completely on board with the tragedy of Sean Penn’s final choice and decision. Then, with the “twist”, we left the theatre confused, and a bit abused.

No new directions in the last five minutes, unless we’re talking about a horror cliffhanger ending. Otherwise… let us feel the weight of consequences for actions we actually witnessed and understood.

Most people who still say they enjoyed this film, ignore this ending.

Yep, that’s anecdotal evidence, right there. Deal with it.

November 23, 2005

Que Sera Sera

There are so many good lessons to be learned from Withnail & I, but here’s a fun one: when looking to create jeopardy in the character-driven comedy or drama, just show us what a given character is in danger of becoming, should they keep going down the same path they’re on. Withnail is ten drunk years away from being his lecherous, failed-actor uncle, Monty. Which is hilarious; and tragic.

For a more recent example, think the Will Ferell “funeral crasher” in Wedding Crashers.

Make the mentor a monster.

Shortest post ever. Yessss!

November 19, 2005

Cute Meet Cute

The "cute meet" (or "meet cute", depending on your sources) in Hitch is pretty darn cute.

For those not in the know, the cute meet is the moment in a romantic comedy in which the lovebirds meet. That moment needs to do a lot of things. First, it needs to show a spark between the two. We need to buy the chemistry instantly. This moment also generally shows us, simultaneously, how these two people are perfect for each other, as well as why they won't truly be able to be together for a while.

In Hitch, the cute meet has Will Smith and Eva Mendes coyly agreeing on why they'll be better off without each other, and why they should both just go their separate ways. In other words, instead of the flirting or sparring we'd expect from a moment like this, we have the characters pushing each other away.

It's perfect for the characters, in that they're both uber control freaks who recognize that dating is a kind of game, and they're both skilled players. They're destined to be together... and yet this moment also shows us they can't possibly be together yet, because, well, they're playing a game. Will's going to need to relinquish his seduction techniques, and Eva's going to have to allow herself to get close to someone.

The moment clearly establishes the characters' chemistry as well as their flaws. But while it does all that, it's also sexy.

Let's not forget about sexy, okay?

November 15, 2005

A Bomb for All Ages

Who knew the kids' movie The Sandlot would owe so much to Hitchcock?

At least-- it was Hitchcock who articulated it most memorably: if, in a movie, you've got a bomb under the dining room table, you've got to show us the bomb before it goes off. This is what creates tension, suspense, fear, dread, and anticipation, as opposed to the audience merely being shocked when the bomb goes off. The bomb can be big (and take a whole movie to pay off) or small (and be set up and pay off within a scene).

What I didn't realize was that, when we know there's a bomb, you can get away with almost anything in the meantime. The Sandlot is mostly comprised of sequences involving a bunch of boys in 1962 and the trouble they get into. But while we're watching sequence after sequence of playing baseball, the boys getting sick on chewing tobacco at the fair, the boys getting kicked out of the public pool for tricking the hot lifeguard into giving "Squints" mouth-to-mouth... we're also constantly reminded that it was that summer that Scotty Smalls got into "the biggest pickle of his life". And we know this pickle is probably going to involve "The Beast"-- the monster-sized, man-eating dog chained up in the backyard next to the sandlot.

We know something big is coming. And so, we wait patiently through events that are totally unrelated to one another. We're given permission to sit back and enjoy them, random though they might be, because the bomb's coming... eventually.

It's a pretty good pickle --er, bomb-- too.

November 09, 2005

That Other Girl

Kate Winslet's character in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is also a kooky, spontaneous gal. But Kate is, in fact, a fully-developed character. Her quirkiness and seemingly attractive spontaneity are more than just character trappings... these traits are complex, and actually play a part in the unfolding of the story.

Kate's quirky characteristics are complex in a number of ways, but mainly because of this: Kate herself is aware of them, and how she is perceived. The character --and, by extension, the film-- knows the character is a collection of trinkets with colourfully dyed hair. The minute the character acknowledges this fact, and rather sadly, is the minute I start to actually buy into the character. Hmm-- she knows she's kind of empty and potentially tiresome. Interesting!

(If you want me to love a character? Have them kind of hate themselves. Push me away from them, and I'll come running.)

The quirkiness of this character also plays a clear part in the actual story. It is Kate who, upset after her breakup with Jim, and on a whim that looks like a cocaine high, decides to get the memory-erasing service... launching us into the rest of the story, with all its suffering. Jim never would have had the service if he weren't traumatized and angered by the fact that she had. That she had, on a whim, erased him. Ergo, her character isn't just supposed to be lovely and weird and fun... the action of the story wouldn't be possible without the failings of this particular character.

Plus, the whole point of the movie is that imperfect people must take a go at love, regardless of the potentially disastrous consequences... the theme of the film would be undermined if any character were adorably perfect.

How does this work in Garden State? "Everyone who needs to be a part of the world again, find yourself a perfect specimen of the human race such as Natalie Portman, and hang on!!"

Finally, if one of my complaints about the character in Garden State is that I believe it's actually going to take effort to be with her in the long run, and I lose a little respect for a protagonist who can't see that... well, I can't have the same complaint here: in Eternal Sunshine, both characters know she's gonna be hell to live with in the long run, but they take the chance anyway.

Kate k.o.'s Natalie in the first round. Tune in next time, for Kirsten Dunst v. Rachel McAdams.

November 02, 2005

That Girl

Natalie Portman's character in Garden State is kooky! She's unpredictable! She loves indie music! She dances adorably by the fire! Whee!

But I'm getting a bit tired of the sweet, goofy girl-child thing.

This is not to slight Ms. Portman-- only the script's approach to her character. This character is clearly designed to affect Zach Braff... to bring him back to life, as it were. She needs to be in this movie, and she needs to be loveable. And, in fact, she needs to be extra-fun because she's compensating for a protagonist who's virtually sedated for the entire film. There's so much weight placed on her time on screen. I see why she's such a big character...

...but couldn't she have been a real person, and not just a collection of baubles and trinkets? 'Cause once the novelty of her kookiness has faded, won't Zach be even more depressed than before?

We get no real sense of her character, only her characterization: the trappings of character. Who is this person underneath the helmet? If we don't believe that there's something complex under there, then we can't buy Zach's transformation. The whole thing topples like a very pretty house of cards.

And keep in mind, dear writers, that at least half the target audience of a film like Garden State is women. And while Nat may make young (okay, all?) men swoon, female characters like this drive some of us crazy. Many of us (many women, as well as men, I expect) see a character like this and just think-- God, in a couple of weeks, it's gonna be a real chore to be around her. And when That Guy-- you know, the hero-- falls in love with colourful sprinkles, we lose a whole lot of respect for him, and the world of the movie.

People who try real hard to be wacky in the real world are annoying. Same goes for the big screen. Discuss amongst yourselves.