Friday, June 12, 2009

The scene that ruined VOLUNTEERS

Here's the scene that ruined the movie David and I wrote, VOLUNTEERS. Tom Hanks stars as a preppy who ducks a gambling debt by joining the Peace Corps in Thailand. We established a character (Lucille) whose English was so bad we needed subtitles. In this scene, played pretty much as written, the director made one change. He had the characters break the fourth wall and read the subtitles.

We argued that it destroyed the reality of the film. There was now no jeopardy. It became a Hope-Crosby Road Picture where the fish could talk. The director argued that it got a big laugh. Why would we want to remove a big laugh? The answer is that it destroys the movie.



Oh, and her make-up was pretty ridiculous. But that we could live with.

The lesson here is never sacrifice the integrity of your piece for the sake of a joke, no matter how funny the joke is.

Billy Wilder used to say, "Why do they remake good movies? They should remake okay movies and make them better." John Krasinski as Lawrence Bourne anyone???

26 comments:

Jaime J. Weinman said...

It's a matter of taste, of course, and you should know if audiences started to lose their involvement with the movie after this gag... but I don't think that a bit of fourth-wall breaking necessarily kills our involvement in a comedy. As long as it's only a throwaway gag and doesn't intrude on the scenes we're supposed to take seriously.

Again, I'm not disputing that the subtitle gag hurt the movie with the audience, just that I don't think it automatically kills our involvement. Like, when Jerry Lewis did a similar gag in The Geisha Boy (reading the subtitles and commenting that they're screwed up) it didn't stop the movie from then veering into over-the-top sentimentality and making his loyal audience root for him.

k said...

Someone should have taught the Simpsons' writers that lesson a decade ago.

KEN LEVINE said...

As written and conceived, we had built the ending to be very suspenseful. Once the fourth wall was broken all that suspense goes right out the window. Characters could fly if they wanted. If you set a tone for a movie you don't change it an hour in. That's all I'm saying. I doubt if there was much intended reality and suspense in the GEISHA BOY.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

Like I said, I'm not disputing that it killed the suspense, just that I don't think it has to. The Geisha Boy maybe isn't a good comparison (though actually Jerry Lewis probably wanted some suspense/involvement there), but maybe James Bond breaking character and referring to the "other fella" who used to play Bond.

But that was near the beginning of the film, this is an hour in, and as you say, that's a big difference.

D. McEwan said...

Well, any Jerry Lewis movie is dead in the water the moment they put "Starring Jerry Lewis" on the screen. Then it doesn't matter WHAT they do, as anyone who wants a good, funny movie will skip it.

Damon Rutherford said...

Perhaps if the movie was "Top Secret!" or "Airplane!" or "Hot Shots!", characters reading the subtitles would be a good bit, but it was not very funny in this clip. It's "Volunteers" not "Volunteers!"

sephim said...

How about a good example being which ever Austin Powers movie did that same 'reading the subtitles' joke - but then the joke wasn't about the actual subtitles, but the misrepresentation of them whilst on the screen followed by the reveal.

Actually, just ignore everything I just said. I've ruined the suspense.

blogward said...

Aside from breaking the rules of the movie's universe, it makes it look like no-one could be bothered to think of a better way to make the girl understood. A throwaway gag in a non-throwaway script.

IMHO the very best cross-lingual comedy shtick ever was in Frasier's "An Affair to Forget" - you know, the one with the fencing instructor.

Heidi Germanaus said...

I think I was 9 when I saw this for the first time and remember thinking even then "What the hell?"

But it still didn't suppress my enjoyment for the movie. In fact it's one of my favorite "John Candy" performances.

playfull said...

England calling...


I know this might not mean much over the pond but we had a comic Duo over here called Morecombe and Wise who were TV gold. Eric Morecombe in particular was a comic genius.

However when they moved into films such as ‘The Intelligence Men’ and ‘That Riviera Touch’ the breaking of the fourth wall which worked so brilliantly for them on TV killed them on the big screen. Breaking the wall didn’t work dramatically and not breaking it was just wrong for them. You could see the dilemma unfolding right before your eyes.

BTW Ken have you seen a British sitcom called ‘the peep show’? If not get a copy and see it. It is shot entirely in the first person, using head cams...

Anonymous said...

if not Krasinski, Zachary Levi could be a good casting choice...

David O'Hara said...

Bruce Willis broke the forth wall in Die Hard - it's why I walked out.


WV: mensm: an exclusive club for those who believe they're smart?

WV: the stuff they stuck my feet in before tossing me in the river.

Anonymous said...

I think breaking the fourth wall in Volunteers was far down on the list of problems with that movie. I love many of the things you've written, Ken, but this movie was pretty bad. Writing, directing, acting, Tom's accent...

Todd said...

Ken Levine said: "The lesson here is never sacrifice the integrity of your piece for the sake of a joke, no matter how funny the joke is."

Agreed.

And the most egregious example of this in (relatively) recent cinema, IMO, is the most famous scene from a very popular movie...

"WHEN HARRY MET SALLY".

Meg Ryan faking a loud orgasm in the middle of a crowded restaurant. Biggest laugh in the film--

--and it destroys the integrity of the picture.

Meg Ryan's character would never do this (at least, not at this point in her character arc). Funny? Depends how invested you've been in the characters to this point. Me? It took me right out of the picture, and I never got back in.

I guess Rob Reiner didn't have the heart to cut his Mom's line.

Todd

A. Buck Short said...

They didn't break the fourth wall, they just graffitied it up a bit. On the home video, when you select English subtitles, is this the only part that doesn't have subtitles?

From Tom Hanks' delivery it looked like Meyer threw you guys a bone by not subtitling ("Well that would mean that Beth doesn't like John.") in parentheses?

Janice said...

Todd, I'm a huge fan of When Harry Met Sally. And while I agree that the scene you mention is the worst in the film, my problem is not with Sally's behavior, but indeed with the following line. I was just a teenager when I saw that film, but I knew what Rob's mom was going to say before she even said it. It's that type of obvious writing that makes me roll my eyes and takes me out of the film. Interesting, our two different takes on apparently a very beloved scene.

KJ said...

You know where that kind of worked? On GREEN ACRES. Lisa, Eb, and others could read subtitles, read credits, and hear background music. But Oliver Douglas couldn't, so the whole thing stayed very real to him.

So I guess that was the suspense: when would Oliver Douglas realize he was in a work of fiction?

D. McEwan said...

Maybe it's just me and my loathing of Bob "Self-Satisfied, Lecherous, Cheap Right-Wing Tool" Hope, but the Road pictures, in my opinion, have not aged well at all.

The Marx Brothers, Laurel & Hardy, WC Fields, Mae West, Chaplin, Keaton, their best movies are still golden. I will watch them over and over, and always smile and laugh. I can't remember the last time I subjected myself to one of the Road pictures, but whenever I have watched one, it always seemed tired and dull, an overproduced review sketch. Dorothy Lamour was the best thing in them, and some of the songs.

There are only 2 Hope pictures in my library: one stars WC Fields and the other stars Burns & Allen. And I have nothing with Jerry Lewis, not even the Martin & Lewis films.

Two great comedians, Jack Benny and Barry Humphries, have never (Barry's still working) caught their comic magic in movies. Their films are entertaining, but it's the because of the affection one carries over from their work in other mediums. Both are in some good films, Jack in TO BE OR NOT TO BE, Barry in the recent NICHOLAS NICKLEBY and in THE LEADING MAN, but these don't really catch the magic of their TV & stage work.

Jon Krasinski as Jason Bourne? I suspect I'd like that. Krasinski is the only young comic actor working now that comes across like the best friend I wish I had. (Not that I don't cherish the best friend I have, and I've got to go, as his Birthday party is tonight.)

WV: fougau: I don't know what it is, but if you see it on a menu, do NOT order it!

Anonymous said...

This doesn't seem like breaking the fourth wall in the classic sense. It's not a direct acknowledgment of the audience but it is disorienting and no doubt breaks the rhythm of the scene. For my money the make-up is a more serious offense, but what do I know?

Judging from the other posts many view breaking the fourth wall as an unpardonable offense, but I think it can occasionally be used to good effect. Obviously in a movie like Austin Powers it's appropriate. I also thought it worked well with Christian Slater in Kuffs, although I may be alone in liking that film.

emily said...

RE: 4th wall

After Julie Hagerty (Elaine) chewed out Robert Hays (Ted Striker) in AIRPLANE!, and he then turned to the camera and summed it all up with "What a pisser!" I laughed for the next year or so.

gottacook said...

For what it's worth: Once early in the run of the TV series Moonlighting, Bruce Willis' character (in response to someone else's expression of outrage) says, "Tell it to the writers." This is the only line from any episode of that series that I remember.

Anonymous said...

@David OHara --- When do think Bruce Willis broke the 4th wall in Die Hard? I've got that movie practically memorized and that never happens. Never. Not once. You clearly misunderstood something you saw... maybe you should see it again and not walk out this time.

(And btw, seriously? You walked out of what is pretty much the most celebrated and best reviewed action film in movie history? umm... oooook.)

ed.j. said...

Ok, I see what you're saying and at the time it was probably a WTF moment. I know I saw Volunteers when it came out but can't remember that scene standing out.

What strikes me now is that it is a very modern kind of thing. As a scene by itself it's kind of funny. A little sketchy, but sort of poking fun at the whole 'multi language' attempts that we tried with those movies.

We have so many spoofs these days that a 4rth wall thing doesn't jerk us as much as it used to. Not that V was a spoof but it did recall the cool 'tropical' movies of an era and cool is a slippery slope. Very few movies of the 30's referred to anal sex; wait for it. My wife and I watched Exorcist last night and were shocked (but only slightly) [hee hee, I said but] shocked to hear the demon say "F$@K her in the A$$", and now the CSIs make a living off deviant behaviour murders. (Yes, I'm in Canada) So now we are able to fit a 4rth wall break into our experience more easily than we used to fit anal sex. (probably should have chosen a different analogy) [there I go again]

So, in summation, it may have ruined the movie then; however I don't think it ruins it now.

-=edj

PS. My WFW is "flootest"; that which Canadians decide to try, late on a Saturday night, to see if their Floo Shot was successful.

PPS. Thanks for the invite to the telinar; could it have killed you to have written the episode of Frasier that ran on channel 119 the night I got the email so I could freeze frame the credits and hold up my laptop with the invite displayed so that I could say to my wife, "Hey, see the name on the screen, he sent me an email, he needs my help"

Huh, could have at least done that?

PPS Love the blog, have read it reverse order for the past 17 weeks.

edj

Joe said...

Levine - What killed my involvement with -- although not my enjoyment of -- Volunteers was the first 4th-walling scene: Lawrence Bourne III is driving to the airport pursued by the Bad Guy and we see the dots on the map tracking their progress from Connecticut somewhere to Idlewyld...until we see the car tear through the big paper map.

By the time the subtitle scene rolled around, I had detached.

playfull - Peep Show (and indeed ANYTHING with David Mitchell) is spectacularly funny. M&W also, but in the USA you have to take your chances with BBC America and/or torrents to catch these sorts of gems.

WVW - twayersh = "Way over yonder" in Yiddish

SuperBK said...

Sometimes it works. In a scene from Magnum PI when he picks up a potential client from the airport, she walks right to the Ferrari. He says "How did you know this is my car?" She replies "What else would a man like you drive?". Magnum turns and smiles at the camera when she says that.
Brian

Fraser said...

Speaking personally, it didn't ruin the movie for me, I had a great time when I saw it in the theater, and so did the rest of the audience (and can I just say that "They want to use me like a woman" - "Well, you'll just have to show them you can take it like a man." is one of the greatest exchanges ever).

Has anyone seen Stanley Tucci's The Imposters? The best fourth-wall breaking subtitle scene can be found there - worth checking out.