Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Meddler #1: Some problems with The Town...

So I’m trying out a new feature where I’ll play script doctor for good-but-not-great movies, movies that I feel were one draft away from being ready to go when they were shot. I’ll use this feature to imagine what I would have done if some producer had hired me to do a last-minute “polish” on the screenplay. That said, the point is not to change plot twists I didn’t like. I’ll try to stick with ways to take the same basic characters and the same basic story, but get more out of certain scenes, re-structure parts of the movie so as to manage viewer expectations better, and make the characters more compelling.

I actually like The Town a lot. It’s a good old-fashioned heist thriller: Ben Affleck plays the leader of a heist team in the Charlestown neighborhood of Boston. They take a bank teller (Rebecca Hall) hostage, but after they let her go they worry that she might be able to identify them, even though they were wearing masks. Affleck tries to get to know to find out if she’s going to be a problem. Of course, he falls in love. As the gang, especially his buddy Jeremy Renner, gets more violent, he comes to see this relationship as a way out.

But I had some problems with the second act (aka the middle of the movie). Here they are:

  1. Affleck’s character just doesn’t have enough personality. He’s not charismatic enough for a gang to follow. Especially because he’s not a good bank robber: During the robbery, he sees a pretty girl press the alarm with her foot and he lets her get away with it for no good reason! For that matter, why does he want to rob banks? If he no longer wants to, why not? We can guess at these things, but a little dialogue in that direction would have gone a long way.
  2. When they realize that Hall might recognize them, the plan that Affleck concocts for neutralizing this witness seems unclear and foolish. He should either show his face and openly threaten her or not show his face and spy on her. He chooses the worst of both worlds. His plan seems to be to befriend her, so that she’ll reveal whether or not she’s cooperating, and so that he can advise her against it. Okay, but why, before they’ve gotten to know each other, does he instantly romanticize the relationship? This is the worst possible person in the world for him to develop feelings for, but he walks right up to her in a Laundromat and asks her out before she’s even had a chance to say anything intriguing to him. Does he throw his life away just because she’s attractive?
  3. Other than the community garden they visit later, the locations for the dates are too generic. A Laundromat, a Dunkin’ Donuts, a café… Let’s make them more specific to their problems. Also, there’s a reason why people are reluctant to date people they meet in Laundromats: people are scary if they have no context. If we meet someone in a place where they actually belong, where other people can vouch for them, we’re far more likely to date them.
  4. Why is she attracted to him? He’s hunky, sure, and his dialogue is sometimes humorously self-deprecating, but he seems really glum and hesitant all the time he’s with her. He’s got a dead end job, he won’t introduce her to his friends, he never talks about the future… these are all warning signals, ladies. Again, her actions are only motivated by his physical attractiveness, which ain’t enough.
  5. They tell each other about their painful baggage in stagey monologues without strong reasons to do so. Out of nowhere, she asks him about his mother. He refuses to tell her, but then, a minute later, with no more prodding, he sighs, looks off into the distance and tells her the very painful and personal story of how his mother left him when he was seven. Too easy. Too cliché. Unearned.
  6. The love scenes and action scenes proceed on two separate tracks. The relationship and the robberies are taking him in two separate directions, but we don’t feel that tension through most of Act 2. It’s as if Affleck (as writer/director) said to himself, “Well I’ve established that they’re going to go on a series of dates and the guys are going to do a series of crimes and the feds are going to do a series of investigations, so I can just intercut between the three for the middle hour of the movie.” As a result, each storyline feels like they’re just marking time for the middle chunk of the movie, without any urgency. Every scene in each storyline should have the potential to end the movie. The relationship should threaten the robberies and vice versa. Instead, for too long in the middle, it seems like these scenes could happen in any order, which is always a bad sign.
  7. We’re told that “townies” (residents of Charlestown) and the “toonies” (the rest of Boston) don’t like each other, but we don’t see it. Other than the fact that toonies don’t like it when townies rob their banks –and who would? We don’t see any genuine class conflict between them. Not even in the townie-toonie romance, where you think it would be an obstacle, if this is such a big problem.

But anybody can bitch about problems. Do I have any solutions? Let’s find out tomorrow, when I offer my re-write of the beats of Act 2...


lthadeo said...

I hope your script has a solution for the awfulness that was Blake Lively....

Jonathan Auxier said...

Glad to hear at least one other person didn't think THE TOWN was the Greatest Movie of All Time. If I remember correctly, my biggest problems was the fact that the woman's knowledge of the criminals doesn't actually play into the third act -- which means we've sort of been watching her for nothing. Looking forward to seeing how this "Meddler" series develops...

Cassandra Mortmain said...

One minor clarification: Toonies aren't just other Bostonians, they are wealthy outsiders gentrifying Charlestown. The proximity makes the antagonism seem a little less unearned and directionless, I think. Other than that, your critiques are spot-on-- especially about the idiocy of Ben Affleck's "plan" to neutralize Rebecca Hall. Can't wait to see your recommendations to fix it.

Matt Bird said...

Ah! Thanks, Cassandra, that wasn't clear from the movie.

phann son said...

If I remember correctly, my biggest problems was the fact that the woman's knowledge of the criminals doesn't actually play into the third act -- which means we've sort of been watching her for nothing. Looking forward to seeing how this "Meddler" series develops...

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