Know Your Assets and Liabilities: So I’ve spent this week wiping my feet all over the original screenplay by Eric Warren Singer, but now’s the time to admit that it actually did a few things right. For instance, some people have said, “An ABSCAM movie--Of course, what a great idea!” but it’s actually not an inherently appealing movie concept. Yes, it’s a mind-blowing true crime story, but it comes with a set of massive marketing liabilities that Singer’s script (and Russell’s version even moreso) neatly evades. Let’s look at each of these liabilities, how Singer addressed it, and how Russell improved on what Singer did...
#1: ABSCAM is mostly forgotten.
- Singer solved this by taking advantage of our very vague memories of the events to get away with a huge amount of fictionalization. He was counting on us remembering only one thing: that it was a big, messy entrapment fiasco. Knowing that, we would be inclined to believe anything.
- The problem: He fictionalized it in clichéd ways, adding a bunch of generic mob violence.
- Russell then improved this by keeping Singer’s creative license, but getting rid of all that added violence. In its place, he added things that humanized rather than dehumanized the story, such as the G-Man/mistress romance, or the wife/mobster romance.
- Singer wisely centered in on Mel Weinberg as the most ironic hero of the story, even if it meant that he had to fictionalize quite a bit.
- The problem: Mel is ultimately too sleazy to carry a movie, even with a lot of fictional embellishments added on.
- Russell kept Singer’s choice of Mel as our main point of identification, but widened the movie back out to include a more complex web of five compelling characters, which gives us a chance to keep our distance from Mel’s sleaze.
- Singer just created a more satisfying finale out of whole cloth having Mel double-cross the government and steals a lot of money from them.
- The problem: In the script, this twist was clunky and poorly-camoflaged, because everything is way too linear. Even worse, it didn’t represent any growth: Mel is still just scamming.
- Russell decided that if he was going to fake it, he might as well fake it in a more romantic way: In the movie, the twist is well-camoflaged because it’s surrounded by lots of other storylines filled with emotional and physical jeopardy. Even better, it represents growth because Mel (now Irving) does four things at one time: gets his wife out of danger, makes amends to the mayor, gets money to start a new life with his mistress, and screws over the FBI agent. A far more thrilling and satisfying ending. (Russell also earned a much greater license for fictionalization by changing the names.)
Finally, as with The Spectacular Now, this was even moreso a case of cast for how they feel, not how they would actually look. All five big roles in this movie were totally miscast, in terms of age, ethnicity and body-type, but they all work beautifully.