Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Read My Lips

Genre: Thriller/Romantic Drama mash-up
Premise: A half-deaf woman who’s repeatedly taken advantage of at her job, hires a young ex-con to help around the office, who she then begins to fall in love with.
About: Sur Mes Levres was originally a 2001 French thriller. Naturally, since this is what we do here in America, a company bought the rights to the movie to remake it. And apparently had some dough to do so, bringing in hotshot script writer Tony Gilroy (all the Bourne movies, Michael Clayton, Armageddon, The Devil’s Advocate) to sculpt the screenplay. Alas, this draft was written in 2004, and a remake of the film has yet to pass. Gilroy has two rules for his moves. “Bring it in within two hours” and “Don’t bore the audience.” You can read more about him in this New Yorker article here.
Writer: Tony Gilroy (based on the film “Sur Mes Levres” written by Jacques Audiard and Tonio Benacquista)
Details: 127 pages – 9/28/04 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).

If yesterday’s script was tough to get a handle on due to its simplicity, today’s script is hard to get a handle on because of its complexity. The narrative here is all over the place. There’s no defining hook to the story, making it difficult for an average American audience to understand why in the world they would waste their time on it. Americans like clarity in their concepts. They like when you tell them, “This is why you’re going to show up.” Read “Crazy Stupid Love” and then go watch the trailer. There’s no true hook in “Crazy Stupid Love,” but notice how the trailer emphasizes the “nerd to stud” angle of Steve Carrel, so that audiences can go home and identify it as “that movie where Steve Carrel turns into a stud.” Read My Lips doesn’t have any concept to hang its hat on, so I’m not sure how it would be marketed.

Carla is an executive assistant for a construction management company. This is man’s world she works in, so she’s already fighting for her life, but Carla’s situation is complicated by her hearing problem. She’s half-deaf, and her co-workers relentlessly use her impairment to take advantage of her.

At the center of this advantage-taking is her boss, Paul Verlawn. This man is as pathetic and as slimy as they come, and he repeatedly has Carla doing the dirty work for him then taking all the credit when the big board meetings come around.

One day, after Carla is chastised for not getting enough work done, she’s told to hire an assistant (an assistant to the assistant! – I thought that only happened in Hollywood). She brings a guy in named Danny, who immediately informs her that everything on his resume is a lie and he just wrote it to get the interview. Boy did this guy not get the memo on how to nail an interview. Oh, and he’s also an ex-con who just got out of the slammer. A real winner. But Carla, feeling bad for the guy, actually hires him.

Danny begins to see how Carla is treated and implores her to stand up for herself. So the two hatch a plan to prove that her slimy boss, Paul, is dealing in some shady bidding practices and is on the take. Carla uses her “secret power” of reading lips to track what the big timers are saying to each other in meetings, and uses the info to take Paul down.

In the meantime, Danny’s criminal past catches up to him (those darn criminal pasts – they never go away do they?). He owes some big-timer named Marco a lot of money, and Marco plans to get that money back. So he has Danny start bartending at his club, despite Danny being on probation and knowing that if he’s caught around these dudes, he’s probably going back behind bars, filming scenes for MSNBC’s Lockup.

Eventually Carla figures out that Danny’s homeless, and so illegally sets up a makeshift apartment for him in one of the buildings her company owns. He then starts to hit on her, but because Carla is so unfamiliar with any sort of intimate contact, she doesn’t know how to react, and solves the problem pretty much by running away. However, secretly, when she gets home, all she can think about are Danny’s advances. In the end, they’ll have to take down her boss, escape Danny’s thug friends, and figure out if they’re going to be an item or not.

Just from my summary there, you’re probably a little confused, which shows just how off-beat this screenplay is. There’s a lot going on and unlike a traditional Hollywood movie, the A-plot doesn’t have much to do with the B-plot. What I mean is, part of the movie is about Carla taking down her boss, which is sort of a PG run-of-the-mill underdog story. But then Danny’s storyline is a hard R John Woo mini crime saga with Danny being roped into a sketchy murder attempt. I guess other countries like these schizophrenic storylines. But to Americans, they just don’t make sense.

Also, the love story is really odd. It’s never clear why Carla hires Danny in the first place (“feeling sorry for him” was my best guess). Carla spends the majority of the time equal parts angry and afraid of Danny. Yet when she’s alone she walks around naked in his smelly t-shirt. When she does start to accept his advances, he’s angry and frustrated by her for some reason. I don’t know. I just never really understood what was going on there. But at the same time, that’s why I kept reading. Their relationship was so weird, I had to see where it ended up.

Where you could really sense the Europeaness of the story, though, was in Carla’s impairment. Carla is half-deaf. This is so not a Hollywood choice. In Hollywood movies, things are black and white. You’re either all deaf or not deaf. You’re not half-deaf. An audience doesn’t know what to do with half-deaf. “Well, she can still hear,” they say. “What’s the difference between that and being able to hear perfectly?”

I suspect it’s to set up her lip-reading ability, but that was another problem I had with the script. The lip-reading is given a pronounced set-up, but it never really comes into play in a huge way. It’s more something they depend on sporadically, helping them here and there but that’s it. It’s this sort of “one foot in the pool, one foot out of the pool” approach that confuses us dumb Americans. (“If you made such a big deal out of it, why doesn’t it become a big deal later?”)

Read My Lips’ strength is in its characters. There’s so much going on with these guys. Look at Carla. We know about her flaw (doesn’t stand up for herself), her desires (take down her boss), her handicaps (her hearing), her inner conflicts (wanting to be with Danny but being scared), her relationships (her conflicted relationship with her sister). That’s a character you remember right there. On the downside, the plot is disjointed and unsure of itself. The main storyline we’ve been introduced to (taking down the boss) is solved 70% into the screenplay, turning Danny’s life into the main plot, a strange shift that requires a readjustment we’re not very comfortable making.

I’m going to be a little French Film racist here but I see a lot of French movies that take this unclear narrative route and I’m not sure I like it. I remember watching 2010’s “A Prophet” for instance, and thinking, this film is freaking amazing. It’s this gritty story about a dude dealing with the complexities and politics of jail. But then like 70% into the movie, it switches gears into something completely different. And then it just kept going. And going. And going. At a certain point I realized I no longer had any idea what the movie was about.

But I’m getting off track. Despite all this, Read My Lips has something undeniably compelling about it. Whether it’s the weird romance, the moody atmosphere, or its dual storylines. You want to get to the end. And that’s why I think it’s worth your time.

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

What I learned: Tell us who a character is through the way they react to something. On page 18, Carla’s sister tells her that she’s cheating on her husband. Carla’s reaction to this is one of horror. But not just horror. Naiveté. It’s as if Carla’s never heard of a woman cheating on her husband before, much less her own sister. This tells us a ton about Carla’s character. She’s sheltered, naïve, buttoned up, traditional. It’s a clever way to reveal character. All you had to do was show her react to something.