Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Man and Wife

Genre: Drama/Comedy
Premise: An INS agent tasked with weeding out false marriages falls for one of the married women he interviews.
About: Lorene Scafaria has not one but TWO scripts in my Top 25, The Mighty Flynn and Seeking A Friend At The End Of The World, which she’s shooting as her first directing project right now (with Steve Carell and Keira Knightly). Although there’s no imminent start date on Man and Wife, I believe that
Italian director Gabriele Muccino is still attached to direct. Muccino is best known for being hand picked by Will Smith to direct The Pursuit Of Happyness, despite, at the time, knowing little to no English.
Writer: Lorene Scafaria
Details: 109 pages (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).

Gosling for Thomas?

Scafaria possesses a unique talent for understanding both the man’s and the woman’s side of a relationship, something you don’t see very often in screenplays. But writing three great scripts back to back to back is no easy task. Shit, you should be happy if you’re able to write ONE great script in your lifetime. So how does Man and Wife stack up? Is it a 50-year anniversary? Or a Frank McCourt style divorce?

Thomas Yale is sleepwalking through his life. Like, literally! He has a sleepwalking problem. He’ll wake up and all of a sudden be on midnight train to downtown New York. As a result, his fiance (the deliciously heartless Christine) is tasked with tying him up every night, and not in that good way.

Thomas works at the INS office, processing marriages between U.S. and foreign citizens, trying to sniff out the fake ones. He’s great at his job, and can usually figure out if someone’s lying to him within a matter of minutes. Of course, the irony is that Thomas’ own relationship, that with Christine, is about as loveless as they come, and there are plenty of times where the people trying to dupe him know more about their fake wives than he does about his real fiance.

Anyway, one day a Chinese woman named Mae comes in with her husband and Thomas is tasked with figuring out if their marriage is fake. Despite their backstory being suspicious (she knew no English when they met, they got married 3 months later, right before her visa expired), the two are able to answer every question with expert precision, which is rare.

Afterwards, Thomas is troubled by the interview, not because of how easily she was able to answer the questions, but because he can’t stop thinking of her. As a result, Thomas sort of tricks himself into thinking he needs a second interview, giving him an excuse to go see Mae again. He does, and the two start unofficially hanging out while he continues to work on her “case.”

The dilemma, of course, is that if he finds the marriage to be a sham, Mae will have to be sent back to China. But if he finds that the marriage is legit, it means that he has no chance with her. Talk about a no-win situation.

Needless to say, the INS office becomes suspicious of Thomas’ intentions, pressing him to come to a decision soon. Does he allow this woman he’s clearly fallen for to stay in America, or does he send her away for good?

Like all of Scafaria’s writing, there’s a clever central idea driving Man and Wife. Thomas is tasked with an impossible decision. Keep the girl he loves here yet toil away in agony since he can’t have her or send her back home, even though it guarantees never seeing her again. What’s cool about “Wife” is that there are more layers to this decision than you first realize. In both cases, Thomas loses the girl, but if he does keep her around, a new element is added – temptation. He’ll be tempted to do the immoral thing and continue to try and win her over. He’s weeks away from getting married. Can he handle that temptation? Therefore, does he send her away out of a selfish need to keep his life on track? And what about his work? Thomas is a letter of the law type worker. How does his sense of duty play into all this? If he finds out she’s lying and allows her to stay, has he betrayed his country? There’s just a whole lot of shit that’s going into this decision, and it’s what I enjoyed most about Man and Wife.

I also just like the way Scafaria writes. When you read a lot of scripts, you become keen to writers who can confidently take you down a story path, and those who are trying to figure out things as they go along. I always feel like Scafaria knows exactly where she’s going, exactly where she wants to take you, and so even when things get a little slow or a little confusing, I’m confident that it’ll all straighten out.

Having said that, if I were ranking Man and Wife, it would come in behind “Seeking” and “Mighty Flynn.” Hold on, hold on. No need to lower the life boats. My screenwriting crush on Scafaria is still as strong the Santa Ana winds. But I thought this script helped explain just why those other scripts were so great. If I may, let me ramble for a second.

Here’s my main contention. Both Thomas and Mae – our central characters in “Man and Wife” - are too nice. They’re introspective, pleasant, moral, the kind of people you’d love as your best friends. The problem with super nice people though, is that they’re not always interesting, especially when placed together.

Take a look at The Mighty Flynn’s main characters. One is a selfish semi-maniac who leaves a cloud of destruction wherever he goes. And the other is a rebellious powder keg of a kid who never takes no for an answer. Those characters had real personality. And they were a little dangerous. And it’s fun to watch dangerous people. In “Man and Wife,” Thomas is so damn polite, that when you put him in a room with a woman who’s also polite, and then combine that with the fact that she can barely speak English, it’s tough to make those conversations exciting.

Now that’s not to say two romantic leads need to be sparring every time they walk in a room together a la Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson. There IS conflict here. It comes from the obvious attraction between the two that cannot be acted upon. It just doesn’t read as sexy as two people who are butting heads.

The next issue is that the characters’ situation feels a little stuck. Sort of like we’re repeating beats over and over again. What I loved so much about “Seeking” was that we were pushing towards something. Our characters had goals. They had thrust. Each segment of the screenplay felt different from the last. Now granted, it’s a lot easier to achieve this when your characters are on the road, but it is something I noted during the read, and combined with the characters being so internal, made for some frustrating scenes. There were times where you wanted to kick Thomas and Mae the butt and say, “Tell them already!”

Scarfaria wisely adds a ticking time bomb to ward off the slow pacing (Thomas getting married), however, since his and Christine’s relationship is broken from the very first frame, I’m not sure we ever see that as a threat (though there is the fear that he’ll marry the wrong person). I think a cool ticking time bomb would have been through the INS storyline. Maybe each case has a set time restriction, so he has to make his decision within two weeks or something? That might’ve added more urgency to Thomas’ situation.

In the end, the central dilemma driving the protagonist in Man and Wife is really intriguing. But I think if there’s something I’ve learned from this script, it’s the dangers of putting two reserved personalities together. If Lorene Scafaria has trouble making it work, chances are you’re not going to figure it out either. An intriguing script. But not quite up to par with the awesomeness that is “Seeking” and “Flynn,” which I’m sending another APB out on right now. Who has this script? Please make it now!

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

What I learned: If you’re writing a relationship movie, you need at least one character in the relationship who’s got some oomph. Not every character needs oomph. But people with oomph tend to pop more on the page.