So, having finished my revisions (kaloo kalay!!!), we went to the movies yesterday. Specifically, Night at the Museum. Now, I was originally skeptical about this one, because I sometimes enjoy Robin Williams' movies, but he can be kinda over the top. I was still on the fence about Ben Stiller -- is it him or is it the movies he's in I don't particularly enjoy? We read two local papers. One gave the movie a good review, the other not so good. I should have realized that the reviewer who liked it doesn't generally share my taste, because while the second half of the movie had a couple of laughs, the first half was one of the most boring film experiences of my life.
So I got to thinking about the whys and wherefors, because when you write stories for a living, you tend to think about these things.
I think the biggest problem was that they had a concept, but no story to go with it. They had "what if the exhibits in the museum come to life at night?" Okay, kinda cool, if not unique (shades of Toy Story, to name but one). And they came up with a couple of cute set pieces (the tiny Roman army) but otherwise? They seemed to flounder when it came to developing a story from that concept. The set-up was completely mundane -- divorced dad needs job. Sadly, they didn't make divorced dad particularly admirable. He's never had a job (it seems) and came up with some invention that was essentially a rip-off of something else (so he's not even a creative failure) and subsequently, he keeps having to move. There's no mention of child support, and although it seems obvious the mom doesn't need the money, it's clear he couldn't provide it even if she did. It apparently takes Dad 10 years (his son is 10 in the movie) and his wife's threat of terminating visitation for Dad to figure out he ought to get a "real" job with a "real" paycheck.
Okaaaaay. So far, not so good. This is not a guy I'm prone to root for, because it sounds like immaturity is his middle name.
Then he finally gets a job, and the first night, the exhibits come to life. Okaaaay. He's shocked. Well, duh. He wants to quit. Well, duh. The museum director is played by Ricky Gervais of The Office. I suspect the reviewer who liked the movie thinks anything Ricky Gervais does is hilarious, because this part? Wasn't the least bit amusing to me. It was also actually painful to see Mickey Rooney in this film.
Oh, the love interest in the film, such as she is, is doing a theses/writing a book about Sacagawea, who helped guide the Lewis and Clark expedition. There's a secondary love story between Sacagawea and Robin Williams' character which conveniently overlooks the fact that Sacagawea was married. So, let me get this straight. A movie that's also supposed to be championing history? Plays fast and loose with historical facts.
Anyhoo, History Babe, after spending six years on this work, decides to abandon it because Sacagawea is just not "coming alive" for her (or something along those lines). Now, it seems to me that a person who enjoys researching and writing about history is going to realize that the person she's writing about is, you know, dead, and it's sort of up to her to make the person "come alive" via her writing. But maybe that's just me.
The movie finally comes to life when something is stolen (and don't get me started on that) and it's up to the museum exhibits (and Ben Stiller and son) to get it back. That's conventional also, but at least there's some interesting activity and motion.
Basically, a gimmick alone is simply not enough to make a good movie. We also need a story and some characters to care about. To use another example of a comedy that did work that was also based on a gimmick: Galaxy Quest. In that movie, the gimmick was that aliens have been watching our TV, and they think everything they see is real, or "historical documents," even Gilligan's Island.
However, there were also characters who had problems and issues and through the course of the movie, changed. Tim Allen's character is forced to realize he's a loser to many people, and finds redemption by becoming the real "commander." Alan Rickman's character, the Spock of the show, has a moment that brought tears to my eyes (although yes, I laughed out loud many times) when he repeats the "catch phrase" that has plagued him for years in the most sincere, tender, determined way (and honestly, could anybody have done that better than Alan Rickman?). Sigourney Weaver's character gets to sound off about her character's "role" in the show, and there are more.
There was also a clear, admirable goal: to help the aliens defeat a Very Bad Bad Guy.
In other words, there was a gimmick plus a good story and interesting characters -- much more than the simple "hook" of the aliens believing TV shows were real life.
In the writing business, we hear a lot about "high concept," as if that alone is going to make you a successful writer. And sometimes, if the concept is unique and fascinating, that alone might be enough. However, more often than not, the real talent is coming up with a good idea, and -- and this is the big thing -- turning that idea into an entertaining story populated by interesting characters whom the readers come to care about. That's the real talent, and where the real hard work comes in. It's not just about getting an idea; it's about what you do with the idea once you've got it.
That's another thing that separates the people who only talk about writing, or dreaming about being a writer, from the ones who become writers.