Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Miriam Paschal Reviews “The Senator’s Wife”

Ahh, Miriam Paschal… Who doesn’t know about our very good friend?

She does everything. She puts together the
Movie Breakdowns for us, and her analysis of Taxi Driver, which includes the world’s first script-to-screen comparison of that movie, is still one of our most popular posts. She’s the consummate, prolific screenwriter. She’s a good friend and a reliably tough critic who pulls no punches, and we love her for that. Like everyone else, she is a recognized “Reviewer of the Month” and has a number of great screenplays under her name that have those little blue stars to indicate that they had at some point shot up in the ratings to become Top Ten favorites.

I don’t know how she finds the time to do it all, but I am so grateful she’s made time for us. Thanks so much, Mim.



The first thing I noticed about this screenplay is the lack of grammar. The first paragraph is nothing but sentence fragments: a screenwriting convention and one I hope to end. It's very visual and sets an emotional tone as well as gives a physical description of the setting, but any middle school English teacher would shudder to read it.

As far as the story, it's decent. It's well-structured and hits the right notes in the right places. But it's kind of low-key and doesn't shine the way, say, Little Miss Sunshine did. It will join the other movies on the comedy shelf, or perhaps the drama shelf, and a few people will rent it. Then it will end up in the previously viewed discount bin and customers will thumb past it looking for something they feel is really worth the $5.99 price tag.

Rosalind and Donny are equally decent characters. They go through a well-defined change as they discover things about themselves and about each other in their travels with Joel. There's some good dialogue here and there, but mainly it's not very memorable. The first dialogue turns out to be a campaign speech that Rosalind gives on behalf of her husband, Arthur. It's kind of funny. Ms. Fugate came up with this inspirational "it's the moments" speech and recognized that it would never pass as natural conversational dialogue, so she gave in to the obvious and made it a speech.

Donny's supposed to be some kind of mobster or a bag-man in New York. Ms. Fugate made the decision to have him speak a little more intelligently than the cliché "whaddaya" kind of dialogue we hear from mobsters on The Sopranos etc. He demonstrates that he knows how to cause both pain and injury, or not, when he punches the Judge, and that he doesn't let social niceties stand in the way of doing his job.

The description of Donny is that he's 40 and that his face and his hands are scarred, like his soul. Rosalind is in her thirties. Honestly I didn't buy the sparks that flew between these two. The genre that this story seems to have aimed at dictates that the female and male leads are co-protags and will fall in love by the end of act two. First of all, there's precious little "com" and not much more "rom" in this script. It reads more like a light drama. But romcoms seems to be gravitating more heavily towards drama lately. Second of all, and more important, is the fact that Ms. Fugate has pushed Donny and Rosalind into romance based upon the expectations of the genre, rather than allowed them to naturally find kindred souls in each other. I think producers might prefer to stick to formula because it's worked before, but it can lead to situations like this. Why couldn't Donny and Rosalind have helped each other work out some other romantic relationship in their lives?

The kid, Joel, bounces in talking like some forties film noir cop. "First cup, black. Second cup, two Sweet 'N Lows. The buzz makes you ache for the sweet stuff." And a few pages later: "A gift. A little something – something extra. Later. Donny."

This is supposed to be a ten year-old boy. Even a child who has grown up in an orphanage in New York isn't this savvy or ironic. I sincerely hope that a lot of Joel's dialogue is re-written either before production or during production.

The progression of the story is fine. I found it a little far-fetched that Joel would have managed all the FedEx transactions that they follow from New York to Florida and from there into Georgia. Then we find out near the end that he just went back into the diner and stuffed the book down into the seat. I was okay with that.

I kind of had a feeling that Joel was Rosalind's kid from the first time he revealed the scam, but I wasn't sure until Rosalind told him to stop reading the comic right before he threw up. That's when I knew. And that scene was nicely written. There was a lot of sub-text there. How does Rosalind know so quickly that Joel is car-sick? Probably because she's experienced it herself. And motion sickness is hereditary. But none of this was brought out. There was only her instant reaction, which said a lot more than any explanation could have. Also, Ms. Fugate did not want to reveal that Joel was the real son in this scene. All in all, nicely handled.

Most of the other scenes as well as the progression from one to the other were fairly predictable. Joel tricks Donny and Rosalind into a road trip. They all leave their familiar lives and form their own little unit. Arthur's suspicions grow. Donny's job is threatened. Then the journey comes to an abrupt end when the posse shows up, and just as they were getting to like each other. It was skillfully done, but there was nothing special about it.

I found the twist that Joel had cancer a little too maudlin. But what else can you do with a story like this? A truly happy ending would have felt too unreal. I think I would have tried to come up with something besides terminal cancer as the impetus for the search. Maybe there's a couple who wants to adopt Joel and he wants to find Rosalind before the final papers are signed. Then the ending would be when she returns to claim her child, only to find that his new parents have disappeared with him. Or he has been with a family, but they've been abusing him. Or he's been bounced around from foster home to foster home and just happens to cross her path instead of engineering it.

The terminal cancer diagnosis guarantees an audience of teenage girls, as well as a few of their boyfriends, plus a few twenty-somethings for good measure. It might not make back its budget at the box office, but it should clear a profit on rentals. Again, this might have been a producer's request. It's a tried and true device that is sure to cause tears.

All in all, I can see why this script was greenlit, but it doesn't stand out from among the many other movies that are going to come and go this year. This is a second draft. I don't know that I could come up with anything better on a second draft myself, so this serves as a lesson to all of us to keep re-writing. It might also serve as a lesson to offer studios something different so they will stop asking writers to stick to formula.

Back to The Senator's Wife


Mystery Man said...

Thanks so much, Mim, for the great thoughts. While the unfilmmables bugged the hell out of me, I wasn't terribly bothered so much by the fragmented sentences in the action lines.

And I gotta tell you, I completely agreed with your comments about this budding romance between Donny and Rosalind. I never bought it. Something more needed to be done there to earn that payoff between the two of them.

Thanks so much. Great job, Mim.


Mim said...

Yeah, yeah. Everybody's used to reading those fragmented sentences. I'm just a maverick.

I feel bad that we're trashing this script. It will probably do just as well as any of the other movies it can be compared to. If you think of the quality of movies as a bell curve, then the majority are not going to stand out as either terrible or wonderful. This falls right in the middle.

I guess that's the real lesson. How can we shift the curve so that scripts with better stories and better characters represent the top of the bell?

Laura Deerfield said...

... wait... this was supposed to be a RomCom?

Mystery Man said...

Mim - I wouldn't feel too bad. There were a lot of aspects about this script that was really great, and I think everyone respects Ms. Fugate, but at the same time, a lot could be said about things that could be fixed. That's as insightful as I can be in the morning before coffee. Everyone's reviews have been really great.

Laura - Hehehe... Exactly.


Mim said...

To be fair to Ms. Fugate, she hasn't had the benefit of an online community like Triggerstreet.

Laura Deerfield said...

Well, that would explain some of the odd and out of place lines from Donny toward the end of the second act... Honestly never occurred to me that was supposed to be a romantic connection.

And if it's supposed to be comedy... I don't know if I laughed more than once. At least, not at anything that would be onscreen.

I took it for light drama.

Anonymous said...

Hey, it's David. Anonymous was the quickest way to post. Re: Sentence fragments. They're pretty much an industry standard now. Jeff Arch (Sleepless In Seattle) told me something related to this that I've taken very much to heart. "The less you write, the more they'll read." Most readers/producers will read down the middle of the page, and only read the action lines if absolutely necessary for clarity. An audience will only know what they see, not how cleverly you described it. Jeff sends me everything he writes, and each script is more spare than the last one. Sentence fragments aren't really bad grammar (provided you spell correctly and don't mix tenses). As long as they convey the essence of the visual, they're perfectly fine. Now don't get me started on coloful verbs.

GimmeABreak said...

Looks like MM paired the scrooges, ehhh Ms. Mim?

Mim said...

Sounds about right, Pat. One thing I hear consistently about my writing is how easy it is to read and visualize what's happening.

I think HW screenwriters use these sentence fragments because that's what they've learned. I know how to create a visual landscape with complete, grammatically sentences, and by golly I'm going to keep doing it until some producer with $$$ tells me to stop.

bob said...

Boy howdy, Mim. I was a total curmudgeon in my review compared to yours! I feel kinda bad now.

David said...

Finally figured out how to post under my name. Mim,you can write complete sentences to your heart's content. Just don't expect anyone to read them. Again, you can be visual and "paint" pictures, but what if it's the wrong picture? I believe it's better to PLANT pictures ie. give the reader just enough to form their own visual. Anything that draws the reader into your story can only help, but leave vision to the director. Film is a director's medium. We are storytellers.

Anonymous said...

Great review, Mim. Interesting conversation about the fragmented lines. I liked them. I actually want to try and write my action lines more like that. Screw da engrish teachers. :-)


Mystery Man said...

I don't mean to change the subject, but I loved Mim's point about the budding romance between Donny and Rosalind. Was there anyone who felt that this romance wasn't completely forced? Did anyone feel that there was any interest between them throughout Act Two?

Knowing how it ends, I look back on Act Two and think that there were quite a few missed opportunities. They could've first bonded just by outsmarting little Joel and taking control of this situation. Or Donny could've done SOMETHING physical that would've sparked her interest.


Laura Deerfield said...

I knew he was supposed to be falling for her when she was described, during the clogging sequence, as looking very natural. But this was an item of description - not any action or even reaction on either character's part.

As for her end of the attraction - I guess she fell for him because he punched someone out for her. Chicks dig that.

Mim said...

For one thing they were too different. They both came from the wrong side of the tracks, but the tracks ran through different neighborhoods. He was from Hell's Kitchen (had to be) and she was trailer trash.

PLUS she had been working her whole life to get away from that. I know part of her arc was to accept that part of herself, but I think re-embracing it was going a little too far (which is what it seemed like she was doing).

No. Her whole persona was to get far, far away from people like Donny.

Mystery Man said...

Yup. Yup. I agree.

To Mim's point, if there had been a scenario where Rosalind had illustrated that she had some of her background still with her in the sense that she could still get down and dirty like Donny, then I could maybe believe more that they had a connection of some kind.

Am I wrong?


Mim said...

That would have been good. So instead of bringing food to the reporters, she could have taken one aside and threatened him with something, or even seduced him.

Although that would have destroyed her credibility as a protag.

I wonder if Katherine Fugate thought about that and couldn't think of a way to do it without making Rosalind totally unlikeable?

Laura Deerfield said...

I also didn't ever feel like Rosalind was trash. OK, so she knew how to clog and eat crawfish (major opportunity for comedy missed... have you ever sucked the heads of those things?? NASTY!) - but she always felt like a nice middle-class girl.

And why would taking a drive to her old digs make her accept that part of her life? She doesn't seem to process anything.

Ann Wesley Hardin said...

Maybe if she threatened, seduced, and then cried afterwards?

Again, though. This is heavy stuff. Like ya'll have said, this either needed to be high drama or over-the-top satire. It's so totally not a simple romcom.