Monday, May 25, 2009

Lovers, Liars and Thieves

Genre: Period Drama/Adventure
Premise: A pair of thieves develop a scheme to steal the Mona Lisa in 1911 Paris.
About: "Thieves" has enjoyed semi-cult status in Hollywood as one of the better unproduced screenplays of the last 10 years. It was going to be made back in 2002 but fell apart at the last second. It's gearing up to be shot again by the writer himself.
Writer: Jeremy Leven

The original celebrity

Well, I gave it a shot. The script's pedigree and the fact that it was being championed by two of my friends convinced me I would fall in love with it. But alas, I did not. I wanted a story with an elaborate "Thomas Crowne Affair"-like plot to steal the Mona Lisa - I wanted people coordinating a series of impossibly timed maneuvers inside a small once-in-a-lifetime window. I wanted 1911 Mission Impossible. Instead I got a slightly above-average love story with characters I found mildly amusing.

Lovers, Liars and Thieves is a tough read. 6-7 line action paragraphs litter the script, testing your fortitude and making every page read likes it's 3. I coulda swore I was on page 30 as I sludged through the opening act. When I looked up I found I was still on page 10! The writing is pretty. It's just laborious and overly-detailed.

The story is about con artist/adventurer "The Marqui" and his partner in crime Daphne. The two are thick as thieves in the most literal sense and they luuuuuuuuv money. It's clear right off the bat that they're secretly in love each other. But both know that to give in to that love would mean the end of their edge. After their latest plan goes awry, however, Daphne decides she's had enough and wants to retire. The Marquis suggests one last job - something so big they can spend the rest of their lives in luxury - the theft of the Mona Lisa.

Of course to pull off their plan they'll need someone on the inside, and that person comes in the clumsy naive 60 year old cabinetmaker, Vincenzo. The plan is for Daphne to win over Vincenzo's heart, then convince him to steal the Mona Lisa for her. That way even if he's caught, they can hightail it out of town and let poor Vincenzo take the rap.

But that's the problem I had with "Thieves". Is that I wasn't interested in that plan. I was more interested in the plan to steal the damn Mona Lisa! And that gets short shrift in the script. Instead we watch as Daphne starts to fall for Vincenzo, and The Marquis, who's secretly in love with her of course, must make a choice. He can either call it all off before Daphne falls in love, thus ensuring they will be together. Or he can stay the course and land more money than he's ever dreamed of. Money or love? That's The Marquis question.

As I've alluded to, when the theft actually arrives, it's quite simple, even bizarrely so. Vincenzo basically has to take the painting when the guards' aren't looking. I'm assuming that Leven's betting by this point that we've developed more sympathy for Vincenzo, but to be honest I thought Vinenzo was the least interesting of the three and actually a big sad sap. Therefore I didn't really care whether he got away with the theft or not. I would've been much more involved had The Marquis and Daphne been doing the stealing.

There are some fun moments along the way. For you period-heads and art historians you get a pre-fame over-sexed Picasso pushing his controversial new painting style. When the Mona Lisa goes missing, Picasso is one of the first ones questioned (Picasso is on record for hating the Mona Lisa and believing it should be burned). The Maquis trading quips with Daphne is enjoyable. The overall dialogue is impressive. There are gems like this one sprinkled all over the script:

You're too hard on yourself, Daphné. The world was created with a tragic flaw. Many were given little, and a few were given too much -- much too much. By an accident of fortune, we seem to have been blessed with a unique talent in asset reallocation.
I'll even go on record as saying the structure and characters are written with an exceptional level of skill. So why didn't I like this thing? I think it comes down to my expectations. I was expecting and hoping for something different. When I didn't get it, I turned on the poor guy. This may have barely kept my interest, but it's such a well-liked script I'm still going to recommend you check it out.

[ ] trash
[x] barely kept my interest
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Forcing your main character to choose between the thing he wants most (in this case, money) and the thing he doesn't realize he needs (in this case, love) is the cornerstone of any great character arc. Because in the end, he'll have to make a decision between the two. If he chooses money, he's still the same shallow person. Whereas if he chooses love, it shows that he's changed (or "arced"). Most (but not all!) screenplays have a main character that arcs.