THURSDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:
Mystery novelist John D. MacDonald (the Travis McGee series plus CAPE FEAR) has a great line in one of his novels, "Friendships, like marriages, are dependent on avoiding the unforgivable."
For a couple of hours, the protagonists in our scripts are our friends - we hang out with them on screen and their problems are our problems. Though the key to a three dimensional character is human flaws that they struggle with throughout the story, we don't want them to ever cross that line in to the unforgivable. We don't want them to do something that repulses the audience. That's often a difficult line to gauge - in TAXI DRIVER Travis Bickle *doesn't* kill the Senator, but does kill a pimp and a bunch of scummy guys - and stays on the right side of the line. In RESERVOIR DOGS they only kill cops, no real people (innocent civilians) and that keeps them on the right side of the line. But oddly enough, in the rom-com GHOSTS OF GIRLFRIENDS PAST, the lead character goes so far over the line the film crashes and burns at the end... and he doesn't even kill anyone!
Since we just went through holiday season I thought we'd take a look at where GIRLFRIENDS PAST went wrong...
You might think the story crossed the line with concept. Did we really need another stolen from the main concept of Dickens' A Christmas Carol? Some steal it well, like IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, but most use the device poorly or for some silly reason that results in a terrible film. Add to that the number of actual versions of CHRISTMAS CAROL, whether they are faithful (like the Mr. Magoo cartoon version) or updates (like the brilliant Bill Murray version) and you have a plot device that is overused. But, where critics are quick to discredit a film because they've seen this one before, a familiar story is often an asset to the audience, provided there is some unique twist on it - like being haunted by old girlfriends who show the protagonist his past, present, and future romantic life. That actually seems like a fairly clever way to spin a rom-com.
GHOSTS OF GIRLFRIENDS PAST was better than I thought it was going to be, mostly due to Michael Douglas doing his best version of 70's stud Robert Evans (producer of THE GODFATHER and many other great films, and sex partner of many hot actresses and starlets). Douglas is funny as hell, and a little tragic at the same time, and pretty much steals the show. It's a great role for an actor of his age - and his history.
The big problem comes at the end when McConaughey's character hooks up with the one girl he loved, Jennifer Garner - typical rom-com ending, right?
But McConaughey has stepped so far over the line we do not want him to hook up with Garner. He is a flawed character - a completely uncaring creep who has slept with a million women, and there is a great sight gag with a never-ending night club filled with every one night stand or one hour stand or 15 minute-in-the-coat-room stand he has ever had... and it just goes on and on into infinity! He is a man-slut! He has slept with almost every single woman we see in the film *except* Garner - and that is why he is first attracted to her. She is the one (one!) who got away.
The story takes place at his younger brother's wedding and earns points for digging below the surface and giving us real characters and real relationships - like his relationship with his brother played by Breckin Meyer. The script fleshes out even the minor characters like the bridesmaids - all are potential bedmates for McConaughey - each is actually given a unique character even though their screentime is limited. All of the characters are well written and distinctive in this film, and each has a goal and a little subplot story. Garner has been invited to the wedding and brings along her fiancé - a Bellamy character who is a nice dependable guy who may be a bit dull but at least he can keep his pants zipped. He is everything that McConaughey is not.
But as a rom-com, you are supposed to want McConaughey to work through his flaw and hook up with Garner by the end of the film... and you don't. Now McConaughey does a great job of playing this man-slut in a way that we don't hate him... his character is so well written that we like him despite his flaw. He's smooth talking and funny and can beak hearts in ways that are either so over the top they become some sort of fantasy or so clever that the woman doesn't realize she's been dumped. Between the script and McConaughey's performance, you like this character who by all rights should be unlikeable. You just don't want him marrying your sister - or Jennifer Garner.
And that's the problem. They more they show his clever man-slut escapades, the less you want Garner to dump her nice, dependable dull guy and hook up with McConaughey. The more they show him struggling with his flaw, the more you see that particular flaw and think maybe he's not suited to ever settle down. The character is a sex addict who needs to quit cold turkey... but we all know an addict is always an addict. There is no Hollywood fantasy quick fix for this problem.
But isn't this a Hollywood fantasy film? Isn't that what a movie *is* - a dream of what we wish that life would be, instead of what it really is? Why is this fantasy different than any other fantasy of "happily ever after" that Hollywood peddles?
Okay, speaking from the male perspective, there is a fantasy being explored - we want to have our cake and eat it, too. Wouldn't it be great to be able to sleep with every attractive woman you met, and still have that one woman you love and care about forever? Sowing the wild oats before settling down is what men do... though, if you get the order wrong like Tiger Woods you can get into trouble. But maybe the half of the audience who got dragged to this film by their girlfriends or wives might just see this as a great fantasy with a potential happy ending... McConaughey and Garner live happily ever after.
But what about the other half of the audience? Maybe there is a female fantasy of taming that man-slut into a monogamous and dependable guy? In the interest of providing you, gentle reader, with facts rather than my opinion, I did a couple of minutes of research with the help of some friends and discovered that this is in fact a common romance novel fantasy storyline, called "The Magic Hoo-Ha". In this scenario the bad-boy man-slut is tamed by the leading lady's magic hoo-ha. One night with her cures him. It's as if all of his man-slut activities were some version of Prince Charming running around town with that glass slipper trying to find Cinderella, and now he has found the perfect fit and discontinues his search. This woman is the one! The one and only! No reason to keep trying on hoo-has! So maybe I was wrong? Maybe GIRLFRIENDS PAST doesn't cross the line?
OVER THE LINE
The line is much easier to see in other films that cross it. FALLING DOWN is one of those movies that I half like, and then it crosses the line and loses me. This is another great Michael Douglas role, not as an aging Robert Evans-like stud, but playing a complete everyman whose life has fallen apart when he loses his job and family. Where McConaughey's character is a male fantasy, Douglas' character is someone we can easily identify with.
For the first half of the movie, and he does everything that we wish we could do. When they stop serving breakfast at McDonalds, he forces them to serve him breakfast. When a bunch of punks hassle him, he turns the tables on them. He does what we dream of doing. The thing about protagonists in movies is that we *become them* for two hours - even if they do crazy things like Douglas does in FALLING DOWN or sleep with a thousand women like in GIRLFRIENDS PAST. We wouldn't want to *really* do those things in real life, nor would we want to necessarily hang out with someone who does... but we *fantasize* about doing these things all the time. We fantasize about sleeping with every woman we see, or taming the bad boy, or cutting through the stupid red tape of life that says we can not get a Sausage McMuffin at 10:31 AM. So in FALLING DOWN it is easy to jump into Douglas' skin, and his life becomes our life...
Until he kills the pawn shop owner played by Fred Forrest. That crosses the "fun" line - it's murder. I may fantasize about shooting bad guys who attack me, but I don't fantasize about killing some shop owner in his shop - even if he is a neo-Nazi. That pulls me out of the character... actually, it's more like YANKING me out of the character. Wait? I'm a killer? I'm a crazy guy? How can that be?
And that's the problem. At that point in time we are supposed to stop fantasizing that we are Douglas and suddenly start identifying with Duvall... who is trying to capture the person we were identifying with only a few moments ago?
The problem is that it swaps protagonist for antagonist halfway through - and I don't think that works for most people. We spend an hour fantasizing that we are a character, and enjoying the fantasy that we have the power to cut through red tape and get what we want despite all of the silly rules... and are smarter and stronger than the bullies of life. Then - wham - we are the crazy psycho killer who must be stopped. That protagonist swap didn't work for me, and other people I have talked to like FALLING DOWN but don't love it. Usually they find the last half less interesting than the first half. Once it crosses the line, they are pulled out of the fantasy and the only place they have to go is a rather ordinary cop-chases-killer story. Even if they do land in Duvall's skin for the last half of the film, there is no real fantasy there and there's something subconsciously wrong with fantasizing that you are the character out to capture the character you were a minute or two ago. Suddenly *we* become this crazy villain and all of our fantasies may have been leading to this... and it makes us feel uncomfortable. Jumping into the skin of the cop chasing Douglas isn't going to make us feel any more comfortable. I think once Douglas' character crosses that line the movie doesn't work and can not really recover.
I don't think you can successfully swap protagonist and antagonist halfway through - recently LAW ABIDING CITIZEN tried this very thing and did not work because of it. We wanted Gerard Butler's character to get his revenge, and maybe even wanted him to wipe that smug smile off deal-making District Attorney Jamie Foxx's face. But when he killed a whole bunch of innocent people - that crossed the line. Just like in FALLING DOWN they expected us to switch protagonists in the middle of the stream... but instead we found ourselves not liking either character and just being pulled out of the movie. The protagonist swap almost never works - and I am unable to think of a single successful film where the protagonist becomes the antagonist and vice versa halfway through. If Douglas is the protagonist in FALLING DOWN, the story has to stick with that all the way to the end of the movie, and not have him do anything crazy and unforgivable. Not have him cross the line into unforgivable.
I think there's a certain "Mad As Hell And I'm Not Going To Take It Anymore!" thing that FALLING DOWN taps in to, and it needed to hang on to that until fade out... maybe following the path of some of those 1970s movies like VANISHING POINT and SUGARLAND EXPRESS where the desperados become folk heroes as they continue their journey. The problem is - how do you end a movie like that? In the 1970s, the authority figures would be the antagonist... and kill the protagonist, turning them into martyrs. That's actually how I would have ended FALLING DOWN... and then showed how Michael Douglas' death inspires others to stand up. Stay on the right side of the line to show how society is wrong. Killing the protagonist is still a risk, but Butch & Sundance and Thelma & Louise found a way to do it without losing the audience.
So there are some examples of going over the line where we can clearly see the line, but what about GHOSTS OF GIRLFRIENDS PAST? Where is the line crossed in that film? Or is it crossed?
THE FINISH LINE
Just like in A CHRISTMAS CAROL, McConaughey wakes up the next morning a completely changed man - and after being a complete crotch-hound for the previous 90 minutes it's hard to believe that change. This is where the story crosses the line. It's that Egri thing that no honest man can become a thief overnight, nor can a thief become an honest man overnight. As an audience, we know that people change gradually (if at all), and even in the fantasy world of movies we require that characters take as much time to struggle with and conquer their flaw as they have taken having that flaw. Though film is life compressed, we still need to make sure we shown all of the steps our characters go through to change. After spending 90 minutes with man-slut McConaughey, it's impossible to believe he wakes up a changed man and will now be the perfectly monogamous mate for Garner.
Now, you can argue that he spent much of that 90 minutes struggling with his man-slut flaw, but the problem is that even the struggle scenes show him as a man-slut. They enforce his character as crotch-hound in our minds, a guy whose nature is to screw anything that moves. Even if he does *not* sleep with this bridesmaid, the scene was about how he wanted to sleep with her. Yes, he resisted and we can see that, but somewhere in the back of our minds we know sleeping with stray women is his nature. He is an addict, and will always be an addict. He may quit for a while, but after a while he's probably going to cheat. He is a man-slut and even though Garner may have a magic hoo-ha, it is difficult to imagine the happily ever after in this story. We kind of need another 90 minutes of McConaughey being the perfect monogamous husband to make up for the previous 90 minutes of man-sluttiness. Or maybe the movie should have started with the two hooking up, and spent 90 minutes on McConaughey taming his man-parts?
The problem is, the movie gives us that potential love interest for Garner that is everything McConaughey is not, and since I like Garner I wanted her to hook up with that guy and not McConaughey. I could see a happily ever after with the Bellamy guy. One reason for that is that I did not see what Garner and McConaughey had in common, except for a past couple of encounters and some great onscreen chemistry. Because this is McConaughey's A CHRISTMAS CAROL we understand why he would want to hook up with Garner... but we never really see why she would want to hook up with him for more than a fling. We never get enough of a reason for her to want to live happily ever after with this man-slut. What is in it for her? How is McConaughey's version of Happily Ever After better than her fiance's version?
That's the other line in GIRLFRIEND'S PAST - the line that divides her two love interests and the two potential romantic futures. Why should Garner cross the line from the dependable man she has to this man-slut? Just as the change in McConaughey's character has to be gradual enough and believable enough that we accept it, Garner's change of heart from one man to another must also be gradual and believable... or the end does not work.
The better ending for GIRLFRIEND'S PAST would have been to taken a page from those 1970s movies and make man-slut McConaughey into a martyr. Do a CASABLANCA and have him "release her" to the other guy. That wouldn't have been the rom-com ending, but after a whole movie about what a crotch-hound McConaughey is, it's hard to actually want him to hook up with Garner. Instead, you want him to pay penance somehow - maybe become a monk with a vow of chastity. By realizing that the other guy is the better guy for the woman he cares about, it shows that he has overcome his need to screw everything that moves (so those three ghosts in the night really have changed him) and allows us a happily ever after ending without those nagging doubts that Garner is going to come home from work one day to find him in the sack with all of the bridesmaids he turned down in the film. He never does anything unforgivable to her (and to us) after the film is over.
GHOSTS OF GIRLFRIENDS PAST is a well written movie with some great characters, but that Hollywood happily ever after ending didn't work for me.
Make sure your story doesn't cross the line into unforgivable territory. Does your character ever do anything you would *not* fantasize about? Anything you fear the audience may not fantasize about? (If you're worried about something in your script, there is usually a reason for that.) Are all of the fantasy things motivated and understandable? Is the character's change gradual enough to believe? Once your protagonist has conquered their flaw, do you give the supporting characters enough time to be sure that flaw really *is* conquered before they make a huge, life changing decision? Are there story solutions that remove the line? Watch out for those lines that yank the audience out if the protagonist's skin, or make then *not* want your characters to achieve their goal. You don't want to repulse the audience... especially not in a rom-com!
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