Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Liars (A to E)

Today's reviewer - Abby McDonald

Okay, now that we've calmed down some from the loglines announcement (I'm still getting e-mails questioning specific loglines. Please. Stop! I don't know why I liked them. I just did!), I thought I'd introduce you to a new guest reviewer. Her name is Abby McDonald, and she's a 24 year old British novelist and occasional entertainment critic. Her teen book, 'Sophomore Switch,' was published in the States in Spring, and her novel 'The Popularity Rules' just came out in the UK. You can learn more about her at her site, read her blog, or follow her on Twitter. Now you should know, Abby is an unabashed fan of chick flicks, so I think we know how this review's going to go. But let's listen in anyway.

Genre: Indie/Comedy
Premise: Recovering from her latest break-up, a woman and her best friend drive cross-country to Obama's inaugeration, collecting the items she left with ex-boyfriends along the way.

About: A victim of Miramax downsizing, this green-lit project has apparently been scrapped before production started. Was due to star Rebecca Hall and Kat Dennings, directed by Richard Linklater. The writer, Emma Forrest, was born and raised in London with an American mother (TV writer Judy Raines) and a British father. She landed a column for the London Times when she was only 15. "It was supposed to be about my generation, but the problem is that I live with a melancholy for things I never experienced, so I would write about Leonard Cohen and pretend that's what my friends were talking about," she says. She wrote her first novel, "Namedropper," at the age of 18 and has since published three more. The extremely talented author was picked by Variety as one of 2009's "10 Writers to Watch." (Variety) Emma, who loves to write about every man that comes into her life, says this one is no different. It's inspired by her relationship with Colin Farrell.

Writer: Emma Forrest.

I love Emma Forrest. At least, I've loved her fiction, but it's been four years since her last novel, and although I've heard plenty of tantalizing hints about her screen projects (a pilot for the CW, the rumored Brad Pitt Jeff Buckley bio-pic, a Blacklist script), I've never had a chance to read any of it. Until today, when I learned that 'Liars (A to E)' has been scrapped by Miramax as part of their roll-backs, and a hopeful email to Carson was rewarded with this script.

And oh, what a script.

Sure, I came to it with some bias, but that just meant I had high expectations-- and private fears that maybe Forrest wouldn't be able to pull off what is clearly something of a quirky story. We all know by now that the skills that work in fiction often don't translate to the brutal confines of a script, and telling your story in 115 pages when you're used to having 80,000 words to play around with is a challenge not many authors can meet. So did she?

Absolutely. That's not to say this script is an easy sell: the Obama election backdrop and many obviously-outdated political references will annoy as many as they charm, there isn't an easy structure--no clear rising tension, or high stakes-- and the character development is subtle, rather than overdrawn. But I've read a lot of scripts over the past months: Blacklisted scripts, Top 25 scripts, scripts that sold, and scripts that inexplicably went steaming into production. So, when I say this is a joy to read, it's not merely because I wanted to like it. 'Liars (A to E)' is genuinely engaging, delightful, whip-smart and - most refreshingly - a script about smart women that smart women will love.

In her fiction, Forrest shines via vivid prose, original characters, and crackling dialogue, and in 'Liars (A to E)' she distills those elements down to a truly entertaining mix (with, of course, her trademark Springsteen references). Bacall is a 29-year old failed bakery owner - "small, with 40's fixtures". We meet her zipping a plushy bunny outfit over a retro Playbunny costume to greet her fiancee, and that's a pretty good indication of her character: not so much quirky in the traditional 'manic pixie' Kirstin/Natalie/Zooey mould, more an adult woman with flair and humor. Said fiancee, Mark, is a rock-star with a penchant for fingerless gloves and stealing chords from Dylan; he dumps her by page seven, prompting Bacall to drunkenly demand her blow-jobs back, and then embark on her quest to reclaim items kept by all of her ex-boyfriends as she and her friend drive cross-country to the Obama inauguration.

Having despaired for many years about the kind of women we end up seeing on-screen, I'm especially disappointed that I won't get to witness Rebecca Hall as Bacall, and Kat Dennings as her 21-year old friend (a failed comedienne and author of an earnest (and graphic) book on feminism for the tween set). They're smart, fun women, but their intelligence isn't played for laughs, it's just taken as a basic matter of fact - which shouldn't even need mentioning, but given that the majority of scripts show women that bear no resemblance to anyone I've ever met, well, sadly, it does. There's a humor in their dialogue that had me howling out loud, (and retyping the many, many choice lines to my own best friend as we read the script together via IM) but what I loved was that their friendship has both natural ease and an interesting dynamic brought on by the gap in age and perspective.

BACALL: Remember your last break-up?
ELISHIA: Yeah. I was nineteen. It's why I don't do relationships.
BACALL: So. It will be harder to get through when you're twenty four. And harder than that at twenty seven. And at thirty, you may feel like you just can't do it at all.

The men too have their moments. Rock-star Mark, who could easily have been written for Russell Brand-esque laughs, instead is given depth along with his "gay terrorist" keffiyeh, and his scenes with Bacall make us genuinely believe in their love - and her heartbreak. Some of the exes are more comic than finely-drawn (the Irish Catholic-turned-Jewish poet, the druggy former Rock n Roll Hall of Fame guide) but Forrest keeps their scenes brief, and doesn't labor her jokes for long. In fact, the pace is swift right the way through, keeping you entertained despite the fact that there is little real tension implicit in their travels.

So what's not to love? Well, the narrative arc of the script meanders through the women's road-trip as Bacall visits to her various exes enroute to D.C, and while these encounters do eventually shed some light on her romantic history and current issues, the character development isn't as defined as we're trained to expect from these kinds of indie movies. There is no grand revelation, or final-act dash to the airport, just a few quiet moments of realization that are easily drowned out by the surrounding noise of inauguration night. And yes: the political content is pretty high. From election night partying (as someone joyfully cries "I'm never going to have to hear about Sarah Palin again!" Oh, how little we knew), to the final celebration itself, Forrest uses Obama, Bush, the idea of our past history and hope for the future as backdrop to Bacall's quest. I found the political jokes---especially Bacall's letter to Obama, admonishing him for parading his happy, and attractive domesticity-- hilarious, but they might turn off some readers/viewers - particularly since the script is unashamedly left-leaning (as if the casual references to feminism hadn't already clued you in). Also, the convenient encounters that pepper the script test our suspension of disbelief: a book editor they meet on Amtrack, an Obama staffer they run into in a bar in New Orleans. But since there's nothing really at stake, the convenience isn't an insult to any internal logic: more accidents on the road than a vital element driving the plot.

To me, those aspects didn't diminish the script, and again, I have to underline just how much I enjoyed reading this. Some scripts punch through with the sheer force of their concepts, others click through artfully-constructed narratives and tension; 'Liars (A to E)' doesn't really have any of those, but what it does bring is wonderfully smart comedy, nuanced emotion, and the kind of vivid, interesting women I wish I could read more often.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] barely kept my interest
[ ] worth the read
[x] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: That you don't need to push characters too far in order to make them original and memorable. Bacall and Elishia aren't the usual 'quirky' indie movie fare, full of odd habits and either drowning in angst or adorned with perky grins; they're interesting, and their dialogue - while hilarious and smart - is still believable. Forrest resists the urge to give them clear-cut emotional 'issues' that need resolving; balancing development with realistic confusion.