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Script Review: Ceremony by Max Winkler

[In lieu of actual content, for the next several weeks I will present, at least, one review of an upcoming film each week. These are scripts that I’ve been paid money to read, and many of them contain watermarking, identification numbers, password-protection, and other ways of tracking what company it was sent to; because of this and my desire to keep my job, I will not offer downloads for ANY of the scripts I review here. Don’t bother asking.]

“Now, Henry Winkler—there’s a father. Listen to what he told a close friend. ‘I don’t always keep my cool like the Fonz, but my love for my kids has given me plenty of happy days.'”—The Simpsons, “Saturdays of Thunder”

Ceremony confines its setting to a weekend-long bacchanal, and that decision is where it goes wrong. It’s not the single setting in and of itself. Plenty of films, many of them set at weddings (Robert Altman’s A Wedding leaps to mind, and though I’m generally not a big Altman fan, his film pretty much does everything right that Ceremony does wrong), have utilized this type of single-setting technique in effective ways. From claustrophobia (Das Boot, Lifeboat—which manages to generate claustrophobia on the open goddamn sea) to farce (Death at a Funeral) to all those filmed plays where disparate characters share intense experiences and find out new things about themselves and each other (A Raisin in the Sun and The Big Kahuna among the zillions out there), use of one setting over a short period of time can amp up tension more than just about anything else. In fact, my favorite film of last year, Lebanon, utilizes this technique masterfully.

I wonder if this style of storytelling stems from the days when large family systems had the misfortune of sharing a single, cramped dwelling (those days aren’t as long ago as one might imagine, and in many non-American cultures it’s still quite common). That’s just an idle thought that has little to do with anything.

The problem with Ceremony has less to do with its setting than with the story told within that setting. In every film mentioned above (and plenty more), the story and characters are inextricably linked to the choice of setting. Those stories would not be more compelling if things were expanded. This might sound like a violation of the “show, don’t tell” rule, especially in the case of the filmed plays. The rules say that it’s a movie—you can show anything, so why would you have a character tell a story to his friends instead of showing the story to the audience?

In total defiance of the rules, here is what I will say: sometimes you can learn more about a character by the way he or she tells an autobiographical story than by watching that same character experience the content of that story firsthand. Look at A Raisin in the Sun, which tells the story of an African-American family stuck together in an apartment. Going beyond the plot, it’s a film about the shared experiences of this family—the way these experiences color (uh…no semi-racist pun intended) the people they’ve become, the conflict that arises because five different people have experienced the same events with radically different points of view and, therefore, radically different reactions. Since it’s more about reaction than action, it would not necessarily be better to see the actions they’re reacting to. (Ironically, Lorraine Hansberry—who won a Pulitzer for her play—adapted the film into a broad, expansive film that is very different from the play. It was published in book form, and it’s a compelling case study, but I can’t imagine it being a more powerful film than what ended up on the screen.)

Overall, the point here is that if the screenwriter eschews traditional means of visual storytelling (most evident in those filmed plays) by relying on enormous swaths of dialogue that “tell” instead of “show,” the contemporary story that’s peppered with all that “telling” had better surpass the experience of “showing” the stories told in dialogue. That, at long last, is Ceremony‘s chief failing: endless reams of monologues, drained of life and personality (and humor, especially deadly since this script alleges to be a comedy), that accomplish very little beyond telling us the screenplay starts at the end of a much better story.

Sam writes (unpublished) children’s books, because why not? This is an indie film, and indie films don’t work if the protagonist doesn’t have a quirky, moderately twee occupation. When we first see him, he’s reading one of his books to a group of children, but they are disturbed by the adult content. It’s the first red flag, opening as it does with the first of many long, tedious monologues, substituting the hackiest sitcom writing for something meaningful or interesting.

In sitcoms (especially bad ones, but even periodically in the very best ones), writers frequently lapse into what I’ve taken to calling “beside-the-nose” dialogue. In contrast to “on-the-nose,” this is the sort of dialogue that uses a half-baked metaphor to explain things in a painfully obvious fashion. Often, the laziness of the gimmick is played up for laughs, because the writers know the audience is aware of exactly what they’re really talking about, so they try to make a joke of the fact that the metaphor is so nakedly obvious.

My least favorite example of this sort of thing comes from my all-time favorite sitcom, Roseanne (it remains my all-time favorite because I pretend the show ended after season six). After the show got mostly awful and the kids got old enough for the writers to weirdly turn everything between Becky and Darlene into some kind of love triangle, Becky and David (who got dumped by Darlene after she left for art school) start “having coffee” on a regular basis. It becomes apparent to Roseanne that Becky is seeking intellectual and emotional shelter in David, who is a much better match for her than his older brother, Mark (who, by this point, had turned into a pathetically braindead parody of his dull-witted tough-guy), to whom Becky is married. So Roseanne grills both Becky and David on the subject, and “coffee” rapidly becomes the world’s laziest metaphor for “sex,” and the alleged comedy comes from the fact that David literally thinks they’re talking about coffee, while Roseanne (and the audience) knows it’s become a code word for “sex.”

Stupid as that may sound, it’s cleverer than the majority of Ceremony, particularly its opening sequence. See, it’s funny, because he’s clearly written a children’s book about his philandering with an engaged woman, but he’s gussied it up with a metaphor about enchanted kingdoms and evil serpents, but it’s clearly not about that, and it’s clearly inappropriate for children to hear. Comedy!

While Sam reads the story at a public library, his best friend Marshall waits nearby, rolling his eyes at Sam’s incorrigible wackiness. Marshall’s one and only character trait splits the difference between anal-retentiveness and obsessive-compulsive disorder. He likes to be prepared! He likes order! It’s funny!

Sam fakes a chance meeting with Teddy, an Englishman so charmed by Sam’s smarminess that he invites both Sam and Marshall to spend the weekend at his mansion. Marshall thinks the plan was for a getaway with a friend he hasn’t spent enough time with lately, so it surprises him when Sam immediately agrees. They check into a cheap motel (not the promised cabin resort), and Sam’s growing obsession with Teddy’s invitation would set off red flags in any sane person. This is a glorified sitcom, however, so Marshall doesn’t noticed. He’s too busy being annoyed by the motel.

Marshall starts to piece things together the instant they arrive at the mansion. Sam is accosted immediately by Zoe, whom he clearly knows. Before she can throw them out, her fiancé, Whit (seriously), interrupts them. Again, because it’s a sitcom, Zoe can’t simply toss out the gate-crashers. She has to introduce them to Whit, fake niceties, and act like they’re invited guests.

From this point on, the backstory boat runs full steam ahead. Zoe’s getting married to Whit this weekend. Sam spends the bulk of the script denying he had any awareness of this (even though she sent him an explanatory postcard, which it’s revealed later he did, in fact, get), even though everything he does throughout the script betrays his “comically” intense obsession with winning Zoe’s heart (such as buying her an engagement ring so he can find the right time to propose). (Oh, and for the record, Teddy is Zoe’s brother, which Sam knew all along.)

When it’s not spending endless amounts of time on backstory-spewing, on-the-nose dialogue, Ceremony focuses the majority of its efforts on something akin to a slobs-versus-snobs comedy (there’s even a yacht race, a staple of bad ’80s slobs-versus-snobs comedies, but it’s a rushed sequence that feels like a lazy, slapped-together reference rather than a worthwhile story beat). I think we’re supposed to like Sam, but I only think that because he’s the main character and usually has a “witty” barb prepared for every occasion. Unfortunately, he’s a fucking asshole from beginning until the very last scene, which is all unearned treacle and steaming bullshit. As I always say, there’s nothing wrong with an asshole main character—that’s my favorite kind!—so long as we can, on some level, empathize with the behavior. Here, Sam never seems to be in the right. The comedy is supposed to come from his delusions of grandeur and juvenile romantic fantasies, but even this is not easy to empathize with. Like too many films that focus on emotionally stunted menchildren, all I wanted to do while reading it was shriek at Sam, “Grow the fuck up!” Again, we need some empathy. Thousands of pages of backstory do not give any real indication of why Sam behaves the way he does.

In the end, we’re supposed to believe Sam has learned something from his experiences over this weekend. Like the rest of the script, it tells us Sam has learned something without actually showing that happening. It literally happens off-camera, and one scene prior, Sam is still scheming to the point that he tries to blackmail Zoe into leaving Whit for him.

Marshall’s a similar case. Let’s ignore Zoe and Whit, because they hardly figure in the story (which is especially weird considering it’s all about Sam trying to win her—she’s the rom-com equivalent of a MacGuffin). He spends the entire script remarkably devoted to his obnoxious friend, in ways that just plain ring false. Is it just that no screenwriters have any actual friends, or did writer Max Winkler just watch way too much TV as a kid (that is a distinct possibility, considering his dad is The Fonz)? Maybe I just crave abuse (both giving and receiving), but every single friend would call me on the sort of bullshit Sam pulls immediately. I mean, isn’t that what the act of “growing up” is all about? Trial and error with the opposite sex, and a cushion of friends who will not hesitate to tell it like it is, even if you don’t want to hear it. Through that, you eventually start to get your shit together.

On the other hand, I suppose I’ve both seen and had the sort of “lapdog” friend Marshall is, but that’s the sort of character that, again, needs empathy. It’s not really a quality anyone should strive for, so just like Sam, it’s hard to feel sorry for the abuse Marshall suffers at his best pal’s hand. By this point, he should know better. Even with Marshall’s lapdog tendencies, it’s hard to believe he’d remain friends with a guy like Sam for so long. The lack of development also makes his 180 in the third act frustratingly inexplicable (like pretty much everything else in the third act).

After all this, what is the backstory? Zoe and Sam met on a rainswept New York street. She found herself attracted to his child-like innocence, a welcome respite from her heavy, adult responsibilities (which include her relationship to Whit). From day one, Sam knows Zoe is cheating on the man she’ll someday marry with him. He thinks it makes him special, until she actually goes off to marry him. It’s not a mind-blowing reinvention of the romantic comedy, but that’s actually half the problem. It’s indisputably a more interesting sequence of events than what ended up in Ceremony, but who wants to listen to characters describe scenes from a mediocre rom-com in a flat-out bad rom-com?

I would have much rather seen the full extent of the story, from the day Sam and Zoe met until the wedding. In addition to giving Zoe some much-needed depth, such a structure provides a nice spine for emotional growth on both sides. Instead, Winkler starts at the end and then tries to fill in all the gaps. Consequently, as I wrote in my coverage, it feels like “the world’s longest third act, suffering from a lack of momentum, suspense, or stakes because it spends so much time backpedaling in order to explain the more compelling circumstances that led to this tedious party.” It’s hard to buy into emotional growth when a script starts with a character saying, “Here’s how I was” and ends with the same character saying, “Here’s how I am now.” Eventually, the protagonist has to do something instead of just talkin’ her to death.

Some stories simply can’t support the single-setting treatment. Ceremony is one of them. Of course, it certainly doesn’t help that the characters have little dimension and the dialogue lacks the wit and verve of a skilled playwright (necessary especially in a script like this, which contains more dialogue per charta than David Mamet at his most self-indulgent). It’s a huge dud, and I have a very hard time believing the star of Gentlemen Broncos is up to the challenge of spinning shit into gold.

On the plus side, the fact that Ceremony feels like the world’s longest third act would make it perfect for the second bill of a double feature with The Vampire’s Assistant, the world’s longest first act.

Full Disclosure: I won’t pretend Ceremony doesn’t make me bitter. Based on the script—which is garbage—I get the impression Winkler doesn’t fully understand how to tell a dramatic story. If he doesn’t understand that, not only does he fail as a writer, he will fail as a director (because, yes, he is directing it). So it’s evident that talent didn’t land him the opportunity to write and direct a feature film starring Uma Thurman and Lee Pace. Luckily, he has a father who merely has to pound the jukebox known as the film industry, and somebody of dubious merit finds himself in charge of an entire motion picture. I’m cool with nepotism as long as the person benefiting has some measure of skill. I don’t think that’s the case here. (No hard feelings to his dad, though. I grew up idolizing Fonzie and have really enjoyed his oddly twisted performances in Arrested Development and Childrens Hospital. Plus, I can’t begrudge a man who wants to help his son out.)

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