Remember when stories were easy? Characters could be two-dimensional as long as each had a quirky, unique trait, like a label or a Hi, My Name Is... sign. You know, an obnoxious cough, steely eyes, a hunch, an odd twitch. It didn't matter, so long as it was pointed out early on and then kept up like a running joke to remind the reader who "Bernadette" was, exactly. Oh right, the curvy red-head who wants to be an actress.
When I was little, very little, long before I began to understand (or perhaps became tainted by the knowledge of) what good literature is, I appreciated a children's book called Ben Bear's Pot of Gold . Like all the faithful stand-bys in the children's lit category, Ben Bear's Pot of Gold included talking animal characters, a journey, a model of friendship and, of course, a Moral.
Synopsis (SPOILER ALERT):
Ben Bear, a curious, growing cub, sees his first rainbow. His mom tells him that rainbows are special because a pot of gold can be found at the end of each one. Ben, still curious (and maybe a tad greedy?), decides to head out in search of the gold. Along the way he meets a series of friends, each of whom he informs about the pot of gold. And to each he extends an invitation to join the party. Naturally, one by one they join, and they journey through the forest together, talking and laughing all the way. At the end of the rainbow, they are crestfallen when they don't find gold. But wait! They see one another in that clearing where the rainbow ends. Maybe the legend isn't wrong, they decide. The rainbow inspired them to seek one another out and spend time together. Maybe friendship is the pot of gold.
It was a good lesson. One perfect in a book for children. It could have been animated and told on TV on Saturday mornings (and it probably was, though we didn't watch cartoons in our house... so I wouldn't know).
But when it comes to stories for adult audiences, for people who have lived longer, felt deeper, tried harder, have histories of their own... those stories must have some depth. Some subtlety. It isn't enough to present a Once upon a time ... and end with Happily Ever After . Heroes and heroines must be flawed to be real, must find themselves in true positions of glory and honor, as well as failure and fatigue. Good stories, though, the kind that stand even a slight chance of being memorable or, better yet, set up as some sort of standard in the industry of storytelling, are few and far between. Rather, I feel like every story I come across is mere baby steps away from Ben Bear and his mythical pot of gold.
Tonight I watched a movie called No Reservations , the story of two chefs, both talented, motivated and very attractive, are thrown together in the same kitchen. The cutesy pun of a title should have tipped me off, but I ignored it. My mom and I were looking for a little fluffy show to see and enjoy as girls. I guess we did. Maybe. Catherine Zeta-Jones overwhelmed the role of Head Chef. Aaron Eckhart wore the Eye-Candy-With-A-Sensitive-Side badge with ease. But all in all, this film was an unfortunately straight, flat, well-paved road.
Bernadette The Red-Head made several unnecessary, undeveloped appearances.
Catherine Z-J was in therapy, though that old joke (every New Yorker has a shrink) should have been put out of its misery by now. And the therapist doesn't have a name, because he doesn't need one, because he needn't have been in the story anyway. He only served two purposes: 1) to pull threads about Catherine's past, all of which she ignored and therefore took nowhere and 2) to deliver a single, precious line of advice that convinces Catherine that she can figure this whole Mystery-o-Life thing out, after all.
The cooking was fantastic. Mom loves to see a well-run kitchen and fabulously tiny gourmet dishes. But we do have the Cooking Channel, folks.
Little Abigail Breslin, fresh off her Oscar nomination for the title role in Little Miss Sunshine, was the newly-orphaned girl sent to live with Aunt Kate, someone who knows nothing about being a mother. I'm sorry... have I seen this movie before? Her tears are believable, though there are a few too many. And I almost keeled over when, while sitting by her mother's grave toward the end of the movie, l'il Abby offers a tearful, "I'm afraid I'll forget her." as an excuse for her miserable behavior. Lord, something new, please!
Naturally, any story trimmed to fit two hours of film can't be expected to maintain much in the way of nuance. Some movies handle that shortfall better than others. In this one, I could see the missing bits of back story and detail like the voids left by amputated limbs. CJZ has father issues, so she doesn't trust anyone. Need I say more? (I hope not, because that's the length of explanation given the audience.) L'il Abby's mother, who appears to have been a terrific mom, couldn't remember the name of her baby's daddy... and that's the way she lived her life. Had the movie-makers explored these shadier alleys, I wonder what they might have found.
Finally, the movie included not one, not two, but THREE scenes sans dialogue. Just music over action. Talking and laughter in the kitchen. Talking and laughter over dinner at home. Talking and laughter with wine in the evening. Yes, these people like food. We GET IT. My theory? The writers ran out of material, and when they began repeating themselves, the editors said... how about a montage?
I'd say that I predicted every turn this story took, except that there weren't any. It's not a terrible movie; it simply isn't worth a theater ticket. It's barely worth a fraction of your Netflix membership. And do NOT watch this one unless you are any/all of the following:
- a female
- with some alone time coming up
- who has recently purchased chocolate
- and would rather have a movie playing while cooking, folding laundry, bathing, than not
One redeeming factor: the music. Perfect for each sweet scene.
At the end of all of this, though, I realize... given the sheer number of stories published each year that are precisely like this one, perfect for a long ride on an airplane but for little else, there is a good chance I won't be able to do any better. What if my characters lack roundness? What if my Moral stands out with a capital M? What if my writing follows itself in a deep, obvious groove, like a cattle trail from pasture to watering trough?
The horror. Well, the good news is, if I do write something like that, there's always Hollywood.