Monday, 1 September 2014

Geniuses at work - Part 2 of 2 - Paul Weitz

I am back, with the second part of my critical analysis of favourite film directors, this time focusing on American director Paul Weitz and my interpretation of what makes his works stand out.

American Pie and About A Boy... that sounds so wrong! And yet yes, they are two films by the same directors, the brothers Weitz, who only later split ways and started directing films separately. I have to admit teenager-geared comedies were never high on my list of impressive films, not even back when I was a teenager! So 'From the directors of American Pie' did not spell good news for an unbiased viewing of About A Boy (2002). Add the fact that I had read the book by Nick Hornby and was already decidedly against the film directors when I read they'd changed the last third of the story - THE STORY - that I regarded as a masterpiece of our time and you had a recipe for a bad review at the least.

So when I reluctantly braced myself for the first watching of the DVD I was ecstatic (yes, I am not exaggerating) that the film delivered. A story that deviates from the book, but a story that still made complete sense when not compared to the plot in the book. I also found out that Nick Hornby himself had a say in the divergence from the original. But what impressed me most, I think, was the interpretation of the characters and the wow shots that helped greatly in making this what Hugh Grant (who plays main character Will Freeman) once called "an artsy fartsy one". Maybe that's what won me over, I am a sucker for artistic rather than mainstream productions.

In Will, the Weitz brothers could mould a drastic person who is distanced not only from love (cool sequence the one featuring his breakups and his obviously cringing face) but also from life itself. Will's voiceover at the very start of the film is testament to this, this lack of a bridge between his life (his island) and other people. He later even describes life as a TV show, his particular show being "the Will show", which he points out was not an ensemble drama. Granted that this character is an invention of author Hornby, I still give credit to the Weitz team for their interpretation and the correct use of voiceovers here and there in the story to present to us the real Will and what goes on in his mind, regardless of how he is acting with the people around him at that same moment. They must have had a field day brainstorming about what this character might do and how he'd do it. Even their unendless choice of cool-laidback-guy tshirts shows the kind of person Will is (and I must say I loved the Underground map tshirt, must see if I can get one!)

The real turning point for Will in the story is the Christmas lunch and so it was right of Weitz to put in the shot on the bridge just before that Christmas scene. Will the cool guy walks along a bridge in London, not only oblivious to all around him but also literally and figuratively walking against the sea of people (who interestingly enough were not extras but people going about their day as the shooting took place without closing off the bridge).

Fast forward a few years from the release of About A Boy, quoting here a poster that says "This may be the biggest British film ever made" and Paul Weitz teamed up once again with Hugh Grant, this time for the very different and very American 'American Dreamz' (2006). I had no qualms this time about watching something by the director of American Pie AND About A Boy. In About A Boy, the Weitz team had the opportunity of dealing with an extreme character and that very extremety is one thing that drew me to the film and made it, to date, the one I would nominate for 'best book character interpretation on screen'. When it came to American Dreamz, Paul Weitz wrote the script himself, and even directed it solo, though Chris Weitz helped with the production. (And it is here that I separate the two brothers and their works, with Golden Compass being the one directed by Chris Weitz which I saw and rated in one of my previous blog entries as a horror to watch. You can find my reasons explained in said blog entry entitled 'A Horror To Watch' dated 24 May 2014).

But back to Paul and his satire about Americans (reviewed in an earlier entry entitled 'American Dreamz (2006)' dated 16 August 2014 in which I have nothing but praise for the project). If in Will Freeman he had the facility of dealing with what I would call 'the edge' that a character can tread on only carefully unless he wants to fall off, then in the stereotypes that make up American Dreamz he had free reign with 'beyond reason'. Granted, it is difficult to imagine a young woman so obsessed by fame it would top her list of priorities over love (or at least romance) and even more unreasonable to present a President of the US who seems not to have any charisma or even adequate speech skills. And yet such people do exist.

Ironically, whilst presenting stereotyped characters, Paul seems fascinated by human thoughts, reactions, the real 'them' beneath the mask. Maybe that is why he presents (albeit being a caricature of the real person Simon Cowell) a main character in Martin Tweed who despite appearing to be someone sleazy, self-absorbed, egotistical and all other things negative, has enough depth of character to really mind the fact that he is not 'lovable', this being the key word he not only uses during a conversation of sorts with his assistants, but also apparent in his eyes (amazing acting as always by Grant) and actions as he first chooses to meet up with, and later think about, Mandy Moore's character Sally Kendoo, all the while showing a self-loathing and revealing that he'd had a mother who cruelly suggested he was not talented and no one would love him. I believe this to be one of the best scenes in the film, not because Tweed mentions his mother in the same sentence as obscene language (though she truly deserved it for her cruel words to Martin which created a person who must truthfully admit that he doesn't want "the fake bullshit that passes for love in this world") but because the dialogue here has to be among the best lines of the whole film. Through not-so-friendly banter between just-met Martin and Sally, Paul is able to bring out Sally and Martin's relationship-type for future reference. What character before this one openly admits to someone's face that they're not sure whether they like them? Even the character Sally herself is shocked as soon as she's uttered the words.

If About A Boy had fascinated me into rewatching it many times in the space of a week, so did American Dreamz, for a totally different kind of likeability, have me watching it over and over. In fact I watched it through three times in the space of five days. However whereas About A Boy is the one about character development and makes for good rewatching, the stereotype-full American Dreamz does follow a plot which, once known, removes the fun out of watching it again. And yet I will always keep it fondly in my DVD library, to go back to whenever I don't mind seeing once again the tragic end that befalls Martin Tweed at the end of the film. Because for all Weitz' effort at creating a character you should love to hate and making Martin Tweed a character who knows that, I myself was bewitched by Martin Tweed and in this case, it was Paul Weitz' drastic ending to the film that was, for me, more shocking than the character he made up.

It is certainly the case that I love Weitz' work for his 'big bang' (even literal in his film from 2006) and the way he can deal with characters that are, as opposed to those of Curtis' writing, not the ones you would love to meet.

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