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UNDERSTANDING SCREENWRITING: Sometimes the Plot Twists Work, Sometimes They Don't

Tom Stempel examines the films Tully, Disobedience, Solo: A Star Wars Story, and Ocean’s 8 to showcase the effective (or not effective) use of plot twists.

Tom Stempel examines the films Tully, Disobedience, Solo: A Star Wars Story, and Ocean’s 8 to showcase the effective (or not effective) use of plot twists.

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Tom Stempel examines the films Tully, Disobedience, Solo: A Star Wars Story, and Ocean’s 8 to showcase the effective (or not effective) use of plot twists.

(Some) Spoilers...

Sometimes the big twist just does not work…

Tully (2018. Written by Diablo Cody. 96 minutes)

As more than a few critics have pointed out, this is the third collaboration between Cody and director Jason Reitman. The first two, Juno (2007) and Young Adult (2011), were great, and while you think for a long time into Tully it is going to be just as good, it isn’t. Juno was about a pregnant teenager, Young Adult about a writer in her twenties who is dealing with a slow time in her career, and Tully about a woman in her early forties about to give birth to her third child. I have no idea how Cody and Reitman are going to handle the fifties.

Tully takes a very unsentimentalized view of motherhood, to say the least. We begin with Marlo very, very pregnant, not glowing, but sweaty and uncomfortable. The birth is done quickly (well, she’s had two before) and soon Marlo is into getting up at night to breastfeed the baby, change diapers, and then to do it all over again. And again. And again. Day and night.

Marlo has a rich brother, Craig, who suggests Marlo get a night nanny, which he will pay for. A night nanny, in case you have never heard of such a thing, is a nanny who only comes to the house at night. Marlo is reluctant, but finally calls the number Craig gave her.

At about 25 minutes into the movie, Tully shows up at Marlo’s door. She’s an attractive woman in her twenties who seems to live to take care of not only the kids, but of Marlo as well. While Marlo is getting the first good night’s sleep she’s had in a while, Tully cleans the house.

Tully might seem to you too good to be true, but Cody has written her, and especially the relationship she develops with Marlo, in such great detail we believe it. Cody focuses on a relationship we have not seen in movies before and the middle section of the film, while not as funny as the first part, is more interesting and moving.

Then Cody pulls the rug out from under us in the last fifteen to twenty minutes. I am obviously not going to give away the twist, but I can give you a sense of why it does not work. First, let’s look at a big twist that works. In the first forty minutes of Psycho (1960) we assume that the movie is about Marion Crane. Then she meets Norman at the Bates Motel and has a nice, slightly creepy scene with him. And then she takes a shower…and we all know how that turned out.

Marion’s murder tells us that this is not the movie we thought it was going to be. But remember that “nice, slightly creepy scene”? Joseph Stefano in his screenplay has that scene shift our attention from Marion to Norman, which considering she dies shortly thereafter, is a good thing. The film becomes a lot more interesting than it was before.

On the other hand, there is Dressed to Kill (1980), which starts out following an attractive middle-aged woman through her daily life. It seemed that the writer-director, Brian DePalma, was getting away from his imitation Hitchcocks. Then she gets killed and the picture becomes another obvious De Palma imitation of Psycho. The more obvious the imitation becomes, the less interesting the movie becomes. I saw the film on opening day in Westwood, and could feel the audience losing interest as it went on.

In Tully, after the twist, the tone shifts from the freshness of the first three quarters to a flatter explanation of what has happened. The audience, like the first-day audience for Dressed to Kill, lost interest.

Tom Stempel examines the films Tully, Disobedience, Solo: A Star Wars Story, and Ocean’s 8 to showcase the effective (or not effective) use of plot twists.

Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street

And sometimes the twist works.

Disobedience (2017. Screenplay by Sebastián Lelio & Rebecca Lenkiewicz, based on the novel by Naomi Alderman. 114 minutes)

In the opening scene, the rabbi in an Orthodox Jewish community in London drops dead in the middle of the service. His estranged daughter, Ronit, a photographer in New York, shows up for the funeral. Who told her about his death? We don’t give it a second thought then because obviously somebody in the community told her. But when she shows up, everybody is bothered she is there. After all, she ran away from the community and went to the city of all evil, New York. The writers are very smart not to tell us now exactly who let Ronit know.

So Ronit is back in town and she’s uncomfortable, although not as uncomfortable as the people in the Jewish community are. We begin to suspect that Ronit and Dovid, the rabbi’s star student and leading candidate to take over as the head rabbi, may have had a relationship when they were younger, but it eventually becomes clear they were just friends. Besides, he’s married now. Ronit is talking to him about what his wife must be like when Esti comes into the room. She, Dovid and Ronit were all best friends in their younger days. Ronit is shocked that Esti has married Dovid. At this point, we are not sure why. The writers are great at not telling us things until we need to know them, always a smart move on the part of writers.

It turns out that Ronit and Esti had a sort of romance, which is the reason Ronit left the community, much to the community’s relief. We now know why everybody is uncomfortable about her being back. So we watch the tensions grow. And eventually Ronit and Esti cannot keep their hands off each other. And not only their hands.

I don’t need to tell you that the script tells us now that it was Esti who let Ronit know about her father’s death, do I?

Set-Up, Pay Off and the Twist

Up until now, we have assumed that it’s Ronit’s movie. She has brought us into the movie and the community and Esti does not show up for a good twenty minutes into the movie. Ronit is played by Rachel Weisz, one of our great contemporary actresses. Esti is played by Rachel McAdams, who has given good performances in a lot of movies, but until now nothing like the best of Weisz’s work. All of the Ronit and Esti scenes that follow her entrance work like the Norman-Marion scene in Psycho, twisting the story into Esti’s story. Ronit’s story is simple. She’s now an interloper in the community and wants to take Esti away from all this. Our sympathy (assuming you are not an Orthodox Jew) has been with Ronit. Movie tradition has it that Esti will run off with Ronit and they will live happily ever after.

But the second half of the film pulls us into Esti’s connection to the community, including her marriage to Dovid. The script and McAdams’s great performance show us in subtle ways why it is difficult for her to leave. The ending may well surprise you.

Tom Stempel examines the films Tully, Disobedience, Solo: A Star Wars Story, and Ocean’s 8 to showcase the effective (or not effective) use of plot twists.

Alden Ehrenreich as Han Solo in “Solo: A Star Wars Story.” CreditJonathan Olley/Lucasfilm, via Associated Press

What Happened?

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018. Written by Jonathan Kasdan & Lawrence Kasdan, based on characters created by George Lucas. 135 minutes)

On Rotten Tomatoes, Solo has a 71% favorable rating among the critics, and a 65% favorable rating among viewers. And yet it opened to about half the first weekend gross it was expected to, and dropped 65% from the first to second weekend. It will probably lose money in the long run, but not as much as some other flops. Needless to say, it should have done better.

Usually when a film does not work, there is a problem with the script. That’s less true here. The script is co-written by Lawrence Kasdan, who co-wrote the screenplays for The Empire Strikes Back (1980), The Return of the Jedi (1983), and The Force Awakens (2015). He had nothing to do with Episodes I, II, III or Jar Jar Binks. His co-writer is his son Jonathan Kasdan, who is primarily an actor, but has a few writing credits, including Dawson’s Creek and an episode of Freaks and Geeks. Kasdan Senior was hired to do Solo, since Han had always been his favorite character to write, but then dragged into doing The Force Awakens, and then returned to Solo.

So what we have here is sort of an origin story for Han Solo, except he is already grown up at the beginning of the film and out on his own. He even has a girlfriend, Q’ira, whom he gets separated from in the opening scene. So we know that he is going to be trying to find her and getting involved in adventures because, well, he’s Han. He does, hanging out with a brigand named Beckett and doing such things a robbing a train. That’s a first for a Star Wars film, since train robberies usually happen in westerns, not sci-fi movies. It’s easily the best scene in the picture and lively enough to make people love it. Further adventures follow, of course.

Story Foundation - Write from Below the Ground Up

So the screenplay is serviceable, although as several critics have pointed out a lot of things that happen, such as Han winning the Millenium Falcon from Lando Calrissian, are merely illustrating what we already know from the previous films. There are not a lot of surprises here, as there was with our first view of the Millenium Falcon in The Force Awakens. As the plot moves along, and it does move, we get a sense of the script just checking things off the list of stuff people are expecting.

I saw the picture a week ago and I find that there is a lot of it I cannot remember. Some of that may just be my memory getting foggy, but most of it is that the material is not that memorable.

So it’s the script that’s the problem with the film? No, not really. The problem is a production detail that all the very smart people involved in this movie missed. The opening scene is introducing us to the one character we want to see, the young Han Solo. Since it is a new actor, we really need to SEE him to make a connection. The scene, and most of the rest of the movie, is shot in dark locations without enough light to see the faces of the actors. Alden Ehrenreich is the young Han. He stole Hail, Caesar! (2016) from every other actor in, but here he is neither photographed nor directed to take command of the film. That’s lethal when the star does not grab you by the throat from the beginning.

It happens with the other unlit actors as well. Because we don’t get to know them and their characters, we are not that invested in them or their adventures.

If Ridley Scott could go back and reshoot all of Kevin Spacey’s scenes in All the Money in the World (2017), then surely somebody in power could have had them redo at least the opening scene. It couldn’t have hurt and it could have made the picture work better.

Tom Stempel examines the films Tully, Disobedience, Solo: A Star Wars Story, and Ocean’s 8 to showcase the effective (or not effective) use of plot twists.

Ocean's 8

Summer Fun

Ocean’s 8 (2018. Screenplay by Gary Ross & Olivia Milch, story by Gary Ross, based on characters created by George Clayton Johnson & Jack Golden Russell. 110 minutes)

Back in the olden days, summer movies were supposed to be lightweight fun. Then in the seventies came movies released in the summer that became huge-grossing blockbusters, like Jaws (1975) and especially Star Wars (1977). The latter particularly gave Hollywood the idea that if you aimed summer movies at kids who were out of school you could make a lot more money than just aiming at audiences of all ages. And if you made franchises, you could make even more. Ocean’s 8 is a return to the old idea of a summer movie.

Film Franchises - Over One Million Served

Wait a minute. Isn’t it a franchise movie, following in the footsteps of Ocean’s Eleven (2001), Twelve (2004), and Thirteen (2007)? Technically, describing the recent Ocean’s films as a franchise is stretching the point. That “based on characters created by” credit is misleading, because Johnson and Russell’s credit on the 1960 Ocean’s 11 is for story and not characters. Their credit shows up as either “story” or “characters” in the three most recent films, which have virtually nothing to do with the original characters and only the idea of the story of the 1960 film. The “universe,” to use the popular term, for the Ocean’s movies is very limited.

That’s a good thing for 8. Even the title suggests it is not going to try to be bigger and noisier than the previous three films. There is a heist but it is not of one or more casinos in Vegas. Our crooks in this one are going to steal a $150,000,000 piece of jewelry during the Met Gala. Hmm, stealing jewelry rather than money. If that suggests to you that the crooks are going to be women, you are right. And that makes this one fresher than the previous four.

Ross, who also directed, and Milch have not got as much out of that gender switch as they could. The leader of the gang is Debbie Ocean, the estranged sister of Danny Ocean, whom we learn is dead, although the final scene is set up so that we might find out he is not. George Clooney could not be bothered to show up. How would you handle that so we would know Danny is still alive? Debbie is sort of a tough cookie, but Sandra Bullock plays here a little too deadpan, which is not within Bullock’s natural range. Her partner is Lou, whom Cate Blanchett makes very lively. Blanchett has great instincts for understanding what kind of movie she is in (look at her in Indiana Jones and the Chrystal Meth Lab [2008] or whatever that one was called).

Tammy, the suburban housewife fence, is rather bland, as is Amita, the jeweler of the team. Rose Weil is a down-on-her-luck designer whom Helena Bonham Carter plays with all the flakiness she can muster. She has most of her scenes with the diva Daphne Krueger, whom Anne Hathaway has a ball with. Nine Ball is their computer hacker and Rihanna runs with her, especially in a scene with her character’s sister. Ross and Milch have given us enough lively characters that at least some of the actors can entertain us.

This being a heist movie, there are at least two major plot twists. The first one you may have guessed from the trailer and the ads, although I didn’t. The second comes out of nowhere, where a good plot twist should come from, but also like a good plot twist, we should believe it. There was one element of it, however…

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