Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Contortionist's Handbook

Genre: Drama
Premise: (from IMDB) A master forger falls for a mysterious woman.
About: I can’t say I’ve ever read The Contortionist’s Handbook, the Craig Clevenger novel, but that’s okay because now it’s being turned into a movie starring Hollywood’s new bad boy, Channing Tatum. Robin Shushan, the writer who adapted the book, is probably best known for working on Taylor Hackford’s upcoming project, a biopic about the life of Tennessee Williams. Contortionist’s Handbook is apparently being shot on the cheap, as the producers are responsible for such films as Lars And The Real Girl, Charlie Bartlett, United 93, Adventureland, etc. Knock Channing Tatum all you want, but the man is putting movies into production left and right.
Writer: Robin Shushan
Details: 121 pages - May 23, 2008 Draft (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

If Channing Tatum is trying to be the next James Dean, he’s certainly picked the right project. The Contortionist’s Handbook isn’t so much a movie as it is a commercial for Tatum’s bad boy appeal. He gets to play dangerous, rebellious, unpredictable, all those things young actors gravitate towards. The only problem is there’s no show surrounding this commercial. Tatum might be “tearing you apart” but he’s doing it without a story.

Handbook (which is what I’ll call it now because “Contortionist’s” is a weird word to write) starts out with our hero, John Dolan Vincent, being rolled out of a cheap motel by paramedics with a 40 year old hooker watching on. We’re guided by Vincent’s thick weathered voice over, as he tells us, “Rule number one, blend in. Rule number two, don’t stand out. Rule number three. See rules one and two.”

Vincent is a rules type of guy and he has many more observations about how to live that he’ll be filling us in on. But that’s not the only thing going on with Vincent. You see Vincent, right out of a page from Ellen Pompeo’s book, has a sixth finger. It’s not a freaky stub or anything but an actual moving operable finger. Imagine the possibilities.

Now experience tells me that wherever there’s a voice over, a flashback isn’t far behind, and indeed we jump back to Vincent’s childhood where we meet his no-nonsense dick of a father. As soon as daddy sees his freak son born, he gives up on him right there and then. 16 years of contentious childhood follow, and Vincent’s desperate bid to nab his father’s approval never pans out.

For reasons that still aren’t completely clear to me, Vincent sets off in a desperate bid to be anyone but himself. As a teenager, he learns how to make fake IDs, fake backgrounds. It’s intoxicating stuff for a young man who’s known nothing but disappointment. And so instead of just making these fake personas, he starts *becoming* these fake personas. This allows him to play a role other than himself, and that becomes addictive.

Strangely, these identities don’t seem to benefit Vincent in any way. True he’s always getting into trouble and being sent off to jail, and I suppose the changing identities clear his rap sheet, but he never uses any identity to, say, infiltrate the city’s upper crust or get a job he wouldn’t have otherwise been able to get. He just does it cause he doesn’t like being anyone for too long, which is kinda boring, don’t you think?

The good news is that Vincenet meets Keara, a stripper who doesn’t quite have a heart of gold, but she’s nice enough. Vincent saves her from a stripper breakdown and the two immediately fall in love. After some QT together, Vincent finally admits to Keara his true identity, something he hasn’t admitted to anyone since he was a teenager, which, in a way, forces him to come to terms with who he really is.

Along the way there are some nasty criminals who force Vincent into making identities for them. Vincent gets himself committed to a mental hospital in order to find the missing Keara, who’s also at that hospital (hence why he overdoses in the opening scene), but the changing of identities and the Vincent-Keara love story are the main thread.

Probably the most difficult thing about this read is that when I read it, I didn’t know what the premise was. I only checked afterwards, where the summary stated it was a story “about a forger who changed his identity to cover up his past.” I went, “Oh, *that’s* what this was about the whole time?” I thought the forger aspect was his *character*. I didn’t know it was the entire story! And that’s where Handbook failed for me. Yeah it did a good job detailing the fake identity world, but sixty pages in I was still going, “Uhhh, what is this supposed to be about again?”

I guess you could say the hospital storyline, where Vincent is desperately trying to find and be with Keara is the central story question. “Will he find her or not?” But the reason it didn’t hold my interest was because there were no stakes attached to it. At no time did I think, “This is his only chance to be with her! This is it!” It was more like, “Well if he doesn’t find her here he can just wait outside the hospital until she’s released."

This left the heavy lifting to the cool-factor of the screenplay. The deep philosophizing voice overs (“Maybe you were slow to walk because you had nowhere to go”). The bravado male posturing. The angsty looks we’re sure to see from Tatum’s character. The stylistic flourishes (such as a flashback into a fetus! Yes, we get one of those). I think that can work with a young edgy male demo who likes to think they’re Channing Tatum, and the girlies content with staring at Tatum’s muscles for two hours, but I’m telling you, whenever you completely abandon story, you’re severely lowering the chances that we're going to stay tuned for the whole show.

One other minor thing that bothered me was the sixth finger. I didn’t really understand why it was there in the first place other than as an odd character quirk. And just from a story perspective, it didn’t make any sense. We’re repeatedly told how often Vincent’s gone to jail and how many times he’s gotten in trouble with the law. When you book someone with six fingers, isn’t that something you remember? Don’t you mark down in a book, “six fingered man.” I mean everyone’s seen Princess Bride, right? So doesn’t that make it impossible to be an identity-changer? It’s not like they’re going to say, “Oh hey look, it’s *another* six-fingered man. That's the fifth one this month! What are the odds??” I don’t know. It seemed like a strange choice.

No surprises here. I prefer a good story and this is more of a vanity project. Nothing wrong with that though. Clooney just had The American. Why can’t Tatum have The Contortionist?

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: While it’s probably best to avoid voice over, the device does allow you to do some things you can’t do without it. The biggest thing is that we can get inside a character’s head and know EXACTLY what he’s thinking. This creates an intimate connection between the audience and the character that isn’t possible otherwise. I don’t know if the device was successful in Handbook though because Vincent speaks more in sound bites than actual thoughts (“Rule number one, blend in.”) but I’ve seen it work in other places, most notably Morgan Freeman’s voice over in The Shawshank Redemption.

Why a star chose to play this role: This is a simple one. Again, the actor gets to play multiple characters (the different identities he takes on). He also gets to play by his own rules, which is something we discussed with Damon and Green Zone. Actors love characters who shun authority and live by their own code of conduct.