(World With)In a World…

2013’s In A World… (written by Lake Bell) is one of the best American comedy scripts of the past few years, in its tightness and elegance, if not in the number of knee-slapping moments.

It’s a story of a family going through a crisis – or crises, since the Solomons, like many families, have their freakouts in clusters. It’s a feminist call to action that also has something profound to say about Jewish-American family life. And it’s among the most accurate portraits of life in L.A. in “the biz” that we’ll ever see – among the people who aren’t celebrities and won’t ever be, but who are quietly climbing their professional rungs. But mostly I keep coming back to her script.

She does it in the first ten minutes. First the heroine, Carol, gets a gig as a vocal coach. Then during the titles we learn all about the “world of the story”: the voiceover profession has just been thrown into a free-for-all, since its star Don LaFontaine – who in real life was the Wayne Gretzky of voiceover artists, and really did die in 2008, no doubt prompting something like this plot in some households – has died.

Then Carol’s father comes home in the morning, presumably, we soon learn, from his girlfriend Jamie’s house, and rousts his adult daughter Carol out of bed. One short scene, and we already have the whole conflict: She’s trying to get ahead in the voiceover world herself, but settling for jobs as a vocal coach – on top of which, she really just wants her father’s love. Her father Sam, who’s established in the profession, thinks she doesn’t have the chops, and is suddenly a lot more inclined to withhold his love, since Carol’s being snarky about dad’s new girlfriend, who’s just a year older than Carol.

We’re barely into the plot, but the conflict is all there already. Not to mention “the world.” That’s what a good story does, it creates its own reality. Its own mini-world: the voice profession. And then a mini-mini-world within that: the Solomon family. That’s why stories about crime families and rock bands and police departments all work so nicely. Their miniature hierarchies lend themselves to contested power dynamics.

Lake Bell (Carol) with the sexiest man in America Fred Melamed (Sam).

Lake Bell (Carol) with the sexiest man in America Fred Melamed (Sam).

So, by around Minute 12, Don LaFontaine’s trademark line “In a world…” has been tactfully avoided since his death, but now the studios are ready to start using it again, and every voiceover artist in town wants to be the one who gets the gigs that say it. So what does Sam do in the very next scene? He promises to throw his professional support behind another voice, a handsome prick named Gustav.

A purist would say that Bell’s script needs to make up its mind whether it’s farce or romantic comedy, since she has elements of both in the plot. You could even argue that the message-heavy climax is undermined by this lack of focus, but I never minded that for a bit. The setups and payoffs are so delicious up to that point, I was ready to let her have it, and say whatever the hell she wants. I especially liked the farcical side:

While Carol is riding high, she is booking the most coveted gigs and has been sleeping with Gustav besides, and has a good reason not to tell her father about it. Her father hears from Gustav, in explicit terms, that he had sex with their rival; her father, not realizing he’s talking about his own daughter, urges Gustav to “give her one for me.” Great writing!

Watching “Moonrise Kingdom” Without Reading About It First

Reading the reviews of Moonrise Kingdom this morning, after seeing it last night based on just a thumbs-up from an editor friend, I was pleasantly surprised at how watching a Wes Anderson film is still so immediate and heartfelt an experience, even for the jaded wing of the critical establishment. When I saw that even the Village Voice liked it, I wondered, Why aren’t we sick of his preciousness by now? Hasn’t his aesthetic, straight off the expensive rack at the vintage store, become too cloying, and his obsessions about precocious castaways playing at being adults too predictable?

 

Apparently not! I stood up and marched in line with his Kakhi Scouts and find myself in lockstep with most of the critics. How does Anderson keep doing it?

 

For one, the screenplay for Moonrise Kingdom, which he co-wrote with Roman Coppola, is a “world of the story” Exhibit A for the textbooks. That’s the writers’ phrase for the parameters of reality, or what could happen inside the story. In most scripts it’s a simple matter of establishing a repertoire of what is commonplace, what’s possible, and what’s extraordinary in the fictional world you’re creating.

 

Helping a friend with a crime drama recently, I found myself insisting that we first figure out the “world of the story.” If the police came and searched my house today, it would be the worst day of the decade for me, and if we made a movie about that day, it would have to be about how I haven’t spoken to my old best friend the lawyer for over two years and owe him a call, and about some misunderstanding with my landlord that lead someone to call the cops on me. When they search Richard Widmark’s house, he tells them off with a cocky grin, then stops for a drink on his way to a crime scene: it’s part of life for him.

 

In Moonrise Kingdom, the breakfast reveille of the Kakhi Scouts quickly introduces the goofball habits and camping skills that will be the nuts and bolts of the story, but also establishes a texture of reality in the way people talk to one another. A director typically gets credit for this – and Anderson does deserve what kudos he gets for envisioning a way that people speak and keeping every performance inside the same vernacular – but this clearly started with the script. Lines like “Jiminy cricket! He’s flown the coop!” only make sense in a world of mid-20th Century innocence, already hinted at by minute 5 by the narrator, who set the semi-mythic time and place, and by the “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra,” which the heroine’s family was listening to as they started their first day without her.

 

It’s a superior film to Anderson and Coppola’s previous collaboration The Darjeeling Limited, whose plot was boiler plate indie drama, and whose Indian setting was purely incidental and added a socio-historical gravity that Anderson was not up to addressing. Anderson is a poet mid-century American culture, not least because he’s rewritten his ode again and again, and you can’t doubt his sincerity. It also helps – gotta say it! – that he has good taste, and that the well of kitsch he draws from is more rarified than most.

 

The easy way to tell Moonrise Kingdom would be to position the tragic, illicit couple against the arrayed forces of church, family, and state, and to use Americana to color it with ironic counterpoint. Hymns, portraits of Eisenhower, cheerleading uniforms, and students pledging allegiance are the stuff of cheap laughs in American cinema. As long as a film includes a dose of what was rad back in 1965, rock and roll or whatever, it’s open season on the hypocrisy of illegitimate middle class authority. When Anderson and Coppola’s narrator evokes the classroom documentaries of the 1960s, or when the young lovers meet backstage at a church pageant, it’s not to say “Look at the impossible places love blooms, in this desert of corny, phony American culture.” It’s to say “Bravo! A couple that lives up to our ideals.”

 

“Bravo!” is right.