Sunday, June 21, 2009

the proposal - case study

This weekend the number one movie in America is The Proposal. Whenever a movie like this makes it to number one I like to go out and see it, preferably with an opening weekend audience. The reason is, I'm trying to understand the anatomy of a number one movie. Particularly one where I'm so turned off by the trailer and concept.
To get myself in the mood I listened to the Creative Screenwriting podcast interview with the writer Pete Chiarelli. The one thing that struck me about his interview was how he kept stressing the true emotional backstory of his two main characters. They were very much based on people he knew and understood. He based the Sandra Bullock character on people he knows from the intertainment industry (himself having been a development executive). She is more than just the "evil boss" she has a human side that slowly emerges over time. This "thawing out" is, I think, what brought the audience in. They want to see an emotional story and what better premise than the evil boss who learns to be human? This lesson, being human, has a life or death quality to it. Who will she be if she doesn't learn this lesson: lonely, bitter, angry, depleated. It is a kind of living death facing her. Heavy stuff, right? Yes, I'm still talking about The Proposal.
So this emotional story... in the case of this film comes second to the CLEAR AND OBVIOUS concept. You see the poster or the trailer you have no questions about this movie. What is it? Agressive boss forces her assistant to marry her so she can stay in the country. (Her character is from Canada.) How do you think it ends? They fall in love, of course. Everything you expect to see is in this movie but in a slightly different package than you expected. I think the clear and obvious concept is what got people to go see this.
The third component that makes this movie a hit is the chemistry between the actors playing the main characters. Now as a writer you can't really make this part happen. However, what you can do is write a role a star or stars will want to play. In this case the role was attractive and allowed both actors to look good, be noble, learn lessons, have moments, reveal vulnerabilities -- in short, the works. Lots of stuff for them to do and look good doing.
Before you think I've lost my mind, talking about The Proposal like it's The Seventh Seal or something, this movie is terrible. The script is lazy and sloppy. The characters speak the subtext at the drop of a hat. The set pieces are uninspired, unimaginative and insulting. And let me tell you the audience I saw it with was laughing like they'd never seen anything funnier or cuter in their lives. Are they stupid? No, just undescerning. This works in favor of mediocrity. I used to say "you can't fake mediocrity" meaning that you can try to write poorly in an effort to be commercial but it won't work unless you're truly mediocre. I've had a bit of a realization, though. What you can't fake is heart. This film, as bad as it is, has lots and lots of heart. Vulnerable woman needs love. She's desperate. She realizes she's forced this guy to LIE to his family, feels terrible and reverses course to save him. Not to mention him, he has noble ambitions, pursuit of a job editing LITERATURE. He LOVES his family and it pains him to hurt them. There's also a father who LOVES and misses his son, but is too wrapped up in control and approval to show it. Love, love, love and lots of heart. I didn't have to dig for this heart, it was there ladled on sloppy and thick. The genius of Peter Chiarelli is that as a development executive, he learned what people want: Heart, Characters, Clear and Obvious concept.
Now there's no reason a movie can't be good and have LOTS AND LOTS of heart. But make no mistake, as I've said before, heart is not an easy thing to do... Especially if you're all dead inside like me.

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