Monday, December 26, 2005

Tagline: The hardest trick is making them stay

. . . in the theater. Guess that movie. Give up? Here's a clue. Picture John Cusack looking tired, depressed, and constipated. Need help? I didn't realize that the movie's title, Must Love Dogs, was a metaphor. Right from the opening frames, you know you're in trouble. The screenwriter, filching from When Harry Met Sally, opens with a few lifeless interviews of folks talking about how they meet people of the opposite sex. The humor ranges from strained to painful. Fortunately, the editor must have realized this because a few seconds later, we are thrust into some unnamed family gathering in which protag Diane Lane's relatives try to fix her up. She's newly divorced, or widowed, or slow. I'm not sure which, because the screenplay lost me that fast. I think that's a new personal record: two minutes into the movie, and I'm already telling Karen, "Let's give it 'til Cusack shows up, okay?" Once again, the editor reads my mind, and in the very next scene we find John Cusack (also recently divorced -- and I only remember that because he's talking to his divorce lawyer in this scene) waxing poetic over his wooden boats. Except that, no matter how hard Cusack and the screenwriter struggle, dammit, Cusack looks pained to be here. Boat-splinters up every fingernail pained, that's how pained. Less than five minutes into the movie, and we're already popping out the DVD. If you don't believe my review, read the opinion of someone who sat through the whole thing. On to DVD number two. Unlike Must Love Dogs, The Baxter sinks its hooks into you right from the first few lines. We're given the set-up, and indeed the ending, in the first scene: Elliot (played by writer and director Michael Showalter) is a Baxter. That's what his mom called the bland, generically nice guys whom women dump in order to run off with dashing, handsome, dangerous types like this guy: That's Justin Theroux, who plays Bradley, Elliot's chief rival for the affections of Caroline (Elizabeth Banks). (Yes, after watching The 40-Year-Old Virgin, I had to watch another Elizabeth Banks movie.) Caroline dumps Elliot at the altar in the first minute of the movie, and what's left -- nearly the entire movie -- is back story. That's not supposed to work, but it does. What amazes me the most is that this works despite the fact that Elliot is not a likable guy. He's a geeky, stuffy Ivy Leaguer who rapidly shifts romantic gears from his new temp Cecil (Michelle Williams, cute and vibrant despite the fugly hair style) to new client Caroline. He's a heel, really, and it's hard to see what Caroline or Cecil see in him. I gave this a lot of thought, afterwards. Why does The Baxter fly and Must Love Dogs sink? What it comes down to is personality, or soul. Watching The Baxter, I could sense that Showalter had thrown himself into the creation of this movie. Arguably, he threw a little too much of himself into the movie, since his performance is the weakest of the crew. Hard not to imagine what someone else, anyone else, would have done with that role. Whereas, watching Must Love Dogs, I felt that the writers had reduced movie romances to their formulaic roots, then plugged in new values for the variables Mad Lib-fashion to come up with what can only be called, not a film, but a 'product.'
I've read precious few romances, so it's always a magic act for me to write a Smart Bitches Day post for Beth. Watching these two movies (okay, okay, so really I only watched one of 'em . . .) I decided that I had something important to say about the act of writing in general, and of writing romance in particular. Here, let's put it in bold face for emphasis: Genre formula alone might give you a sale, but it won't guarantee fine work. Yuck. Negative declarations have such little aphoristic heft. Lemme try again: To create a work with soul, you have to bleed a bit of yourself into the page. A bit vampiric, but I think it captures what I'm trying to say. Warning: this bleeding business can be overdone. Watch out that you don't create autistic prose (stories that provide you with an intense emotional experience; meanwhile, the rest of your readers scratch their heads and say, "Huh?") Like any diary, cathartic writing is best left under lock and key. You know what I think our goal as writers should be? Our bare minimum, "at least I've accomplished this much," D minus, thank-the-Lord-I've-passed, goal? That our readers will come away from the novel (short story, poem, movie) never once questioning the fact that an individual wrote this, a human being, not a committee, or a software package, or a crew of monkeys typing typing typing. Although, some days I suspect the monkeys could do a better job. D.


Blogger Lyn Cash said...

Since I more or less inspired this post from one of my posts about our 2005 Christmas movies, I won't elaborate other than I liked it. (grin) Oh, and that it's chick lit, which isn't for everyone.

I haven't seen The Baxter, but on your recommendation I'll see if I can get hold of this one.

The one movie I *should* have mentioned that we watched was Sin City. I absolutely loved that one. The Kid has read Frank Miller's graphic novels, and I love film noir, so we gave it a try. Mickey Roarke was amazing. Don't know if his character or that of Clive Owen's was my favorite.

Watched another movie with The Mick in it last week called "Animal Factory" that was also good. Starred the incomparable Edward Furlong. Good little actor, that one. Discovered him and Edward Norton about the same time years ago.

As for what makes us stay with a movie, I think we either have to be bored enough, love one or two principal players enough, or have some message in the sucker that triggers a response.

I think with "Must Love Dogs", I was hoping for a Cusack "High Fidelity" moment and didn't find it - then I realized that it wasn't about the men, and that's when I had to change gears and see what the film maker had to say about women. Didn't learn anything new, but I did find myself nodding (and not off to sleep - lol) now and then.

Thanks for the Matza balls recipe, by the way. Thanked you over on my own blog but not over here. Appreciate you - that's one more of yours I gotta try.


12/26/2005 06:00:00 PM  
Blogger Douglas Hoffman said...

The Baxter was good, but The 40-year-old Virgin was funnier.

Sin City: yeah, we loved it! I think I wrote my second or third blog entry about that (don't bother looking for it -- I didn't write much of a review).

That Furlong/Norton movie -- was that the one where they played white supremacists?

12/26/2005 06:53:00 PM  
Anonymous PBW said...

Since Sleepless in Seattle, a film of which I thought someone should burn all the existing copies, I rarely watch movie romances anymore. I will get sucked into a period (Pride & Prejudice) or ethnic (Monsoon Wedding) romance film, but only if they're made outside America. I'm much happier, too.

I just watched The Island this weekend to pre-screen it for my teenager and really liked it. Kind of reminded me of Logan's Run, another oldie SF movie I enjoyed. I'm sure the purists hated TI, but if you like a fast-paced film with decent camera work it's worth a look.

You know what *I* think our goal as writers should be? To have fun. Then our readers will come away never once questioning the fact the individual wrote this had a damn good time doing so. :)

12/26/2005 09:40:00 PM  
Blogger Douglas Hoffman said...

Yup ;o)

If fiction doesn't entertain, what's the point? Who wants to read edifying fiction, for heaven's sake?

12/27/2005 10:09:00 AM  
Blogger Jeff said...

From the 1st preview I saw of Must Love Dogs, I had a flashback (as I usually to with obvious-formula movies) to the screenwriter with studio moguls scenes from The Majestic:

What about the kid who rings the bell?

What kid? What bell?

The kid. After the mine caves in, he rings the bell to alert the town.

Is that in the script?

What if we gave the kid a disease?

A disease?

Braces on the leg, that sort of thing.

But he runs.

He could hobble.

A How Green Was My Valley thing. Is that McDowall kid available?

Too old. Plus, he's English.


The script's set in Tennessee.

Did I get that page?

Forget the disease. Nobody wants it. It's depressing.

Boss is right. Who needs disease?

It's horrible.

I hate disease. Box-office poison.

Hold on. I think I got a "what if."

What if we give the character-- What's his name?


Terrible name. Change it.

Say we give no-name a dog.

A dog?

A dog. No-name's faithful companion. Toils at his master's side in the coal mine.

Cave-in happens, only the dog gets out.

'Cause dogs are smaller, usually.

And it's the dog that runs up the hill and rings the bell.

Holy crap, that's beautiful.

12/27/2005 10:17:00 AM  
Blogger Pat Kirby said...

I gave this a lot of thought, afterwards. Why does The Baxter fly and Must Love Dogs sink? What it comes down to is personality, or soul. Watching The Baxter, I could sense that Showalter had thrown himself into the creation of this movie.

For simplistic me, anyway, that applies to movies and novels. Actually, I think nearly all my favorite novels have a Mary Sue aspect to them. If the author/filmmaker isn't having fun exploring the world they created, they aren't likely to interest me.

12/27/2005 10:21:00 AM  
Blogger Douglas Hoffman said...

Jeff: The Majestic, eh? That sounds like a must-see from the snip you've given.

Pat: it does seem (for novelists and filmmakers) that $ is sometimes the first and only goal. Bleah.

12/27/2005 10:34:00 AM  
Anonymous PBW said...

Who wants to read edifying fiction, for heaven's sake?

(slaps kindness duct tape on mouth)

12/27/2005 05:03:00 PM  
Blogger Lyn Cash said...

The Edward Norton/Edward Furlong movie was indeed the one you're thinking of...called "American History X".

12/27/2005 08:16:00 PM  
Blogger William said...

Great blog you have here I will deffinitely be back, I have a website that is about restoring wooden boats : complete wooden boat restoration guide

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