Monday, May 4, 2009

Lessons from bad movies - "The Spirit"

This weekend I Netflixed a film I knew better than to spend $12 on when it was in wide release - Frank Miller's The Spirit. I'd seen the presentation for this film at last year's Comic Con, where one previewed scene played so horribly to the audience that the producer was practically apologizing for it after running the clip. I knew I shouldn't spend theatre prices on this turkey, but it immediately earned a place in my Netflix queue.

Most of the major critics took their shots at this one back when it first came out, so I'm not going to waste time with a broad review. Also, I've never really followed the Will Eisner comic upon which this is based, so I can't speak too deeply to the film's fidelity to the source material. Still even with the limited exposure I've had to the comics, I can tell that visually, the film looks nothing like Eisner's vision. It looks more like... well... Sin City, which Miller co-directed with Robert Rodriguez.

In comparing the two, you can get a sense of where Miller went wrong here. For all of its demerits - and there are many - The Spirit is a very visually strong film. There are the usual Miller motifs, and he certainly knows how to compose a shot. (Not surprising since Miller's been working in the visual medium of comic books for about thirty years.) This is one of the best-looking bad movies I've seen. I know a lot of people derided the style as a Sin City rip-off, but Miller really is just ripping off himself - and a few Eisner visuals shown in the DVD supplements suggest that Eisner worked in a similar style on some of his later projects.

What's wrong in The Spirit? Just about everything else - starting with the script. I'll give a brief mea culpa here. Back in the summer of '04, a development exec I read for got a copy of the Sin City script and allowed me to read it. At the time I hadn't read the comics, but I was well aware of the creator's reputation. I peeled back the cover page, eager to see how the story had been adapted.

I got about ten pages in before I tossed the script aside and wrote it off as a dud. It felt like the vast majority of those ten pages were made up of over-written visual description and especially over-written voiceover narration. I figured there was no way it would work. About ten months later, when the film came out, I had a healthy serving of crow. The two directors made the narration work - incorporating it in a way that really complimented the noir style they were emulating.

Given that, I can understand why no one immediately cried foul when The Spirit proved to have an equally prolific inner monologue. The problem: his inner monologue isn't always inner. There are scenes that start with The Spirit's narration, only to then shift to him talking to himself out loud. This was one of the early slips that pulled me out of the film. Narration might be intrusive, but if you can get the audience to accept it as a part of the style, don't change horses in mid-stream. There seems to be no rhyme or reason as to why The Spirit voices some thoughts out loud and ruminates internally in others. Given a choice between the two, I'd argue it's less intrusive to go with voiceover. That way there isn't the strangeness of a character talking just so the audience can hear him.

The script also suffers from a plot so dull it's not even worth recounting. There's a fairly mundane set-up early on that ends up pitting two antagonists against each other, with The Spirit conflicted because one antagonist is his former love and the other has a hidden connection to his own immortality. This is one of those movies where the characters end up stopping frequently to explain the plot and motivations to each other - and here's where Miller exposes his limitations as a writer and director. Exposition scenes are overwritten, some set-ups are awkwardly paced only so the story can advance, and the blocking in these talky scenes is often reminiscent of a bad high school play.

Which brings us to the element that truly brings this film down - the acting. I'd argue that only two actors escape this debacle unscathed - Dan Lauria and Samuel L. Jackson. Lauria does the impossible - he somehow finds the exact right note between camp and serious in the cliched role of the hard-boiled police commissioner. It's over the top in all the right ways, even as virtually every other actor stumbles badly when Miller directs them to be broad. Jackson escapes only by virtue of being Jackson.

Again I draw a comparison to Sin City, where Miller and Rodriguez had the advantage of having strong actors like Mickey Rourke, Benicio del Toro, and Bruce Willis in their corner. However, for me, the real shock was how they got solid performances out of actors who generally aren't that good. Jessica Alba might be considered one of the sexiest women alive, but her acting has never been all that impressive - yet amazingly, she turned in a surprisingly vulnerable and likable performance. Brittany Murphy is one of the most annoying actresses alive, so bad that she'll make your eyes and ears bleed - and somehow she totally blended into Sin City's style. Even Rosario Dawson stood out, despite having given few notable performances prior to that. At least one of the directors knew how to get through to these often-uneven players... and from The Spirit, I think it's safe to say that was Rodriguez.

Scarlett Johansson, Eva Mendes, Paz Vega and especially Stana Katic all give performances so bad that they would be career-ending if it wasn't for their sex appeal and the fact it's clear that all of this is Miller's fault. I don't know if there are enough adjectives to adequately convey just how terrible their acting is. The amazing thing is you can completely see what they're going for, even as it's obvious just how badly they missed the target.

Let this be a lesson to all writers - great actors can sometimes save even your weak material. The right material can even elevate your actors... but when an actor tanks a performance that's all the audience will see. Few people watch an awkward scene and think, "Wow that was well-written, the actor just blew it." More likely, they'll think "This movie sucks, this actor sucks," or "this script sucks." Like I said earlier, the script certainly didn't do the actors any favors here, but the dialogue was stylized enough that the right actors might have been able to minimize the damage - had they found the right note in their performances. That's the risk you take when you write highly-stylized dialogue.

Granted, the film suffers from further problems, where logic seems to take a total vacation. My favorite example of this comes with the Spirit is captured by the Octopus. Our hero wakes up in a room decorated with Nazi motifs, and his captors are soon revealed in Nazi uniforms - except for his torturer - a woman dressed as an Arabian belly dancer, though she turns out to be a French woman named "Plaster of Paris." Then, just as you're trying to make sense of this odd cultural melting pot, it dawns on you that this "French" woman is played by Spanish actress Paz Vega.

Blame the visuals all you want for that one, but every one of those odd choices was probably made at the script level - save for the casting of Paz Vega. And even if it wasn't, Miller wrote and directed the film, meaning that all of this HAD to be his vision. It plays like a weird exercise in multiculturalism.

I can't offer any one macro lesson from this turkey, but there are plenty of little lessons to be gleaned. Some problems might be visible at the script level, and others might not become evident until actors actually say their lines out loud.

To recap:
1) Don't switch between narration and having a character talk to himself. If you're gonna go for the narration cheat, embrace it whole-hog.

2) Don't overcomplicate the plot solely through dialogue.

3) Keep exposition efficient. In the cases where you can't, don't just have the characters pace back-and-forth. Give them something visually interesting to do.

4) With the right direction, even bad actors can find the proper tone for your stylized story. Make sure the script isn't so stylized that it strands them with one-note characters.

5) Make sure there's a logic to the set design and wardrobe you specify. If your villain wears a Nazi uniform for kicks, make sure we know what that's supposed to say about his character - especially when there's no consistency between that and the rest of his wardrobe.

I'll conclude with this - it feels like several decisions could have been made at the script stage that would have minimized the damage in the execution... but then we would have had merely a boring film instead of an awesomely bad one.

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