Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Romantics

Gonna wrap up my not-so-comprehensive Sundance Week here. Just the other day we had my review of the Sundance film, "The Company Men," and now we've got another one for you called "The Romantics." To read some past reviews of this year's Sundance crop, check out my posts for HappyThankYouMorePlease, Nowhere Boy, and of course, Buried.

Genre: Drama/Ensemble
Premise: Seven friends from college reunite when two of them get married.
About: Starring Katie Holmes, Anna Paquin, Malin Ackerman and Josh Duhmal, this was one of the films playing at Sundance. Nierderhoffer has quite a history behind her. She's been producing small independent films for over a decade, focusing on dramatic offbeat fare such as Lonesome Jim (Casey Affleck) and Saving Grace (John Cusack). During that time, she's also written a few novels, such as The Taxonomy of Barnacles, and The Romantics, which she adapted into the screenplay herself. She will now become one of the few people who can claim to be an author, screenwriter, producer, and director, as she has directed this movie as well. I hear next year Galt will be up for the part of Mary Jane in the Spiderman reboot.
Writer: Galt Niederhoffer
Details: 113 pages

I always wanted to get back together for one weekend with six college classmates that, because of time and space and distance and life, I wasn’t able to keep in touch with. I wanted an unlimited supply of beer and to be out in the middle of nowhere and have seven sunsets a day so the lights’ always perfect and sexual tension so thick even the walls couldn’t stop it and music from ten years ago that makes you both cringe and smile at the same time, and unfinished business and decade old drama. But most of all, I just want to put life on hold for a few days and enjoy the company of people I spent four intimate years with, but don’t know anymore. I want to catch up and make out. I want to see where we all ended up.

But since none of this is likely, I wanted The Romantics to bring me as close to that place as possible.

Did it?

Holmes will play Laura.

The Romantics follows 7 friends from college: Laura, who we’re told is a “beauty,” Tom, who we’re told has “puppy-ish green eyes”, Lila, who has a “cascade of blonde hair,” Weesie, who’s “put together even in her pajamas,” Tripler, who sounds like a guy’s name but since there was no pronoun in his introduction, I figured out was a girl 60 pages later, Pete, who’s “handsome and athletic,” and then there’s Jake, who gets the only introduction that actually gives us a sense of who he is and what he looks like, described as a “shaggy haired modern-day Victorian poet," despite the fact that he's probably the smallest character of the bunch.

These 7 are the bestest of best friends. So best friends-ish in fact, that they’ve given themselves the nickname, “The Romantics.” There’s a lot of heavily implied history between the group, but unfortunately we don’t get any of it. The only piece of information that makes its way to us is that Laura and Tom are together and that Laura and Lila are closer than peanut butter and jelly. Waking up after a crazy night of drinking, the 7 realize that they’re all late for graduation, so they hurry up and get ready, only to run outside and see a sea of caps flying into the sky. The seven have missed their own graduation.

Duhmal will play Tom.

Flash-forward 10 years and we’re shocked to find out that Lila is getting married. No, that’s not the shocking part. The shocking part is that she’s getting married to Tom, Laura’s old boyfriend. The seven besties reconvene at Lila’s mansion, ready to reignite old times, with no one seemingly concerned about the fact that Lila is marrying her best friend’s boyfriend of five years. It’s as if no one thought this was going to be an issue. Laura pretends that everything’s fine. Tom bumbles around, rarely saying anything to anyone. It’s a really weird vibe and an awkward set-up to the weekend’s events.

Despite this triangle of non-fun, the rest of the group does their best to get drunk and live it up. There’s laughing, flirting, even a little bit of kissing. But it always comes back to Tom and Laura. How did they break up? Why would Tom end up with her best friend? Why is he marrying Lila??

Ackerman will play Lila

Apparently, the reason Tom and Laura broke up was because…well, actually I don’t know why they broke up. But the reason they’re not together anymore, according to Tom, is that he loves her too much. And they had such a great time together, he doesn’t want to screw it up. He wants their time together to remain perfect. Which brings us to his relationship with Lila. He hates Lila. For all intents and purposes, he despises her. Isn’t a single trait he likes about the woman. So obviously, he’s marrying her. Why? Um, I believe it’s because it makes him feel like less of a fuck-up. To complicate matters, Laura and Lila, who are still supposedly friendly with each other, have NEVER SPOKEN ABOUT THE FACT THAT SHE’S MARRYING THE MAN LAURA STILL LOVES. Am I the only one who thinks none of this makes any sense at all?

But that’s not the only problem with The Romantics. I never knew any of these characters. I was barely given a description of them in the first place so I had no idea what they looked like, and once we got to the present, I was never told who they are out in the real world, what they do, what their dreams are, what their problems are. And the person I’m told the least about, Tom, is probably the most important character in the entire story. And I know absolutely nothing about him. There’s vague notes thrown out like, “lawyer” and “married” but that’s all they are is notes. The lack of time you have in a screenplay prevents you from getting into a character's autobiography, but if all I'm told about someone after 110 pages is that they're "put together" and "married," I mean... how can I root for that character. It's like asking me to root for the stranger I watched cross the street the other day. And I probably know more about him than I do these characters, as I could at least take an educated guess about who he is based on what he was wearing.

I get it. This is a writer-director project. Not everything needs to be spelled out, as long as the director understands what she needs. But in leaving so much on the cutting room floor, in preventing us from truly understanding these people, all we're left with is a bunch of pretty faces.

The script does some things right. We have an obvious ticking time bomb here (the wedding) and potential for a dramatically played out love triangle. The opening and closing images were perfect. But it didn’t matter cause none of it felt real. I was miles away from ever understanding where these characters were coming from.

What's so odd about all this, is that the adaptation of her other novel, The Taxonomy of Barnacles, which I reviewed here, has some really nice character work in it. It was adapted by someone else but still. I came out of this one stumped.

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

What I learned: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Ensemble pieces are a bitch. And my advice is to stay away from them. Why are these films so hard? I’ll tell you why. Coming up with an interesting character that an audience wants to watch for 2 hours is one of the hardest things there is to do in the world. That is not hyperbole. It’s why studios pay half a million dollars for screenplays that get it right. It’s why they then back up that investment with 100 million dollars to put it on screen. In what other medium is such a huge investment made on something so tiny? - So when you essentially say, “I’m not going to just come up with one compelling character, I’m going to come up with seven!”, it’s like asking if you can enter your lottery numbers in a drawing that’s seven times bigger than the normal lottery. And that’s just the beginning of your problems. As I mentioned above, one of my issues with The Romantics was that we didn’t know anything about these characters. Well, when you spread your movie out between seven different characters, there’s not a lot of time to *go into* these characters, which forces you to have to do *more* in *less* time. So it’s just a really hard type of script to get right. I am not saying it can’t be done. It has obviously been done before. I like these types of movies and have even tried my hand at a couple myself. But you just have to know that you’re stacking the odds against yourself when you do it. My advice is, if you’re still in the early stages of your writing, try to write a script that has a single compelling character for 120 minutes. If you can do that successfully first, and you still want to tackle the ensemble, then go for it. God be with you.