Friday, March 1, 2013

Johnny Twennies - Part 6 - This One Is Just Right

Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to take away"
-Antoine de Saint-Exupery (writer)

Less is more.
-Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (architect)

If writing is all about rewriting, rewriting is all about doing more with less. In fact, everything about the making of a film seems to be about doing more with less, from the screenwriter trying to be more sparse to the editor encouraging the director to remove that wonderful scene that no longer serves the story.

Ah, but cut too much and the audience is left with questions that detract from their enjoyment of the story. To quote an old friend and one of my favorite filmmakers, Ray DeFelitta, who once reminded me that in film, its alright to be subtle, as long as you're obvious about it.

Maybe it was that larcenous little girl, Goldilocks, who said it better than all the artists and philosophers who, even when taking what was not hers, decided she would work her way through everything until she found what was "just right." 

I always wondered how popular culture could herald a bratty little girl guilty of breaking and entering, wanton destruction and larceny just because she was pretty. Then again, we have Lindsay Lohan.

What I always loved about Man of the Century was that it knew exactly what it set out to do, and didn't try to lay it on too thick, didn't try to be an epic. It understood the genre it was spoofing, and that those wacky early talkies were rarely very long, and made sure they exited, stage left, before you caught your breath.

"This porridge is too hot," she exclaimed.
So, she tasted the porridge from the second bowl.
"This porridge is too cold," she said.
So, she tasted the last bowl or porridge.
"Ah, this porridge is just right," she said happily, and she ate it all up.

Johnny Twennies, the lead character, encounters a number of dastardly schemes as he makes his way in cheerful, 1920s style through 1990s New York. Much like those early talkies, and later Ben Hecht* scripts, none of those transgressions are as important as whether or not he gets the girl, and the right girl.

A number of the reviewers discussed the length of the film:

"The trick of a movie like "Man of the Century" is to keep its pins in the air and to string out the joke for as long as possible. The movie comes up with just enough silly variations on its premise to keep it afloat until its desperate madcap finale at a stuffy '20s dinner party."

Two things are impressive about the script, which Frazier co-wrote with writer-director Adam Abraham: First, it takes what might have been just an appealing gimmick and keeps it bright and thriving for the length of a feature film; and second, there isn't a line wasted. Virtually every sentence out of Johnny's mouth is identifiably from the '20s or early '30s.

Mick LaSalle, SF Examiner

Modern filmmakers love to make homages to those early crime films, and especially their later counter-parts, the Noirs. Often, though, they simply don't have the ear for the snappy dialogue, writing unintentional poor parodies.

Adam Abraham and Gibson Frazier surely got it just right, not just recycling old lines, but coming up with original snappy dialogue of their own that perfectly fit the style.

"Say, you keep riding me like a streetcar, you're going to have to pay the fare."

They also used it to perfectly play with meaning in modern society. When Johnny rebuffs his girlfriend's advances:

Samantha Winter "Are you gay?"
Johnny: "Sure, I'm gay. I'm gay as a day in May."
Samantha: "Well, are you bi?"
Johnny: "By myself, mostly"

It's a neat trick to keep the premise of a movie like this going, this guy with a 1920s style seemingly oblivious to what is going on in the 1990s, completely untainted by its cynicism. If the movie ever stops to take a breath, the whole thing falls apart.

Luckily, it doesn't, which leads to the second thing the movie got right - Gibson Frazier.

"This chair is too big," she exclaimed.
So she sat in the second chair.
"This chair is too big, too," she whined.
So she tried the last and smallest chair.
"Ah,, this chair is just right," she sighed.

At its best, this sort of dialogue only sounds good from people who get it. From Roger Ebert's very positive review:

"Gibson Frazier...has a natural affinity for this material. You can't fake rapid-fire screwball dialogue. It has to be in your blood."

It certainly is in Gibson's blood, and I've seen him handle it not only here but in other film and television appearances. Gibson is a well-trained theater actor first and foremost, and like Willie Mays gliding for a well-hit ball, he makes it look much easier than it is.

As co-writer, Gibson made sure the dialogue fit his character well. Something he and co-writer Abraham also got right, which many young writers get wrong, is having distinct voices for all the characters. Johnny's patter sounds all the more crisp because of the modern, and often profane, language around them. Feel good movies like this are usually afraid to go past PG language, but the writers understood that it was Johnny's contrast to the modern world that made this funny, that if all the characters sounded like him, or were dumbed-down, this is nothing more than a short that runs too long.

Making a feel-good comedy with an assortment of characters that could have come from a Scorsese mob movie is no small feat. Adam and Gibson pulled it off.

Papa bear growled, "Someone's been sleeping in my bed."
"Someone's been sleeping in my bed, too," Mama bear said.
"Someone's been sleeping in my bed, too, and she's still there!" exclaimed Baby Bear.

Just then, Goldilocks woke up and saw the three bears. She screamed "Help!" and jumped up and ran out of the room"

Ok, so Adam, Gibson, and a talented crew made this unique and well-made films. In the indie world, that is "bearly" (pardon the pun) half the battle. They were doing something outside the norm. Would they get away with it and make it safely into the forest of distributed films, or be eaten like so many good films, swallowed up and spit out by a system that often feels like a lottery?

(N.B. Ok, I never did get how the bears are somehow the heavies in this story, and Goldi gets to yell for help. Isn't it the bears that were violated? Never mind.)

Like most faery tales, this one has a happy ending. While Man of the Century did not make it into Sundance, it did make Slamdance, and wound up winning the Audience Award. That led to it's eventual release by Fine Line (though, as with most distribution stories, it was not that simple or quick, but that's not my story to tell.)

Critics seemed to like it as well. As LaSalle in the Chronicle said, "It's sharp and irresistible, and there's no other movie like it." Indeed, maybe until The Artist, I don't think there was.

I can watch it again today and thoroughly enjoy it, and I highly recommend it to fans of that style of movie. Give yourself over to a fun ride for 77 minutes. It is available to rent on Netflix, though, sadly, only on DVD and not for online. (Full Disclosure: I don't now, and never have had, profit participation. I was paid just fine on the shoot, so I'm not hawking it for personal gain.)

I love Ebert's wrap-up line:

"You review a movie like this, and you don't want to email it to the office. You want to get on the horn and ask for rewrite, sister - on the double, see?

*When I think of Hecht, I think of The Front Page, and its many versions, but that is a small blip on the screenwriting career of Hecht. Just scrolling down the IMDB list linked doesn't do him justice, either. Take the time to watch some of the films he wrote and over so many decades and different eras and you will begin to appreciate his craft.

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