Tuesday, July 6, 2010


You want a bad example of a moral premise that seems to be right, but fails at the box office? Okay, here you go.

Pam and I are catching up on some Netflix DVDs that have been laying around. (We really should go see ToyStory 3 and a few others...but we were tired.)

Interesting premise, this film. Ben (John Krasinksi) and Sadie (Mandy Moore) "fall in love" and start living with each other. Six months later they decide to get married. Her family are lapsed church goers to what evidently is an Episcopal Church called St. Augustine where Rev. Frank (not FATHER Frank, is played by Robin Williams) has been the pastor for 20 years. Rev. Frank's specialty is pre-marital counseling. Of the hundreds of couples that have passed his "course" and that he has agreed to marry, none of gotten a divorce. The ticking clock is that there is only one opening in the church's schedule for the next two years, and that's in 3 1/2 weeks. Thus, the ticking clock, so to speak. But in the end we discover that is is of no consequence. False ticking clock — weak story beat.

As typical romantic comedies go, this story seems to have the physical and moral premise elements all in place to be really true and funny—the most dominant premise being that Robin Williams promises to "open" the movie. I should also say that Many Moore is a good draw, but John Krasinski seems to be out of his skin and awkward. But I'm not a reviewer postulating my preferences.

What makes this movie noteworthy for this blog is that while all the elements seem to be there, the movie was barely noteworthy at the box office. From a $35MM budget it did only $43.8MM in its opening domestic frame. Now Robin Williams is not truly an opener, as you might think. He's definitely the best at getting and delivering a joke. He can recite the Yellow Pages and make you laugh; but he's never been known for opening in a protagonist role and carrying the story.

Here are some bullet points that were obvious during the first viewing of LICENSE TO WED.
  1. The protagonist seems to be Rev. Frank, insofar as Robin Williams gets star billing, gets a great deal of screen time, AND the title of the movie LICENSE TO WED is about him. 
  2. True to form for a protagonist, Rev. Frank makes 80% of the decisions that drive the story forward, as he creates intriguing situations for the young couple to navigate as they prepare for marriage. ("No more sex until the wedding," "write your own vows," "learn to be a good back-seat driver",  "learn how to argue." etc.)
  3. But front to back, beginning to end, Rev. Frank, although a bit wacky, has no vice, only a sense of virtue that is wacky but not disordered. One key is that he is exactly the same at the end of the movie as he was at the beginning. No arc. What? A protagonist with no arc?
  4. O, but the young man or lady must be the co-protagonists. Well, that would seem like a good idea for a romantic comedy. Duh! But if you plot out the major moral decisions Ben and Sadie make on their own, you discover that there are about only two, one in Act 1 (when they decide to get married BEFORE taking Rev. Frank's course) and one in Act 3 (when they decide to get married AFTER Rev. Frank's gauntlet.) That would suggest they are the antagonists. What!?
Yep, things are a little backward here. Entertaining. Some good laughs. A nice ending. The young couple learn some valuable lessons (which hint at one of a number of true moral premises.) But ultimately the story disregards many of the natural laws of story telling, see points above, and the moral lessons are not consistently about one thing. Instead there's a pleasant potpourri of moral truths about "being friends before being lovers," "be dependent on your spouse more than others," "show deference to your spouse's needs," "respect and be gracious to your in-laws," and "don't agree to participate in stunts that are funny but have no purpose" (that last one was for the actors). The "argument lesson" and the "driving lesson" and the "one-on-one lesson" were cute scenes that did not reinforce any single story concept about Ben or Sadie other than Rev. Frank is crazy and this might be a funny movie to let Robin Williams ad lib. 

The truth of what I'm writing here was made clear when you watch the DELETED SCENE commented on by the director, Ken Kwapis. In each he tells you that these fully shot and edited scenes (many of them clever) had nothing at all to do with Rev. Frank's intervention in Ben and Sadie's relationship. Thus, they seemed out of place. The scenes were more traditional romantic comedy fair where the co-protagonist's false identity and true essence battle it out. But, Ken, tells us that in his mind the Rev. Frank interventions were what the movie was about, and thus the movie was about Rev. Frank... the minister ... who had no "ark".  And without an ark one sinks in deep water.


Myra Johnson said...

Hi, Stan. During summer rerun season, we do a lot of movie watching at our house, too. I think this one will remain off my Netflix queue.

And it's absolutely true that reading your book has made it utterly impossible to watch ANY movie or TV show or read a novel without trying to discern the MP!!!

Anonymous said...

Um, excuse me, but since when has Robin Williams not been able to carry a movie? Ever heard of Patch Adams, Hook, Mrs. Doubtfire? Plus, a movie making more than its budget in domestic sales alone is quite commendable. I haven't seen the movie, I just think some of your statements here are quite off-base

Stan Williams said...

Anonymous... I almost deleted your comment. I get 12 Anonymous blog posts a day from spam authors selling stuff. Use your name. You are partially right. I over stated my point. There are films that Robin Williams has opened -- which means he's able to get a lot of people to the theater by the use of his name alone. I think that was the assumption by this producer. Mostly, Williams takes character roles. He's not known as an a leading man. PATCH ADAMS was a huge hit, but that was 12 years ago. MRS. DOUBTFIRE, 17 years ago, as were many of his better lead roles. He did not star in HOOK but he played two great roles in it. You are right that any film that does more than it's budget (notably 1.5X times the budget) are commendable. But that wasn't my point. "Making a profit" and "opening" are two different concepts to me.

Natasha Smith said...

I'm sorry to be THAT person, but it was really bugging me that you refer to Sadie as Sophie a couple of times in your post. I'm trying not to read anything into it, like say, her gender being the reason... A little proof-reading goes a long way.

Stanley D. Williams said...

Dear, dear Natasha:

Thank you for pointing out the typos. I made the corrections. That was 2007 (the movie) 2010 (the post) when men were men and women were women and it was still politically correct to call them each what they were and are. So, what does your comment "her gender being the reason" have anything at all to do with gender bias? Sadie and Sophie are both female names the last I heard of. (Oh, wait, we can't say "female" now days, can we?) I do a lot of proof-reading. But I'm far from omniscient. But you really don't mean your comment about "proof reading" when you seem to go far beyond proofing a text and reading things into it based on your own bias. Right? Thank you for using your name.