Character Intros and How To Screw Them Up

I haven’t very much writing lately — beyond transcribing the little voices in my head. However, a couple of movies I watched this week elevated my level of personal sanctimony to such a degree as to allow me to criticize the work of others.

Actual professionals have weighed in on the finer points of introducing a character, John August not the least among them. If there’s anything I can add to this well-trodden road, it’s only the annoyance of an audience member who’d rather see a bad movie than a good-movie-gone-bad. Stupid mistakes, especially from professionals who make a living making films, are another example of complacency bred by success.

Exhibit A: The Holiday.

I won’t turn this into a full-fledged review, but suffice it to say that there are three reasons to watch this movie.

  1. Kate Winslet.
  2. Eli Wallach.
  3. The Houses. [Oh, The Houses. Oops. I think I drooled on my keyboard.]

No, Gwyneth, I will not add Jude Law on the list. He’s practically scenery in this flick. Very pretty scenery. In his defense, “pretty scenery” makes him slightly less offensive than the hopelessly miscast Cameron Diaz. (When she’s onscreen, I just close my eyes and mentally replace her with Sandra Bullock.)

Back to the issue of character intros, the film opens with a montage of four short scenes featuring the two main characters and their soon-to-be lovers in turn, narrated by the lovely Kate Winslet as sad sack Iris Simpkins. Jude Law, playing Iris’ brother Graham, gets nothing but a “strangers in the night, exchanging glances” moment in a pub with a random female patron as the narration hints at a one-night stand.

The montage concludes at Iris’ workplace. We get a few serviceable minutes with Iris and Jasper, the wolf-in-creep’s-clothing ex-boyfriend, before cutting to the office Christmas party scene in which Iris confides in a nameless female colleague over a glass of wine, explaining her history with Jasper and making it clear she’s still in love with him.

Structurally-speaking, we need the exposition: moments later, Jasper announces he’s engaged to the woman for whom he dumped Iris in the first place. The audience needs to sympathize with Iris’ heartbreak. We have to see how Jasper leads her around by the nose, despite his intentions with another woman. Winslet has exactly the light touch needed to engage us in Iris’ sorrow without presuming upon our sympathies.

But why does Nancy Myers have to trot out arguably the most boring and cliched stock character on film — The Snarky Best Friend — to be Iris’ confidant?

Really?

Just because she has a posh accent, it doesn’t mean we care. We never learn this woman’s name. We never see her again in the entire movie. Was the actress a friend of the producers? Did she need the paycheck? Was she just that many points away from SAG membership?

Iris’ confidant — and I don’t think I’m any kind of a genius here — should have been Graham. Duh. Her brother. It’s not rocket science.

Imagine: Graham drops by her office, walks in on her tête-à-tête with Jasper and decided to flex his big brother disapproval muscles with a couple of acid comments at Jasper’s expense. Jasper exits. Insert Iris’ exposition here, except to Graham instead of Posh Snarky. Graham comforts her and urges her to move on with her life — “You’re too good for him, Iris,” etc. — before he gets a call from his daughter and departs.

Not only would this have given Iris her much-needed confidant but it would have introduced Graham much earlier and actually given two exceptional actors a real scene to play together, instead of the hackneyed “life is beautiful and everybody wins” denouement at the end of the film.

More importantly, this would have made for a much more sympathetic introduction for Graham and given us a snowball’s chance to actually like him. On the contrary, Graham doesn’t appear in the movie (aside from his pub scene “introduction”) for at least 20 minutes, when he shows up at Iris’ cottage in the middle of the night, drunk and threatening to urinate on her doorstep. Upon discovering that Iris has exchanged homes with an American stranger — and said American stranger looks exactly like Cameron Diaz — he does what any self-respecting, widowed British book editor with two young daughters would do: he beds her that very night.

We eventually find out the extenuating circumstances of Graham’s antisocial behavior, but it’s too late — Myers has already lost us. She’s drawn Graham as a promiscuous, self-absorbed, alcoholic absentee-father so out of touch with his heartbroken sister that he’s shocked to learn she won’t be able to lodge his drunken arse on her sofa because she’s left the bloody country.

Oh, and he cries at the drop of a hat.

Only a character as neurotic and annoying as Diaz’s Amanda would deserve such an emotional homunculus.

[And, by the way, promiscuity can be a very effective character point, but on a widower with young children whom we’re supposed to like, it just reads false to me. Who’s watching his kids while he’s out sowing his widowed oats?]

And then there’s Exhibit B: Public Enemies.

We watched this over the weekend. All in all, a nice bit of acting by Johnny Depp and Christian Bale. Missing, of course, much character development beyond some brooding glances and a meaningful blink or two. But there’s one little thing I cannot get past.

At some point in the first act of the film, Christian Bale’s Special Agent Mevin Purvis — the man tasked with arresting Public Enemy Number One, John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) — realizes that his team of agents in the newly-created FBI are too green to be effective in apprehending the crooks. Purvis goes to his boss, J. Edgar Hoover, and asks for permission to bring in Agents Winstead and Campbell from out yonder in Oklahoma and Texas — the men who took down Bonnie and Clyde and Machine Gun Kelly and have the experience needed to help Purvis take down Dillinger.

And Hoover (played spot-on by Billy Crudup) says: “Yes.”

Cool.

And thirty minutes go by.

Joined by a chorus line of ineptitude masquerading as FBI agents, Purvis launches a series of ill-starred forays to stop Dillinger. In the midst of this catalog of abuse of power, I finally turned to my husband and asked: “Where are the guys from Oklahoma and Texas?”

Eventually, they appeared. And not on a slow boat from China, which I assumed would be the only legitimate excuse for their trip having taken such an unconscionable length of time. No, their train pulled into Chicago’s Union Station and these good ol’ boys hopped off to greet Purvis as pretty as you please.

I kept waiting for Purvis to provoke a shootout on the stairs.

PURVIS:    Don’t any of you damn cowboys own a watch?!?!? [Bang, bang, bang.]

But no. No mention of delay. No urgency. Just: “Welcome to Chicago.”

Michael Mann does a better job of balancing the storyline of concurrent heroes and villains than just about any director in Hollywood. The Last of the Mohicans? Heat? Even The Insider.

Urgency. Tension. High stakes. He’s a master.

That’s why I just can’t figure out what happened here. Public Enemies should have been old home week.

[Scratching head.]

At the risk of buying in to our instant gratification culture, let me say: Time should serve the needs of the Story.

If the Story doesn’t call for the Red River boys until Act Two — and there’s no Story or Character significance to the delay, i.e. Hoover proving he’s a jerk, a hurricane is sweeping the Midwest, The Lexington Hotel was all booked up, Dillinger waylaid them on the trip, etc. — don’t have a character ask for them until just before the moment the Story needs them to appear.

This could have been an easy fix in the editing room and it’s not a major story point. But it’s annoying. And distracting. If it takes the audience out of the Story and back into the real world to wonder how slow a train could possibly be in 1933, it’s bad for the film.

At least that’s what the little voices in my head seem to think.