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Script Review: THE BIJOU

by Darwin Mayflower


(09/18/00)NOTE: The screenplays we review are often in development and may experience many rewrites, some could end up being completely different than what is reviewed here. It is our hope that our reviews generate more interest in the film. Thank you.

I think Frank Darabont is a popular writer because not only is he talented -- his story is one all writers have to love. For years he was, no offense to the man, a B-movie director and script fixerupper.

But then his path crossed with one of his favorite authors, Stephen King, and he got the rights to Kings beautiful novella RITA HAYWORTH AND THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (this was after he made a small film based on a short story by King). Darabont was, amazingly (and thanks to Castle Rock), able to direct the movie on his own, without interference, and also had the inspiration of inspirations: he cast Morgan Freeman (one of the best actors to ever grace us with his redoubtable presence) in the movie.

The movie didnt make money, but Darabont sailed from B-movie director to A-list writer-director. His next film was another King adaptation: his change-nothing telling of THE GREEN MILE, starring Tom Hanks. The movie has made over one hundred million dollars and so now Darabont is not only a man who can deliver a crowd-pleasing, Oscar-magnet film...he can make one that takes in the important dollar bills.

Whats interesting about Darabont, if I may digress (and I love to, thank you), is that hes still a writer at heart. Darabont rewrites as much as, say, Robert Towne. And hes good at it. He rewrote more of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN than he lets on. Namely the first half an hour of the film (which is, of course, the best part of the movie). Hes still taking assignments from billionaire heavyweights Spielberg and Lucas, though, at this point, hes as much of an "artist" (a.k.a. "accomplished director") as they are.

SHAWSHANK and GREEN MILE were films with deep emotional cores and deal with teenagers-flipping-the-channel issues like friendship and spirituality. Having said that, I was taken aback when reading the script for Darabonts next directing gig (he rewrote based on an original script by Michael Sloane). We expect something more from Darabont -- not simpleminded slag -- but his new film has a plot so silly its almost...a sitcom.

I guess I shouldnt be too surprised. For two reasons. I read that Jim Carrey is going to star. And Ive read an original script by Darabont called A STITCH IN TIME and it was really nothing more than an action film with an intricate, twisty time-travel plot. So Darabont, it seems, for all his heady King adaptations, when on his own, goes more for the popcorn flicks of little thought.

THE BIJOU takes place in 1951. Hollywood was disrupted at the time by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Screenwriters, actors and directors were dragged in, questioned, labeled communists and then unable to find work. And in some cases even went to jail.

To "name names" has become a punchline now, but it was an ugly time. Many despised the committee, but to denounce it publicly looked as though you were somehow supporting communism and that, obviously, was something no one wanted to do.

THE BIJOUs main character is Peter Appleton. A successful screenwriter whose life couldnt be going better. Until hes called before the committee, that is. When his agent breaks the news to him his entire world falls apart. His girlfriend (an actress) leaves him; a movie he wrote set to go before the cameras is shut down; any income he planned on is only a fond memory.

Pete gets drunk, like all good despairing movie characters, drives blindly, recklessly careening onto a bridge without a guardrail, and crashes his car into the fast-moving river below it. (Darabont has him jerking the wheel to avoid a possum. Good, different choice of animal. But wont we accept him crashing simply because hes two-bottles-of-Jack drunk? Burtons BEETLEJUICE has a nice spoof of this cliche.)

Pete somehow swims to safety. He wakes up the next morning in Lawson, California (pop. 1755). As the town sign says: THE TOWN THAT GAVE ITS ALL. Seems despite such a small amount of people living here, quite a few of the young men who went off to fight in WWII didnt make it back. The number is so great that Harry Truman himself ordered a monument built for the town.

The bedraggled and wounded Pete enters the town and our plot kicks in: apparently Pete, persecuted screenwriter from Hollywood, looks just like local boy Luke Trumbo (who died in the war). Because of the accident, Pete cant remember who he is. (I can hear Elmore Leonard moaning in my head, "Not another amnesia movie. Those are the worst.") Harry Trumbo, Lukes father, throws common sense out the window and announces that his dead son is back. The town falls quickly in step with Harry and as far as theyre concerned -- Lukes back.

Any idea where this is going?

This is softball material. With recurring little jokes and a cute relationship between Pete and Lukes old flame Adele. Harrys father runs a movie theater, the Bijou, that hasnt been open since Luke was announced KIA. Most of the movie is a long, sickly-sweet montage of how Pete rouses the good spirits of the town and helps to rebuild the theater and bring back the "dreams" movies inspire. Darabont (and Sloane) can write. No doubt about it. Darabonts aching yearning for old Hollywood burns on the page when talking about the old movie palaces and how going to a new film was an event you got dressed up for. Harry Trumbo is Darabonts mouthpiece and gets off a good monologue or two about the virtues of making movie-going special.

But still, folks, this is a PATTY DUKE episode. With the Un-American Committee selfishly thrown in for added heft. Its like DOC HOLLYWOOD straining to make a point.

There are all the inevitables: the town final finds out the truth and they feel betrayed (at first, anyway; they come around, of course); a media circus erupts in the small town; Adele has to decide if she fell in love with Luke or Pete; Pete is put before the committee and ooooh, boy, does he let those men hear what hes got to say.

Right down to the aw-shucks mawkish ending Darabont freely whacks every hackneyed notion right on its head. I might not object to this so stridently if it embraced its anorexia and didnt fight so hard to be important. I, personally, dont feel real-life human tragedy, especially such a bewildering, hurtful (not to mention scary) one like this, should be used in insignificant, lightweight material.

If Darabont wanted to make a short, crowd-pleasingly unambiguous flick where you know whats going to happen and wait for it because the people onscreen are people you like -- well, then, hes got one here. The town is filled with colorful, quirky folks (as all small movie towns are) and theyre charming and the relationship between Pete and Adele (rediscovering something that was never there) works.

But I guess I just cant get around the nugatory material (it reminded me a lot of THE SIMPSONS episode where Principal Skinner/Armin Tanzarian comes home from the army and assumes the identity of another man and lives out his dreams), which uses an event (which got a better workout in THE FRONT) to combat its own attempts at frivolousness.

I say Darabont should leave this plot to someone like Nora Ephron and make another movie that not only entertains but also makes us think.

-- Darwin Mayflower.

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