Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Can You Keep A Secret?

Genre: Romantic Comedy
Premise: After a woman spills her secrets to a stranger during a turbulent plane ride, she shows up at work to discover that he is the recently returned CEO of her company.
About: Can You Keep A Secret landed on the bottom half of the 2010 Black List and is an adaptation of a novel by Sophie Kinsella. This appears to be a departure for Megan Martin, the writer, whose previous credits include spy fare (TV movie “Tangled”) and horror (Ginger Snaps: Unleashed). Although she did work on the 2009 series “Being Erica,” about a doctor who sends a woman back to all the bad decisions she made in her life so she can correct them. As I’m typing this, I’m figuring that’s what got her the job to adapt “Can You Keep A Secret.”
Writer: Megan Martin (Based on the novel by Sophie Kinsella)
Details: 114 pages – 10/04/10 draft (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).

Oh boy, I’m already anticipating some blowback from this one. I feel the readers descending upon me, chastising me for endorsing a seemingly straightforward romantic comedy. But here’s the thing with romantic comedies: Even if they follow the traditional clich├ęd romantic comedy path, if you can create two characters that we fall in love with, the predictable plot elements can be excused (TO A POINT! – I am NOT saying that plot isn’t important). And the truth is, I loved both of these characters, starting with our heroine, Emma.

Emma Corrigan is living a lie. Well, aren’t we all living a lie? But Emma’s living lie is one that makes life quite difficult – she’s lying to her parents. She pretends to be a big corporate hotshot on the express elevator to the top when in reality she’s barely holding on to her assistant marketing job at a dying energy drink corporation, a job she hates with a passion and yet, like many of us, is too terrified to leave.

A big reason for Emma’s fakery is her beloved golden child cousin, Kerry, who is the apple of her parents’ eye. Kerry really *is* living the high-class corporate lifestyle, making Emma’s lack of success look more embarrassing at every turn. Of course after a couple of fibs, it’s all even again, to the point where Emma’s parents believe she’s living the exact opposite life that she actually is.

On her way back to the West Coast, Emma experiences one of her few fortuitous moments, finding herself upgraded to first class. Her seat-mate must have gotten bumped up as well because with his five-o’clock shadow and grubby outfit, he’d be lucky to be accepted on a Greyhound bus, much less the first class cabin of an airplane.

Somewhere during that five hour flight, the plane starts careening out of control, and it looks like they’re going down. A terrified Emma responds by barking out an endless closet of secrets she’s never told anyone, starting, of course, with how much she hates her job, moving on to how she made up a charity organization she volunteered for to get the job in the first place, and going into her deepest darkest sexual secrets that she’s never been able to act out (which include, amongst other things, dressing up like a nurse and being taken advantage of by a doctor).

Well wouldn’t you know it, the captain regains control of the ship, and an embarrassed Emma realizes she just told her whole life to a complete stranger. AWK-WARD. But it’s about to get a lot more awkward honey. You see, Panther Cola’s elusive CEO shows up for the first time in forever at the company. And wouldn’t you know it? It’s Airplane Guy. Who will henceforth be known as Jack Harper.

Emma assumes she’s screwed nine ways to Tuesday but is shocked when Jack calls her in and tells her she’s inspired him. Panther Cola has been down in the dumps and he’s been frantically searching for a new marketing campaign. Unleashing who you truly are, in essence, all your secrets, is the inspiration behind the campaign. And since she inspired it, he wants her to head it up.

Emma is re-energized, in both her work and her personal life, charging up those around her in ways that nobody ever expected. But as Emma and Jack’s professional relationship becomes personal, it becomes unclear if Emma is really earning all these accolades on her own, or they’re being handed to her because she’s – let’s not mince words here – “banging the boss.” When the truth finally comes out, Emma’s credibility is called into question, and all this success she’s finally been able to achieve, very well may come crumbling down.

I’ll get to the characters in a second, but what I really liked about Can You Keep A Secret was the uniformity of the theme. This romantic comedy is about something: Lying and/or the omission of truth. There’s the life we project to everyone else, and there’s the life we actually live. The distance between those worlds is usually wider than we’d prefer. Emma must lie to her parents to live up to their lofty expectations. Jack omits the truth in his relationship with Emma. Emma can’t tell her co-workers the truth about her relationship with Jack. The manipulation of truth is one of the most relatable themes out there, and I thought Can You Keep A Secret explored this in a wonderful way.

That’s why I liked Emma. I could relate to her plight. We all exaggerate things (especially us storytellers!) in order to impress the people we love, even though we know there will be consequences to those actions. And I think that’s what makes her situation so fun to watch, is that we know that, sooner or later, the consequences are coming. You can’t keep doing something “bad” forever and not have to pay for it. Just ask Bernie Madoff.

The care and attention to Jack was what really set this apart though. Usually writers will put all this work into their rom-com lead, then maybe half or three-quarters of that same work into the romantic interest. But Jack is not the typical happy-go-lucky “everything is peachy, I’m going to turn your life around” mate you usually see in these films. He’s got some pretty big problems of his own, and although it takes a while before we’re let in on those problems, we can see that they’re weighing on him.

That’s why this script got to me. Despite a lot of the formulaic plot choices (the company that NO real person ever works for – a protagonist with a marketing job), I thought the relationship itself felt realistic, with each person having real problems and real obstacles keeping them from being together.

In fact, I was all set to give this a double worth the read, but then, unfortunately, we get a huge plot contrivance late in the story, and it’s one of those contrivances you can’t make in your rom-com. In every romantic comedy, you need the “guy and girl break up” scene late in the second act. That way, they can get back together in the third act. But the break up in “Secret” is so manufactured (it involves Jack doing a CNN interview and revealing all of Emma’s secrets in a way that would never happen in real life), that it really hurt what was, up until that point, a fun romantic comedy about two people you liked.

That was a bummer, cause otherwise I would’ve given this a huge thumbs up. Unfortunately it will have to stand as a solid recommendation, a smart if predictable entry into the romantic comedy genre that WILL NOT be converting any non-rom-com fans, but should be plenty satisfying for the Notting Hill and Pretty Woman fan clubs. Just goes to show. Work on your characters first. Figure out what makes them tick. You do that and the rest of the story will come.

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

What I learned: The late rom-com break up scene people. IT HAS TO BE BELIEVABLE. It has to be realistic! I can’t tell you how many writers I see fudge their way through this. They believe that because it’s part of the convention of the genre, that the audience will accept any version of it you vomit onto the page. Here, Jack gives up the details on Emma’s deepest darkest secrets on national TV completely unprovoked!!! There’s no way in a million years he would do this.  Look at how this convention is handled in When Harry Met Sally. They sleep together. Harry is confused as hell about it afterwards so he doesn’t call her. Naturally, she pulls away from him. I buy that. I’ve seen it happen in real life before. It goes back to something I talk about on the site all the time: Logic. If it’s a pivotal plot point in the movie, make sure it makes sense on a logical level. If you try and fake it, I promise you, you will lose your audience.