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Fun Joel's Screenwriting Blog


-- On Screenwriting and Related Topics

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Location: Los Angeles, CA

I moved from NYC to LA in October, 2003. And though I still think NYC is the greatest city in the world, I'm truly loving life here in the City of Angels. I'm a writer, reader, and occasional picture-taker.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Screenplay Review: The Constant Gardener

Okay, so I can sometimes make mistakes. I can't say for sure, yet, since I have yet to actually see The Constant Gardener, but I was definitely not very impressed with the script when I read Jeffrey Caine's adaptation of John LeCarré's novel (screenplay draft dated 2/2/04). But all the reviews have been really positive, so maybe I was wrong. Who knows? I was considering seeing the film this evening, so I could sum up my feelings, but that didn't happen. So perhaps if and when I do see it, I can fill you in on things.

But let me first show you my comments on the script, then I'll fill in the gaps of what might account for the discrepancy between my feelings then and the reviews now. I read the script in March of 2004 as a writing sample for a specific project, not as a submission. Here's what I had to say, basically:

Minor Spoiler Warning!

The Constant Gardener
has high goals, but generally fails to reach them due to weak drama. The plot never meshes properly with the subject matter, the thrills are generally fake or arbitrary, and are unconnected to the plot, and the pacing is too slow to maintain audience interest. While many of these weaknesses may stem from the source material, Caine has still done nothing to improve these weaknesses in his screenplay, and thus is a PASS as a writer for XXX or other XXX projects.

The biggest problem with The Constant Gardener is that it sets out to unveil evil and corruption within the pharmaceuticals industry, but never fully makes this hit home dramatically. One reason for this is that the difference between what we know about the plan at the end of the film is not very different from our understanding of that background shortly after Tessa'’s death. Thus, all of Justin'’s digging around really uncovers very little new, and we are bored watching it.

Similarly, much of the thrills or action seem artificial at best, or irrelevant at worst. Justin's run-in with thugs in Germany, and his near murder in Canada, leading to Lara's death, are standard fare that never really make us feel the stakes have risen for Justin. The various locations around the world seem more a function of what is expected in this genre than what serves the plot well. Furthermore, Justin is a particularly passive character, and thus even when he gets involved in the hunt to finish his beloved wife'’s work, we still never get on his side. He is dry and reserved, barely ever showing emotion, and never turns the corner that is required of most protagonists in similar films; there should be a point at which he realizes this is for real, and he steps it up, showing some action and desperation. This contributes to a dragging of the script, and tediousness for the audience.

As an adapter, Caine is ultimately responsible for these weaknesses. He has done nothing to make this a more cinematic screenplay, leaves the plot as somewhat unbelievable, and worse makes as not care about the plot.

Whoah! So not a very good review, eh? So what am I to make of all the glowing word of mouth about this film? The way I see it, there are many potential explanations for this discrepancy.

1. The most likely explanation, as I see it, is that I simply didn't get this script when I read it. I don't have the script around anymore, so I can't go back and check. But what I can say is that I saw LeCarré's name and I was imagining it as a mainstream thriller of the style of The Bourne Identity or something. And while I have yet to see this film, and though I also have not seen City of God, also by director Fernando Meirelles, I have a feeling that this is a bit more artistically minded than I was picturing. Thus, it is possible that had I been thinking of this in different terms, I might have come to a different conclusion about it.

At the same time, however, I must point out that the advertising is pitching the film as a mainstream thriller as well, which surprises me. It definitely did not read as one, or at least not as a good one. I am willing to accept that it might be a good film of a different variety, but if it is actually a pretty straightforward thriller, there would've had to have been some major work done on it! What seems more likely to me is that they are marketing it that way because they don't know how else to market it. But when star Rachel Weisz was on Letterman last week, she seemed equally uncomfortable describing the film. And her last words on it tried to sell the film as a romance!

2. A second possibility is that the script changed drastically between the draft that I read and the one that was finally filmed. I have no idea whether this is true or not, but it could certainly explain a lot!

3. It is also possible that I will disagree with all the reviews, and actually think that the film is pretty poor as well. But I do still intend to see it, because I'm really curious.

4. The explanation I'm leaning towards, and I'll let you know after I see it, is that the script isn't actually very good, but that the film is that rarity in which the director has made a good film out of a poor script. It is possible that through Meirelle's solid direction and the excellent acting talents of Ralph Fiennes and Weisz (and though I can't remember how sizable his role is, I'll also mention one of my new fave character actors, Bill Nighy), the film was able to raise the quality of the story overall, and transcend the 2nd rate script. This is rare, but I've seen it before.

I remember seeing Meet the Parents, and loving it, but then thinking as I left the theater how the script wasn't really that great. As it happened, I was working as a reader for Robert DeNiro's Tribeca Productions at the time. They produced Meet the Parents. I asked my boss over there about it, and he agreed -- it wasn't such a great script. The way I saw it, what made that movie so funny and so successful was the excellent chemistry between DeNiro and Ben Stiller.

Perhaps the same thing happened here. Maybe the script wasn't so great, and perhaps the film is still really good. My guess is that there was some combination of all these things going on. I'll get back to you once I see the film, and if any of you have seen it, I'd love your feedback as well!

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Blogger Scott the Reader said...

Sometimes it's a combination of a lot of things. Including the director just nailing it, bringing across subtleties in the story that might not even be in the script.

As a reader, my biggest miss was probably when I read the short stories that MILLION DOLLAR BABY was based on. I thought they were trite and melodramatic, a rather generic tale about a boxer (with the only spin that she was female), and a late twist that felt like a completely different (and not very good) movie to me.

But the movie works, because Paul Haggis nailed the script, they cast the hell out of it, and Eastwood did a great job directing it.

Sometimes everything just comes together in ways that it is hard to predict.

1:38 AM  
Blogger Fun Joel said...

Welcome Scott! And thanks for your comments. Yeah, I think that's probably what happened here. Can't wait to see it to find out, though I think I'm seeing 40 Year-Old Virgin tonight instead. ;-)

And for any of you others reading, check out Scott's relatively new blog and welcome him to the scribosphere!

1:45 AM  
Blogger Martine said...

I saw "The Constant Gardener" on Friday night so it was very, very interesting to read your feedback on the screenplay! I have a feeling that you will not enjoy the movie very much but please do post your review after you've seen the film!

It's a strange movie and I'm still not sure what I think of it. I cared for the characters, I was scared, I was moved... but I wasn't 100% sold on the story.

I don't think this movie can truly be classified as a thriller, at least not in the mainstream sense. I had Weisz's comment going through my head during the movie, about it being a "love story". For a while I thought she was wrong or just trying to sell the movie, but soon I realized she was right. The plot is almost an excuse to show the transforming power of love (sorry if that sounds like a Celine Dion song...).

The movie moved way too fast for me to follow all the details of the plot, especially because I had trouble with some of the characters' accents. But the character we truly follow is Justin as he comes out of his shell and I really liked the way Fiennes played him. The leads had great chemistry together and I think that's one of the reasons the movie does work.

I had seen "City of God" and loved it and I was very curious to see another Mereilles's movie. While he gave "The Constant Gardener" an amazing rhythm and style, I'm not sure it ultimately served the story. There were times when he really needed to slow down and give us a chance to breathe and be WITH the characters, but the quick edits and camera moves were relentless and often got in the way. (I loved the way he handled the scenes in Germany though.)

In the end, the film did manage to make me care both about the love story AND the issue of exploitation of Africa by the pharmaceutical companies. Not an easy task but I think it succeeded.

I'm very curious to see what you'll think!

2:20 AM  
Blogger Fun Joel said...

Martine --

Thanks so much for your in depth comments. Interesting. In particular, I was surprised you said the film was too fast paced for you, since (as you could see in my comments) I thought the script was way too SLOW. I'd say this was largely a combination of possible rewrites and Meirelles' direction.

I also found it interesting that you felt Justin DID come out of his shell towards the end, because I thought that was another big flaw. Perhaps the acting and directing again.

I totally got her comment about the romance aspect, but mentioned it as evidence that this isn't the mainstream thriller they're passing it off as.

I'll let you know when I see it, and thanks for reading! :-)

3:53 AM  
Blogger Paul said...

Here's my NOT SO indepth comments:

I saw it this weekend, also -- and have to say that although I think Ralph Fiennes acting and arc was great -- the story itself was drawn out and a bit boring. I didn't find that the mystery he uncovered was all that tough to figure out.

But, you know, judge for yourself!

5:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great, great movie. Maybe your problem with the script was that as a studio script reader you've been conditioned to like scripts that studios would like -- and the CG certainly isn't one.

8:05 PM  
Blogger Fun Joel said...

Anon --

Certainly possible. I definitely have a very mainstream sensibility. Though what I'd add is that I'm not only conditioned that way. It is my JOB to think that way. That's what they pay me for!

8:33 PM  
Anonymous Dillan Kaufmann said...

I recomend that all of you who havn't seen the film...do. it's Hotel Rwanda/Titanic mixed together for the western apathy and the romance...made me feel quite pathetic and cheap after viewing it..and made me do some reassearch into the topic. i verify John le Carres comment "this movie is as tame as a holiday postcard" the stuff i dug up was quite brutal in one case involving the deaths of about 30,000 people at the hands of Pfizer of a peroid of 5 years.

12:26 AM  

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