Monday, February 7, 2011

Lost For Words - Filmwonk Review

As frequent readers of the site know, one of the more insightful commenters on Scriptshadow is Filmwonk (now Bohdicat). I don’t always have time to read through every comment, but he’s one commenter I always check in on, as he often points out stuff that I either didn’t have the time to get into or didn’t even think of altogether. So today Filmwonk is getting the full red carpet treatment and not just giving us a comment, but writing an entire review. Make sure to make him feel welcome.

Genre: Romantic Comedy
Premise: A hugely popular American movie star living in London meets an alluring Chinese actress but can only communicate with her via her flirtatious, equally attractive British translator.
About: Writer James Curtis is the younger brother of Richard Curtis, who also had a hand in this script. Tom Cruise and Hugh Jackman have been mentioned as candidates for the male lead. Chinese actress and über-cutie Ziyi Zhang ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon") was at one time reported to have signed on as the female lead.
Writer: James Curtis, with Richard Curtis as "script editor"
Details: 114 pages. Dated November 2, 2006. (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).

Hello everyone, Bohdicat here. When Carson asked me to step in with a guest review, I jumped at the chance to review "Lost for Words," a romantic comedy set in contemporary London. While the script is credited to James Curtis, it was the second credit on the title page - "Script Editor - Richard Curtis" - that immediately caught my eye.

As most of you probably know, Richard Curtis is a major player in the world of British film and television. He was one of the principal writers on the "Black Adder" TV series and is a co-creator of the iconic Mr. Bean. On the cinema side, he wrote the successful "Four Weddings and a Funeral" and "Notting Hill," each of which reportedly became the most successful British films ever produced (although that honor has since been eclipsed by, of all things, the Abba musical "Mama Mia"). Curtis followed those up with an even bigger hit, "Love Actually," which he also directed. Curtis also founded Comic Relief, a charity that has raised millions to help the world's poor.

However, this isn't the work of Richard Curtis, but rather his younger brother James (better known as Jamie). Jamie's credits aren't nearly as extensive as his brother's, but it seems he's been quietly working to establish a writing career of his own. While IMDB lists his only writing credit as "additional writing" on the 1997 stinker "Spice World," the fact that older brother Richard had a hand in this script was enough to interest me.

The story concerns Charlie Cooper, a phenomenally successful American film star living in London. He's the kind of guy who can't go anywhere without being stalked by paparazzi. Picture an unmarried Johnny Depp or Brad Pitt, or Tom Cruise at the height of his popularity (before the couch-jumping episode and the fake wife). Yet, for all his success, Charlie is one lonely guy. Without an entourage of friends, he lives a fairly empty and dissolute life when he's not off making blockbuster movies. He lives in a posh hotel suite, dresses like a slob, and basically does whatever he wants, even if that means closing down the enormous Tate Modern Museum so he can take in a Mark Rothko exhibit without being molested by adoring fans. And while intimacy is not something he understands completely, he's not above bedding the occasional female admirer - and there seems to be no shortage of those.

To his credit, Charlie is a pretty good egg. For one thing, he has no illusions about the quality of his films. He knows they're big on flash and short on sophistication, and he's more or less okay with that - especially as he doesn't consider himself a particularly good actor. In fact, while serving as a presenter at an independent film awards ceremony, he good-naturedly pokes fun at his own image.

It's at the party following this awards ceremony that Charlie meets Chinese actress Lin Zhen. Zhen is a huge star in her own country of over a billion inhabitants, but much less well-known in the western world. The first thing Charlie notices about her is her remarkable beauty. The second thing he notices is that she speaks no English. The third thing he notices is Zhen's ever-present interpreter, Helen. In sharp contrast to Zhen, Helen is blonde, British, and very attractive in her own right. Charlie quickly falls into the rhythm of conversing with Zhen through Helen, and while their initial conversation is little more than idle chit-chat, he manages, perhaps inadvertently, to charm both women.

Later, as he prepares to leave the party, he sees Helen, now off-duty, on her way out. This leads to drinks at an exclusive club, which in turn leads to flirting, which in turn leads to the inevitable squeaking of the bedsprings back at Charlie's hotel suite. (Feel free to supply your own sound effects here.) The next day it's back to business as usual for both of them. For Charlie, this means doing promotional interviews for his latest big-budget film, "The Crown Jewels."

It's a big surprise, then, when he gets a call from Zhen's agent asking if he can meet her that evening to discuss appearing in a film she's planning to direct. Naturally Helen is there, and once again any conversation between Charlie and Zhen must pass through her. Surprisingly, Zhen confesses that the real reason she called Charlie was that she wants to go out with him - on a date - before returning to China at the end of the week. If this arouses any jealousy in Helen, she conceals it well. Zhen and Charlie do one of those "have your people call my people" things, and the evening ends with Charlie back at Helen's apartment, with more of the aforementioned squeaking of bedsprings.

Charlie soon finds himself serving as a tour guide to Zhen, who has asked to be shown some of London's famous sights. Of course, Helen is along as interpreter, although she obviously has said nothing to Zhen about having slept with Charlie. This is Charlie's first real opportunity to get to know Zhen and he comes away from the experience with an entirely new opinion of her. Zhen is smart, perceptive, opinionated, even funny... not at all what he expected. He may even be developing feelings for her, which makes the fact that he's been shagging her interpreter something of a problem.

A dinner is scheduled for the following evening, and both Zhen and Helen arrive dressed to kill. Over the course of a long dinner Zhen and Charlie discuss everything from family values to Charlie's checkered past, and as a result they start to establish a bond. Helen, for all her attempts to woo Charlie - and despite all the skin she's showing - senses correctly that she's being pushed out of the picture by her more glamorous movie-star employer. At the same time, Helen continues to be indispensable, as Zhen and Charlie have no way of communicating without her. Ironic, ain't it?

The following day, with his feelings for Zhen blossoming into something more than mere attraction, Charlie arranges to meet with her again. This time he insists she bring a different interpreter. He gets his wish, in the form of a large, bald Chinese gentleman with whom Charlie most assuredly will not be having sex. Charlie and Zhen spend a romantic afternoon in Hyde Park, culminating finally with a tender kiss - but sadly no squeaking bedsprings as Zhen must leave to attend an important dinner function. The upshot is that Charlie is now completely smitten with Zhen, and she with him... which leaves Helen out in the cold.

When Charlie is next able to see Zhen, it's on the eve of her departure for China. Helen, unavoidably, is on hand as interpreter, but Charlie decides to press on and profess his feelings to Zhen anyway. Here's where things get a bit tricky. When Charlie tells Zhen that he wants to find a way to continue seeing her, Helen tells her just the opposite, saying it would be "pointless" for them to see each other again. Out of spite, Helen uses her position as translator to effectively engineer a break-up between Charlie and Zhen that neither of them wants. Both Charlie and Zhen are led to believe that the other wants to end their relationship, and as a result both come away feeling devastated.

That night, Charlie dulls his pain by returning to his old ways and getting drunk. The following day brings a meeting regarding a new project, an animated film in which he'll voice the part of an evil sperm - yes, you heard that right - opposite Adam Sandler's "good" sperm. Charlie knows full well that it's a piece of crap, but it'll probably make a fortune.

In the meantime, Helen, seeing Zhen in emotional pain and having suffered a fit of conscience, confesses all to her - the shaggings AND her deliberate sabotage of her final conversation with Charlie. With Zhen packed and ready to fly back to China, she and Helen descend on the photo studio where is Charlie is posing for publicity photographs for (presumably) a last-ditch effort at reconciliation.

Normally this is where things would wrap up neatly, with Charlie confessing his undying love, Zhen forgiving Charlie's indiscretions, and Helen bowing gracefully out of the picture. But, as it happens, the photo shoot involves Charlie posing with a bevy of bikini-clad models. This may be unremarkable for a movie star of Charlie's stature, but to Zhen it's a glimpse of the sort of man she fears Charlie really is - shallow, self-absorbed, incapable of making a commitment. Charlie begs Zhen to stay, but she leaves anyway, heading directly for the airport.

Months pass. Charlie expands from summer blockbusters to more sophisticated independent films, but finds he's more miserable than ever. It seems like his brief experience with Zhen - which didn't even include getting laid - has left him a changed man.

Finally, he decides to take matters into his own hands. With a goofy waiter from a local Chinese take-out restaurant along as his interpreter, he flies to Beijing. He seeks out Zhen, who at the moment is both directing and appearing in a new film. Zhen is initially cool to the idea of reconciling, but with some tender persistence she begins to warm to it. With the help of a clever computer program that translates between English and Chinese, they begin a new dialogue - one that doesn't require bringing a third person into the mix. The film ends with Charlie carrying Zhen over the threshold of his big London house – a house he owns but has never lived in, because until now, it never felt like "home."

On Scriptshadow we've seen a number or scripts where the premise was strong but the execution fell short. Here we have just the opposite: a script where the execution is top-notch, but which is built around a premise that, in my view, leaves something to be desired. "Lost for Words" is a worthwhile read, but it falls short of being really good by the narrowest of margins.

Before I go any further I should mention that I am a great admirer of Richard Curtis. In particular, I think "Notting Hill" is one of the finest romantic comedies ever written; it literally changed my ideas about the genre and made me a Curtis fan for life. Believe me, it's not easy to criticize the work of someone whom you consider a master - or his baby brother, for that matter.

Considering how much I like "Notting Hill," it's odd to note how strikingly similar "Lost for Words" is to it, both in its premise and execution. It absolutely "feels" like a product of the Richard Curtis school of screenwriting, regardless of who wrote it. Unfortunately it also suffers greatly by comparison.

Now, romantic comedies are a different animal, and you can't judge them the same way you judge other genres. The central question is almost always something along the lines of "will he get the girl?" Instead of the fate of the free world or evisceration by zombies, there is usually no more than the happiness of the protagonists at stake... and that's okay.

That being said, a rom-com calls for a likeable protagonist. He may - and frequently does - have character flaws (what would "Annie Hall" be without Alvy's neuroses?) In fact, a protagonist may be downright annoying (think Jack Nicholson in "As Good As It Gets"). But on some elemental level we must still like him enough to want to see him succeed. So here's my first beef with "Lost for Words:" Charlie is hard to like.

Mind you, Charlie is hardly awful - he doesn't steal candy from babies or mistreat animals - but as a romantic protagonist he has a big strike against him, ironically, in that he has way too much going for him. He's handsome, famous, ridiculously rich, and women basically throw themselves at him on sight (the last woman who threw herself at me had hairy knuckles and an Adam's apple). It's hard to understand why I should care about someone who enjoys a life far beyond what I ever expect to achieve. In fact, as I read this, I kept thinking to myself "gee, I wish I had HIS problems."

I feel that Charlie needs something to balance out my perception of him as a person who has acquired much with very little effort but who gives nothing back in return. Imagine, for example, how different Charlie would seem if he supported a half-dozen orphanages in Africa, but did so anonymously. It would add a whole new dimension to his character.

Compounding this problem is the fact that the eventual object of Charlie's affection - once poor Helen has been discarded like yesterday's London Times - is also a person of great stature, a star known to a billion Chinese. Now, I realize that this criticism goes to the basic premise of the film, but hear me out. When I first read this, I was fairly certain that Helen - the British interpreter - would be the one to end up with Charlie, for the precise reason that she WASN'T rich or famous.

The pairing of a rich and powerful person with someone of lesser circumstances seems to be recurring theme in the Curtis universe but not here - consider Julia Roberts' movie star with Hugh Grant's bookshop owner in "Notting Hill," for example, or Hugh Grant's Prime Minister with Martine McCutcheon's tea-tray-toting Natalie. Right or wrong, I think audiences enjoy seeing someone move beyond their station, romantically speaking, whether that person is Cinderella or a workaday London interpreter. On the other hand, the idea that one famous actor would knock boots with another requires no stretch of the imagination whatsoever - it happens all the time.

 Rachel McAdams for Helen?

So, my second major issue with the script is that Charlie goes for the wrong girl - or at least a strong argument could be made to that effect. To address this the writers could give Helen some negative quality - a quality not immediately apparent, of course, but one that would come to the surface in due time - that makes her clearly the poorer choice. The trick would be to do this without making her into Cruella De Vil, for to do so would change the essential nature of the story too much. My suggestion would be to make her a bit of a bigot under the skin. Yes, she looks great and says all the right things in mixed company, but in private it turns out that she doesn't really care for the Chinese, or Black people, or gays, for that matter. It would be an interesting turn given the interracial nature of Charlie's romance with Zhen.

Finally, there's issue number three, which ties in directly with issue number two. Charlie's an American bloke. Zhen is Chinese. Neither speaks the other's language. How plausible is it that these two would fall in love - honest-to-gosh LOVE - if they couldn't even communicate without the aid of an interpreter? Even though I realize this story takes place in the rom-com universe and not the real world, I have a hard time accepting this. Note that in romantic comedies there's almost always some obstacle that separates the two principals and which must be overcome. Here it's the language difference (and to a lesser extent the cultural gap) that separates Charlie from Zhen. As a device this is less than ideal - first because it doesn't literally separate them (both are free to travel and spend time with each other, so in the most basic sense it doesn't separate them at all), and second, because there is an obvious solution (one or both of them could learn the other's language) but it's laborious and, well, just not very romantic. If this story took place in the 1950's, with Zhen under the thumb of that era's repressive Communist regime, one could imagine the real obstacles that would face our star-crossed lovers. Instead we have today's happy-thank-you-shop-at-Walmart Communists. It's enough to make you pine for the bad old days.

I have a few other quibbles. First, I think the fact that for almost the entire movie our romantic leads converse via an on-screen interpreter might make for a tiresome experience. (Or maybe this will play better than I am imagining it.)

Second, there's a small scene where one of Charlie's old friends from the U.S. shows up and begs him to commit to a movie he's trying to get financed. I'm not sure what purpose this scene is intended to serve, but it does nothing to illuminate Charlie's character or to move the plot along, so I don't know what it's doing there. Perhaps someone could enlighten me.

Third, the scene where Charlie visits with his parents, who have come to London to attend a convention, is neither fish nor fowl. Yes, Charlie has issues with his parents, but they're not serious enough to warrant deeper exploration or light-hearted enough to make for good comedy. Charlie seems to feel underappreciated simply because his parents acknowledge the achievements of his brother back in the States - whom Charlie points out "earns a hundredth of what I do." How petty is that statement? I think it's a fair bet that Charlie's parents do appreciate his achievements - he is one of the top actors in the world, after all. And if they don't... fuck 'em. When you make twelve million a picture, you can buy new parents.

Fourth, Charlie does something near the end of the script that seems so unwarranted that it stopped me dead in my tracks. He fires his trusted personal assistant, Karen, for no other reason than he feels annoyed by her honest response to a question. That, in my opinion, was a shitty thing to do, and for me it seriously compromised whatever good will Charlie had built up over the previous 98 pages.

Finally (and this is more of a general observation), the fact that Charlie seems to have no friends is something of a bummer. Again, using "Notting Hill" for comparison, consider how much Hugh Grant's friends contributed to that film. There's a memorable scene where Grant's character brings movie star Anna (played by Julia Roberts) to a homey dinner party given by his friends - and their reactions were priceless. And let's not forget Grant's odd Welsh roommate, who got some of the film's biggest laughs. There is no such constellation of friends in "Lost for Words," with the net effect being that it's simply not as funny as it should be.

So why do I give this a "worth the read" instead of a "wasn't for me?" Honestly, I was torn. I initially intended to give this the poorer grade, but after reading it through a second time - I had a review to write, after all - I started to see a lot of subtle touches that I appreciated as being the work of a fine writer - or maybe two. In the end, while "Lost for Words" failed to engage me emotionally (as I feel a romantic comedy should), it is a well-crafted script with much to recommend in it. To use a clumsy metaphor, it's like a Ferrari with an engine that doesn't fire on all twelve cylinders. It's not working now, but if someone with the right tools and the right know-how would just get under the hood and fix it, the result could be something wonderful.

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

What I learned: It's not enough to have good writing skills if your premise is shaky. Make sure your premise is bulletproof before wasting months writing your script. Take the time to create multidimensional characters and make sure their actions are motivated by character and not arbitrary. And if you're writing a romantic comedy, please make your protagonist someone your audience will really root for.