Friday, March 25, 2011

Amateur Friday - Citizen Kane: The Remake

Genre: Comedy
Premise: (writers’ logline) A film producer known for remaking some of Hollywood's biggest movies becomes the subject of a posthumous investigation by Entertainment Tonight.
About: Last week’s comments section for Amateur Friday was a disaster. I want to rebound here. Remember what Amateur Friday is about. It’s about identifying the problems in an amateur screenplay to help both yourself and the writer of the script get better. There’s a huge difference between constructive criticism and hurtful criticism. Let’s show some class and keep everything on the constructive side. ---- Every Friday, I review a script from the readers of the site. If you’re interested in submitting your script for an Amateur Review, send it in PDF form, along with your title, genre, logline, and why I should read your script to Keep in mind your script will be posted.
Writers: Josh Ames and Richard Karpala
Details: 102 pages

Ahhh Citizen Kane. A strange movie indeed. I’m one of those people who find the film fascinating, not so much because of the movie, but because of everything that happened around the movie. The egos involved. The history involved. The scandal. The David vs. Goliath aspect. With all those rich subplots, it really is the best story behind the making of a movie ever. And I can’t tell you how weird it was when I actually visited Hearst Castle and saw the real-life Xanadu for the first time. It made the whole thing even more real. Very trippy indeed.

So naturally, anything with Citizen Kane in the title and I’m going to be interested. And this one sounded good. The idea of trying to remake Citizen Kane is beyond ridiculous, and yet in this day and age, plausible. A comedy about that process could be gangbusters if done right.

Unfortunately, the movie I was expecting to read and the movie I actually read were not one and the same. Today’s writers take a more “meta” approach in their tackling of the subject matter. And the success of that decision will probably depend on the subjectivity of the reader. Let’s take a closer look.

The script starts off PERFECTLY. Charles Foster Kane – or a modern day version of him at least – stumbles into an expansive living room with bullet holes strewn everywhere, plants on fire, and a suffocating barrage of smoke. As sad opera music plays, and in ultra-slow motion, Kane pulls off a grenade pin. “Rosebud,” he says. And proceeds to blow his insides against the walls. Talk about updating a classic!

But whatever does “Rosebud” mean? I’ll tell you who wants to know. Entertainment Tonight. They assign our hero, Frank Tesh (yes, John Tesh’s brother) to find out as much as he can about Charles Foster Kane, so as to shed some light on why that word might have been his last.

He starts off by locating Kane’s infamous mistress, Susan Alexander, a MILFy cocaine-addict who still strips when they allow her to. Susan fills Tesh in on Kane’s early life, where he first discovered his love for movies. When he was old enough, he took a 25 grand loan from his uncle and proceeded to make “Heart Songs,” a touchy feely film that won the Grand Jury prize at Sundance (one of my favorite jokes in the script).

But Kane wasn’t satisfied with his success. What he really wanted to do was make remakes, regardless of how controversial they were. And his wish was granted. Producers everywhere allowed him to remake movies like Top Gun, Forrest Gump, and Back To The Future. Kane was on top of the world.

But that world came crashing down when his wife found out about his mistress, and pretty soon Kane was divorced, alone, and miserable. Even his most trusted confidant, Leland, sells him out by writing a scorching guest review of one of his movies on Ain’t It Cool News (another favorite moment). In the end, it all became too much for him, so he took his own life.

I’m not sure where to start here so I think I’ll begin with the degree of difficulty. This is something I bring up a lot and it’s definitely something every writer should be aware of. You need to know when you’re aiming too high. A lot of writers feel that the freedom of art should allow one to go anywhere they want and if it’s funny enough or clever enough, it will all simply work itself out. Unfortunately, that’s idealistic and unrealistic. The higher the degree of difficulty, the more likely it is that your story will fall on its ass.

Here, Josh and Richard are writing a highly broad comedic update of Citizen Kane while tackling a social commentary on the state of Hollywood remakes and sequels. Do you realize how pin-point accurate the tone has to be to pull that off? I don’t know if Aaron Sorkin could throw that together in his best year. I mean the humor here is really broad - almost Airplane 2: The Sequel broad.  You have an apparition of John Tesh appearing whenever our hero, Frank Tesh, does one of his interviews. And at the end of said interviews, Frank always ends up either having sex with or blowing whoever he interviewed. I’m not saying that a younger crowd wouldn’t find this hilarious, but that’s the problem. I don’t think a younger crowd gives a shit or has even seen Citizen Kane. So you’re trying to strike a tone that caters to the older educated cinephile and the goofy juvenile high school kid.  Is that even possible?  I don’t know, I guess I was hoping for something more clever, something that challenged me more.

Also, once the initial fun factor wears off, we realize that we’re basically following the exact same story format as Citizen Kane, but in broad comedy form. This puts us way ahead of the story and since there are no real stakes or consequences to anyone’s actions, we’re just hoping that each of the sequences is funny.

Strangely, this script brings to light some of the weaknesses in the original Citizen Kane, which are actually the same well-documented problems I have with all stories that exist in the bio-pic format. There’s nothing truly driving the story. The mystery behind “Rosebud” is a lazy attempt at creating a reason to look back into Charles Foster Kane’s life, made all the more clear when we find out the damn thing was in reference to a relatively insignificant sled. The thing with Citizen Kane though, was that it was such a rich and thorough examination of a man, that we didn’t care that such a thin objective was driving the story.

Citizen Kane: The Remake has replaced that richness with shenanigans - and many of them- which means, unfortunately, there isn't a shred of story left to grab onto. In fact, the secret behind what Rosebud means (it's a tube of lipstick Kane used to wear as a child) is given to us midway through the script, technically leaving no more reason for the story to continue. We know what it means. So why are we still following the guy who’s trying to find out what it means?

But the bigger issue here is the same problem I have with most of the comedies I read. Citizen Kane: The Remake is more about stringing together funny scenes than it is about telling a story. And when all you have to connect with your audience is laughs, they start tuning out on you around the half hour point (this was the exact moment, in fact, where I started pulling away from Citizen Kane: The Remake). This is why in the history of sitcoms, whenever they’ve tried to do an hour special, it's never worked. Because after a half hour of jokes, the audience needs something more to keep them interested. They need characters to care about, relationships that need mending, a story to latch onto. There’s none of that on display here. It’s just cold hard comedy.  And as a result, I became more and more distanced from the material as it went on.

There’s a part of me that wishes Ames and Karpala would’ve taken a more traditional route here and followed a director who was trying to remake Citizen Kane. It wouldn’t have been as inventive or daring, but it would’ve been much more manageable. Watching a Michael Bay like idiot suggest to a producer who held Citizen Kane close to his heart how he wanted to stage that opening scene (with Kane dropping the grenade during a slow operatic score) would’ve been priceless. But I’ll give it to Josh and Richard for taking a chance. They went for something a little left of center. They just may have underestimated how difficult it was to pull off.

Script Link:  Citizen Kane: The Remake

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

What I learned: Beware of the 3 a.m. idea! These are ideas that make you laugh your ass off at 3 in the morning. But that does not mean they should be included in your screenplay. In fact, most of the time, they definitely shouldn't be included in your screenplay. I mean, apparitions of John Tesh (who’s not dead so why would there be an apparition of him?) playing a piano in the corner of the room during all of Frank’s interviews? Sometimes you need to police yourselves. You need to say, “You know what? That’s too much. We need to dial it back.” There is a limit, even in broad comedy.