April 8th, 2004
Script Review: FLORA PLUM, written by Steven RogersReviewed by Darwin Mayflower
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.
For my money, there is no sequel more disappointing than HANNIBAL. (Yes, Im including BRIDE OF RE-ANIMATOR.) Not because SILENCE OF THE LAMBS was that great (I think its overrated, nothing more than a good entry in the serial-killer genre and not deserving of an Oscar for Best Picture), but because no film that rallied the talents of Julianne Moore, Anthony Hopkins, Ridley Scott, Steven Zaillian, John Mathieson and Hans Zimmer should be so resoundingly awful.
A bigger shock to fans than HANNIBALs emptiness was that SILENCE star Jodie Foster dismissed a fifteen-million-dollars-or-more paycheck and refused to reprise her Oscar-winning role as beleaguered FBI agent Clarice Starling. (Jodie said that HANNIBALs Starling "wasnt true to the character"; this isnt Jodies call to make -- its author Thomas Harris, who created Starling from his fertile brain).
Jodie opted instead to direct the flick FLORA PLUM. A period piece about circus performers. Starring Russell Crowe and Claire Danes. The interesting side to this is that it ended up not mattering: Russell re-hurt his shoulder and production of FLORA shut down. Jodie went on to take Nicole Kidmans role in the David Koepp/David Fincher movie THE PANIC ROOM (the script of which, unlike others, I liked).
I dont find it shocking that Jodie turned down HANNIBAL; I do find it shocking that she turned it down for FLORA PLUM.
Steven Rogers script is set in the 1940s. Young Flora Plum, sedulous and eager to please, shows up out of the blue at her uncles circus tent. She claims her father died of cancer and she has no place to go. Shes in the way and useless (though hardworking) but her uncle (whos now slow after a circus-related accident) and her aunt (called Manly Vera) let her tag along with their nomadic circus team out of pity and familial loyalty.
The gaggle of performers has its share of oddballs: the midget, the contortionist, etc. The performer that catches Floras eye is The Beast (a.k.a. Jake), a haunted man whose talents are underappreciated (at his lowest he is made to act in a freak show because his body is covered in coarse hair).
As fellow outsiders, Jake and Flora build a bond. When Jake is told he has to shape up or be gone (his act "bores the old folks" hes told), he and Flora practice a routine that will entertain (the way the "sexual" trapeze performance does) and insure Jake isnt tossed aside like unwanted trash.
The script is made up almost entirely of their courtship. That could work (as it has before), but in FLORA PLUM thats its biggest flaw.
FLORA PLUM has absolutely no sense of time, place or character. Theres really no point in setting it in the mad-dash world of the circus because we never see any of it. FLORA PLUM could be set basically anywhere. Besides one great early scene where we see how terrible the strain of the performers is up close (as opposed to the defanged version from afar), we dont seem to be in hands that know anything about the traveling circus life. I dont mind Jake and Flora being the centerpiece; thats the only way to go in this story. But I do think its a total waste not to at least indirectly delve into the lives of the other people we see. Its not enough to just dash off who they are by showing us a quick scene of their peculiarities. I can only imagine the wealth of material that must exist about circus folks. Not to get into this -- not to even give us a glimpse of how these people live -- is a huge mistake in my eyes.
Jakes character is unsure of himself and strong physically though weak emotionally. Flora unlocks him. Even shaving his body as a birthday present and allowing Jake to see himself as human -- not a freak -- and someone who can actually walk among the normal. Jake doesnt act on his feelings for a long time, however, and FLORA PLUM becomes excruciatingly redundant. Jake and Flora have endless conversations in different never-seen locals. Jake doubts himself. Flora reassures him. Jake gains confidence and then loses it. Flora tells him not to give up. And so forth. It doesnt help matters that Rogers writes odd, awkward dialogue. "Once I squeezed in right between those two show girls. Know what happened? They squeezed me right out. I was so mad I wanted to tear their hair out. Scalp em like an Indian. But I didnt. Theyve each got a scalp just like everybody else."
What FLORA PLUM resolves into is a period-piece circus-themed version of ALL ABOUT EVE. We find out Flora isnt who she says she is. She uses a false identity and a false history to ingratiate herself into the fold because she is desperate for fame. In the end she sacrifices love for money. This could have been interesting, maybe (or at least broken the monotony), if only Rogers had revealed her motivation more cogently!
While I was reading FLORA PLUM, I got to thinking. Thinking about Julia Ormond, and how Id like to see her in a movie since its been so long since she was in anything. I thought how my daughter has an extraordinary knack for art (totally natural, not inherited from me or my wife). I thought about my beloved New York Yankees. I thought about friends I have living in the Middle East. About the merits of pure storytelling and human knowledge (Tolstoy) versus style and pizzazz (Fitzgerald).
What I didnt think about was the translucent plot. Or Flora. Or The Beast. Or anyone else I was reading about. It was totally uninvolving.
The final nail in FLORAs coffin is its so-old-it-makes-me-weep structure. The umpteenth documentary-style bit where throughout the film people are shown interviewed or we hear them in voice-over. TO DIE FOR worked this to perfection. Woody Allen has been doing it forever and it was effective in SWEET AND LOWDOWN. But at this point its used out of laziness. For no other reason than to cram more info than the author thinks he can get in with a straightforward narrative.
I can only see one reason why Jodie Foster agreed to make this movie. Flora Plum is a goofy, smart, diligent young woman who wants to hone her talents and make it big. I suppose Jodie can identify with that, being a goofy intellectual herself. (Her first directing gig, LITTLE MAN TATE (written by Scott Frank), was about a shy child-genius: are we seeing a trend in her main characters?)
At this point Jodie is as famous for her intellect as her acting chops. She is, I think, one of our most gifted actresses; no one else burns as fervidly, or realistically, with brilliance (as in CONTACT) as she does.
But shes only a director this time. Her style as a camera-wielder is competent, of course, and I have no doubt in my mind Jodies input will improve this script tremendously.
Steve Rogers style as a screenwriter is sloppy. In spelling, punctuation, dialogue, structure, motivation, setting, even stage direction. If an un-agented, novice writer handed this script to me Id not only chide him on entertaining his audience but on simple presentation.
Ive never read STORY, and Im not one to get into defining characters in a specific paradigm or emotional arcs, but this script, as a more pretentious man might say, has no second act. Flora arrives, hooks up with Jake, they practice for a while, and then its straight to the finale. Theres nothing bridging Floras training to her Big Deal Showcase at the end. It seems obvious that Floras true identity and the antics of her circus pals would be ideal to fill in this time. But, alas, deals have been finalized.
For FLORA PLUM the movie to have any chance of working its going to have to expand greatly on this screenplay. Rather than the multi-location spectacle of traveling circus life that it should be, its a one-set play about a Beauty and a Beast.
I can only hope that Jodie Foster adds a bit of her magic to this project and enlivens it. Even if that means pulling back its skull and handling its brain. Its been done before...with marginally effective results.
Otherwise this is going to be baying angrily in the freak show of forgettable films.
-- Darwin Mayflower.