Monday, February 1, 2010

Blue Valentine

Genre: Drama/Love Story
Premise: A couple struggles to keep it together on the last leg of their marriage.
About: I know I said l was finished with Sundance script reviews but people kept pushing me to review more, so I’m pumping out a couple extra this week. Derek Cianfrance and his writing partners have been trying to make this movie for 12 years. Their hard work was rewarded when Ryan Gosling chose "Blue Valentine" over Peter Jackson’s “The Lovely Bones” (and left poor Jackson with the 3rd rate Mark Wahlberg in the process), new “serious actress fave” Michelle Williams joined him, and the Weinsteins bought the film at Sundance. While this may be a 2004 draft, from every review I’ve read of the film, it sounds almost identical to the shooting script.
Writers: Derek Cianfrance, Joey Curtis & Cami Delavigne
Details: 121 pages (2004 draft)

I know everyone loves Ryan Gosling, and I think he’s a fine actor, but I can’t say I’m a huge fan of the material he chooses. The double-dip combination of Half-Nelson and Lars And The Real Girl is about as enjoyable as sneaking into your local pizzeria and crawling into one of their ovens for the afternoon. I have a real issue with indie films that hit you over the head with their relentless depression for all 100 minutes of their running time, and I have a particular issue with actors who choose to only appear in these types of films. It’s as if they're so desperate to be taken seriously, that they’re willing to sacrifice any semblance of a good story in the process. I mean, okay, you’ve moped, you’ve screamed, you’ve argued, you’ve cried…wonderful. Here’s your Oscar. But what about us? What about the people who actually want to sit down and ENJOY a film?? To me, Gosling is the poster child for that type of actor, and it’s why I don’t get excited for his projects anymore.

Blue Valentine is the third in his “slit your wrists” trilogy. Whether you love it or hate it, this is not the kind of script you enjoy. It is simply something you endure – a no holds barred look at a miserable couple trying to make it through their miserable existence. No film coming out of Sundance divided audiences more than this one. This Movieline review implies it’s one of the worst films ever made. Yet this Firstshowing review seems to say it’s one of the most authentic experiences the reviewer has ever had at a theater. Where do I come out on all this?

Well, I can’t comment on the finished film. But I can say that this draft was one of the most unpleasant reading experiences I’ve ever had in my life. I could get into the fact that there’s no real discernible story. I could talk about how the flashback device seems designed to distract us from that fact. I could get into how terribly unlikable the characters are. I could talk about how absolutely nothing happens for long stretches at a time. I could talk about how the same emotional note is hit over and over and over and over again. I could talk about the lack of character development, the stilted dialogue, how all the flashbacks could've been wrapped up in a single one minute scene. I could basically talk about how I had no idea what this script was about until one of the characters spelled it out for me on page 90.


The movie DID sell. The movie DID work for some people. So why?

One word. Emotion. If you’ve had a recent traumatic break-up where someone fell out of love with you, this script will hit you hard. I think the empty helpless crushing pain of being left is so powerful that it renders all of my above problems moot. It sounds like in Derek’s review on Firstshowing, that that’s exactly what happened. It was a very personal experience for him. And I get that. It’s the one thing I always say. The X-factor in your script is your subject matter. You never know who’s going to be into it, and who isn’t. But man, I mean, as a screenplay, I don't think this works at all.

So what happens in Blue Valentine? Not a lot. But I’ll try and give you the Cliff’s Notes. David Periera is “35 years old and 35 pounds overweight.” His wife, Cindy, is beautiful. The two have a 5 year old daughter named Frankie. There seems to be an unhappiness in their relationship but we’re not told what that unhappiness stems from. The first 30 pages are basically different variations of giving us this same information.

It was this plodding approach to the story that first turned me off. I'm okay when things move slow if *something* is building. But from what I could gather, this wasn't going to be that kind of experience. In fact, the focus appeared to be put on the most random things, characters or moments that added nothing to the screenplay. For instance we learn that Cindy had a bit of a strange family. But their introduction didn't seem to have any point. We'd read a scene where one of the family members flipped out and then...that was it. That moment or the effects of that moment or the result of that moment never ever played into the screenplay at all. Which leaves you wondering...well then why show it in the first place?

Then there was the daughter, who also fell into this category. Why was she here? Whatever was wrong with these two had nothing to do with her (even when we reveal a "secret" about her later on, one that's supposed to be shocking - it has no effect on the dynamic of their relationship). After a lot of passive-aggressive bickering and weird conversations between the two, David gets the idea that they should go on a weekend trip together. It's clear Cindy doesn't want to go but she does anyway.

Gosling at a Q&A, talking about the film, smiling more in one answer than he did the entire movie.

During their trip, we occasionally jump back six years to the period when they first met. David was the son of a logger who dreamed of bigger things. Cindy was hoping to be a doctor and was also engaged to a guy named Bobby. Somehow their paths collided, they fell in love, and they got married.

The flashback structure is supposed to be there to contrast their past with their present, not unlike a more depressing version of 500 Days Of Summer. Although as I mentioned before, nothing happens in the flashbacks that warrants them. For example, during one present-day sequence, Cindy runs into Bobby, her old fiancĂ©, while she’s at the grocery store. They speak for a few minutes, and it’s clear Cindy and Bobby had a past together and that Bobby doesn't like David. Cindy gets back to the car and tells David about the meeting. We can see he’s not a fan of Bobby’s. Right then we know all we need to know about Bobby and David. There was a past – the two probably fought over her – and David won out. Yet nearly 20 minutes worth of flashbacks are given to showing us this scenario, even though it's exactly as we assumed it had been. I'm a big believer in that you don't use flashbacks unless they add some critical piece of information or move the story forward in a way that you couldn't in the present. And I just didn't see that here.


From an objective point of view, this device of jumping from the beginning to the end of a relationship SEEMS like it could be interesting. But since the past holds so few surprises, it feels more like an obligation. You're predicting every word five minutes before it comes out of the characters' mouths. She's going to yell at him here, you say. Sure enough, it's a scene of her yelling at him. It's as if we're watching those fake animals at Chuck-E-Cheese’s exchange pre-recorded lines with each other. I guess that was my biggest problem with the script, is it was so predictable. I wanted more than two people who were unhappy with each other in 50 successive scenes.

And the characters. Oh the characters. You had David, who was nagging clingy jealous and annoying. And you had Cindy, who was cruel heartless bitchy whiny and a sociopath. Not to be flippant but who wants to spend their evening with two people like that?

There’s not much more I can say about this script. I’m trying to find some positives here but it’s like trying to find positives in a plane crash. I guess one thing it’s got going for it is I won’t forget it. They say the worst scripts/movies are ones you forget 2 minutes after you finish them. If it stays with you then it at least had an impact. Well, I can say with certainty that I will never forget Blue Valentine.

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

What I learned: A couple of things here. A gimmick is not a substitution for a story. Jumping back and forth in time isn’t going to distract your reader from the fact that your characters aren’t growing, that the script only hits one note, that the goals are vague, that the focus is put on meaningless scenarios/scenes/characters. If you’re going to use a unique way of telling your story (like Blue Valentine, like Eternal Sunshine, like 500 Days of Summer, like Pulp Fiction), make sure you put just as much effort into your story as you would if you were telling the thing straight up. In addition to that, in my interview with Stacey Menear, he made a great point about how good movies hit multiple emotional notes. You’re scared, you’re happy, you’re sad, you’re angry. Blue Valentine hit the same note over and over and over again – sadness - just suffocating us with depression. Make sure your script hits multiple emotional notes, WHATEVER the genre is!