a pro script reader ponders movies, reading, writing and the occasional personal flashback

Tuesday, August 08, 2006


When I'm reading a screenplay, there are two elements that are particularly tough to predict how they are going to play on screen.

One is humor. The other is heart.

Humor, of course, isn't going anywhere. People want the funny, and studios will continue to chase the elusive great comedies, because even okay comedies tend to perform well.

Heart is a dicier element, because its commercial aspects are more ephemeral. Plus, while it's hard to make a movie that is too funny, heart is an ingrediant that can be overdone; no producer wants their movie to be called sappy.

So too often today, movies tend to be shying away from heart. It's rare that you see pure romances any more; now they tend to be romantic comedies, in which the heart is undercut with a dumb premise, as in something like Failure To Launch. Forget teen romances; now it's all about attitude and dance sequences.

Small love stories, like "Dirty Dancing"? You just don't see them much any more.

Yet there are signs that the public is really crying out for solid, romantic movies, or movies in which characters aren't afraid to put their heart out on their sleeves.

"My Big Fat Greek Wedding" is a lingering example; it's still the highest grossing romantic comedy ever. One of my theories for its appeal? The romance at the center remains fairly strong throughout; the comedy comes from all the family stuff around it.

"Titanic" was amazing-looking, but it also had one of the best pure romances of a movie in the last 20 years. Don't discount that element.

One of the purest romances of the past few years was "The Notebook", which starred Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams, two unknowns at the time. It made $81 million.

The most honest, emotional romance of last year was "Brokeback Mountain". Even though the romance was between two gay men, it made $83 million.

The two best comedies last year were "The 40 Year-Old Virgin" and "The Wedding Crashers". Both had romances at their core that really worked well.

And both had good friendship stuff too -- don't underestimate the emotional power of the buddy scene. The best buddy movies are often ones in which we really feel that these two guys are friends, and wish we had a friend like that. Don't laugh, it's true. In Shrek, Shrek has more chemistry with the donkey than the princess (though he has chemistry with both). It works.

The downside, of course, is that bad romances tend to sink without a trace, and they also tend not to have the big foreign sales and DVD potential that makes producers salivate. Though even a mediocre romance like "The Lake House" still made $51 million. Imagine if it had been really good.

So heart too often gets short shrift, in favor of more special effects. Movies like Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, in which three men are all eyeing the same woman, can be remarkably devoid of any real heart -- compared to the first one, in which we felt throughout that the main characters at least formed a wary friendship, here too often they are working at cross-purposes, and it makes us less invested in the story.

Superman Returns is frustrating because despite an easy set-up for a lot of heart -- reunited lovers, an unknown child -- the movie almost aggressively avoids it; Superman and Lois Lane just don't have any honest emotional moments here, while the kid is a plot construct, his relationship with Superman almost completely unexplored.

In comparison, in additional to its romantic-triangle plotline, Clerks II has a subplot about the friendship between the two male main characters that works really well -- and which was still blasted by some critics for being too sappy.

Still, it says a lot when a movie like Clerks II, which no parent should take their child to see, has more heart than Superman Returns does.

I'm not saying that all movies need to be drenched in heart. Still, it wouldn't be the worst thing to see more at least try to embrace it, and risk taking their characters in a more human, vulnerable, emotional, real direction.

Dontcha think?


At 12:01 PM, Blogger Burghmovies said...

Agreed whole heartedly. The risk of trekking down that road has such a great reward, but so infrequently is traversed (unless you're submitting to Nicholl).

I see studios trying to stick to established properties based on perceived gauranteed returns, but love and romance and friendship are common denominators for everyone.

At 2:14 PM, Blogger Spanish Prisoner said...

Take E.T. for an example. A movie that is full of heart. Everyone understands it, young and old. One of the best movies of all time. And it performed almost too good at the box office.

At 2:25 PM, Anonymous Joe Valdez said...

My favorite aspect of your blog is when you break down a script, or film, and share with the rest of the class what you like, and don't like, and why. Screenwriters - myself included - have a lot to gain from columns like this.

I'm in agreement with you on Superman Returns, which a lot of people seemed to love the week it came out, for some reason. None of the characters related to each other in any meaningful way. The setup was there for some interesting relationships and chemistry, but it felt like the screenwriters didn't do any follow through. Or maybe it was the casting. Or maybe I lack heart. I'm curious what you think.

At 2:39 PM, Blogger Sal said...

Even though The Lake House wasn't great, I loved it because it was a proper grown up romance with adults I could relate to, having feelings I could relate to - so, yes, I totaly agree with you as far as movies needing heart is concerned. Real feelings, real comedy, not just teen stuff and smut - that's what I'd like to see

At 2:49 PM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

I have no idea -- none -- what went wrong with Superman Returns, since its flaws seem so glaring.

I lot of people defend it because that's how Superman is; he's not a guy who will get involved in an emotional relationship, he's this removed guy who is all about saving people.

Feh. If that works for you, fine. But give me a human hero like Spiderman any day.

At 2:58 PM, Blogger Scribe LA said...

Interesting take on "The Notebook," a movie that completely disappointed me. I LOVED the book, so I did have expectations, but I felt the movie rang false in its showing of "heart" and the story was told in a very assuming way. "A Walk to Remember," also adapted from a Nicholas Sparks novel, is a movie with heart on its sleeve. In its case, I actually preferred the movie to the book. When was the last time you heard that?

At 3:01 PM, Blogger writergurl said...

I haven't seen "Clerks II" and most likely wont (not my kind of humor, but I have seen "Superman Returns" and frankly it was a bore. "Heart" is very much what it was missing. It was just a bunch of incidents strung together with nothing to make me care about the outcome of any of it. What a waste of my time and money. So, yeah, I agree we could do with MORE HEART.

At 5:04 PM, Anonymous Zach said...

I'm working on a classic style romance and have had some of my best movie watching experiences in a long time doing my research. A movie can be fun and funny, but too many comedies wind up leaving you cold when they turn to their emotional elements because they haven't made us really care about the people on the screen, they've only made us laugh at them. Most of the time, they just don't seem very vulnerable (see THE BREAK-UP for an example of this, all of their vulnerabilities are based in genre conventions and the language of cinema rather than what we actually see).

I like a movie that makes me teary. I especially like a strong comedy with great characters that makes me teary. That doesn't mean that the comedy must come from sight gags and ball-punches, only from real, honest, truthful human reactions. Make me care for and understand the motivations of the people I'm watching; once you've captured me with that, I'll gladly follow your story wherever you want to take me.

At 5:07 PM, Anonymous Zach said...

Also wanted to say...


That's a movie with a hell of a lot of heart. Definitely one of Tim Burton's best and Mr. John August, if you happen upon this, you wrote the hell out of that one.

At 6:13 PM, Blogger Chris said...

Little Miss Sunshine has plenty of heart underneath the black comedy exterior. Actually a little bit too much by the end for my taste, given how funny the edgy humor was in the beginning. Ends up feeling like a bit of a cop out but if you like heart, it's got it.

At 8:57 PM, Blogger D. B. Holden said...

About "The Notebook":

I didn't like it. But if you mention that movie around my sister and step-mom, they will burst into tears. Literally. If I were to email them the single word "notebook" tonight, they would both end up crying at work tomorrow.

So as much as it didn't work for me, apparently it works for someone.

At 9:20 AM, Anonymous Laura Reyna said...

I stared writing down movie ideas in 1992. Mostly crime thrillers, dramas & period pieces. I started to notice that almost all of them had a romance at the center of the story.

I thought there was something wrong with me until i read an interview w/ Sidney Pollack where he said every movie he made, no matter the genre, was in fact a romance.

This was an epiphany, & decided not to fight my tendency to write a romantic story line in my thrillers. It's who i am & what i like.

About 9 mos ago i decided to try my hand at a Rom Com, a genre i was avoiding. As a female screenwriter, i didn't want to follow expectations & go there. But i'm finding it a lot of fun. Even when i try to write a straight comedy, it turns into a rom com.

I'm hoping for the return of the Big Romantic Drama/Tragedy. I think Hollywood thinks people don't like these, (in other words, they don't make any money) but if they're done right (English Patient, Titanic, The Notebook), people WILL go see them.

At 9:33 AM, Anonymous Laura Reyna said...

Re: The Notebook

I thought it was well-made & well-crafted. It was fine for what it was & what it intended. It was obvious to me they were going for an old fashioned tearjerker.

The biggest criticism i have is that it felt like a very well-made Movie of The Week. But really, is that so bad?

I read some stuff about how successful & prolific N Sparks was & got curious. Tried reading the book but only got a few pages in.

If you've seen The Notebook, check out Just Friends, where they goof on it. Funny.

At 1:13 PM, Blogger Julie O. said...

From your blog to Hollywood's ears, Scotty.

At 11:06 AM, Blogger D. Montoya said...

That's exactly it, Scott. Heart.

It's what I want when I watch movies, and it's what I strive for when I write them.

The thought of being able to touch someone's heart...someone I don't even know, who might be a world away...brings a tear to my eye.

I'm such a sap.

At 12:02 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My script satisfies all of this, not to be a prick about it. But it's low concept. You Can Count on Me meets Say Anything.

Was a finalist for a program at the Tribeca Film Institute, but it'll get buried under the mound of crap.

If anyone wants to read it and tell my how terrific it is or how much it sucks, email me at



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