LABOR OF LOVE
April 14th, 2004
Script Review: LABOR OF LOVE
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.
I recently took a look at M. Night Shyamalans third script (which predates THE SIXTH SENSE), titled LABOR OF LOVE, and thought Id take the opportunity to give you the full oeuvre (that so few know) of this supernova-status, behemoth of a writer-director.
Most people dont realize that THE SIXTH SENSE is not M. Nights first movie. It was actually his third.
His first script was WIDE AWAKE. When the funding for this movie fell apart, he banged out PRAYING WITH ANGER, the story of an Indian-American who returns to his homeland, India, to go to college.
M. Night starred, directed, wrote and produced the film, which no one saw. It was a low-budget feature that made minor noise on the circuits, but did secure funding for WIDE AWAKE.
WIDE AWAKE tells the tale of a fifth grader who loses his grandfather and searches for God. Once again, no one saw the film and it was harshly panned by the critics. Owen Gleiberman of ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY (my favorite critic) said, "It would be difficult to imagine a children's film more stultifying than this inert piffle." "(The young boy is) looking in the wrong movie (for a higher sign)," he says, because, "WIDE AWAKE has no higher power, no dramatic conflict, no characters, no scenes. It's a series of wispy anecdotal fragments Scotch-taped together by (the young boys) lispy-cute narration." He graded it an "F."
Despite WIDE AWAKEs frigid reviews and nonexistent box office take, M. Night was able to sell LABOR OF LOVE for seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars (the cost of PRAYING WITH ANGER) -- the fee including his directing chores.
Once again things fell apart with the studio and LABOR OF LOVE was taken away from Shyamalan. During this time he wrote an adaptation of the famous E.B. White childrens book STUART LITTLE. It was Nights script that got the film its green light and he received first credit on the finished film.
It was at this time that Night wrote the movie he would become famous for. THE SIXTH SENSE. Disney bought the script for 1.25 million dollars. Gave Night the opportunity to direct (without a hit under his belt) and let him leave the script untouched. Joe Roth pushed Bruce Willis into the film. And the rest is cinematic history (with a nice wad of change in the bank for everyone).
The reason I write this is that WIDE AWAKEs dismal showing at the box office was so humiliating to Night that hes disowned it. He told Howard Stern on his radio show that you "must give the first one away" (referring to THE SIXTH SENSE and how hell make much less money than the studio). The truth is -- THE SIXTH SENSE was actually his third.
M. Night Shyamalan has now made the highly anticipated UNBREAKABLE, for which he was paid ten million dollars (half for writing; half for directing). Bruce Willis will be good in anything he does. But the fact that they have Sam Jackson looking like the original Shaft (dressed in a long leather coat and funky afro), when his character is a shy person who would never be flamboyant, scares me.
And now lets talk about LABOR OF LOVE.
Maurice and Ellen Parker have an argument while eating in a Chinese restaurant early in LABOR OF LOVE. Ellen is having doubts whether or not Maurice loves her anymore. He never shows her, she says. He only says it.
Maurice says, "Would I walk across the United States for you? Yes."
It sounds like just another throwaway line. But its not. This is the plot to the script.
Ellen is in a horrible car crash (a drunk driver hit her) and she dies. Maurice is grief-stricken and lost. His wife is dead and hes not entirely sure she knew the love he had for her.
So, he decides, hell live up to his line in the restaurant about walking across the U.S. (from Philadelphia to Pacifica, California to be exact) and takes off.
Though the plot is enormously gimmicky, this is a story where there really is no plot. The script is forced to be anecdotal by its very premise. The script is going to exist on the road. And it will live and die with who he meets and what he runs into.
So while Night committed himself to writing the script, it doesnt look like he had any idea what to do with it.
Reading this script is like being lost without a map: the scenery is repetitive and appears never to change; you get frustrated easily; and its all quite tiresome.
Its apt that Id include a review for an earlier work by Night that said it "(had) no scenes." I feel that way about this. A tremendous majority of the script is nothing more than Maurice walking on highways. The only change is the weather and his physical deterioration.
Road movies are commonplace and banal for the most part these days. And I can understand Nights reluctance to write in that genre. But if he didnt want to embrace it he basically shot himself in the foot. Because the material can be nothing else.
The problem is that Night had all the time in the world to set up a special relationship between Ellen and her husband. Instead he shows us them fighting for a while and then kills her off (she actually dies in the opening and we flashback two weeks earlier). To justify this mans pain (he nearly kills himself making this trip) we should at least see why hes doing it. From what we can see, though they were having a bit of a spat at the present, this was a pretty happy couple. (The only downside for the wife was that Maurice wouldnt have kids.)
Its impossible not to think of THE STRAIGHT STORY while reading this. They are more or less the same "tender-hearted, warm" fable. In that case we have an old man traveling by lawnmower, on a quest to see his ailing brother. We only need to see Richard Farnsworths aged, battle-scarred face to know why hes making this trip.
And while David Lynchs THE STRAIGHT STORY had its heart deeply set in sweet familial love and loss, it knew it was nothing more than another in a long line of weird road movies. "Look at our old man as he meets a runaway, or a family that takes him in, or a fellow vet."
LABOR OF LOVE would like to be a romantic, sanguine version of Bergmans WILD STRAWBERRIES. Where a man takes a road trip -- but the road were really on is the one in his mind.
But Night will never commit to it. And while we should be spending most of our time in flashbacks with young Ellen and young Maurice (this should be structured in the same way the beautiful WHAT DREAMS MAY COME was), Night instead stuffs the film with drunk hillbillies who beat Maurice close to death, a car accident, Maurice taking a spill down a slope and cracking his ribs.
Maurice has a reporter friend and the story gets picked up by his local paper. Soon the story goes national and he makes the cover of the NEW YORK TIMES. Even this isnt handled well. Why, you have to ask, if they know what route hes traveling on, wouldnt they send a camera crew out to him to film him while he walked? Hes not hiding what hes doing. So just send out a small crew and grab an interview. It happens all the time when people do this type of thing for charity.
These scenes of Maurices growing popularity are all setup for the ending and dont even rise to the level of Forrest Gumps just-for-the-hell-of-it jog cross-country.
Since Night doesnt have a clue what to do with the story it all gushes out of control and falls into abject silliness.
Night springs the cheap ploys of cheap ploys. Maurice, you see, is sick. If he continues his walk he could die! (Dramatic sting.)
He gets out of the hospital. Struggles to make it to the beach his wife considered heaven. Hes bleeding profusely and his body is giving in. People on the highway notice him and word spreads that hes back on the road. Throngs of people show up. The cops move in. Its a near riot. M. Night gives no reason why this goes on. First off, I dont believe a crowd of this size would assemble this fast for a minor celebrity like Maurice. And the cops would be derelict in their duty if they didnt stop a man who was clearly killing himself.
When Maurice cannot take another step he looks to the heavens and says, "I failed you again, Ellen." Failed her? Did he? He made it to California (just not the exact location). He walked there. Would this woman be so selfish shed want him to die just to make it to a beach she mentioned twenty years ago? Were supposed to be caught up in his profound devotion, but its brainlessly ludicrous. Hes still a young man with family. His wife may have been the most important person in his life. But she wasnt the only one. Would his wife want him to commit suicide in her honor?
M. Nights scripts have all been about the loss of a loved one. In WIDE AWAKE the little boy loses his grandfather. In THE SIXTH SENSE just about everyone in the cast has lost someone, and, in the surprise finale, you find out weve been watching one of the lost, and the person who lost him, without even knowing it. In UNBREAKABLE Bruce Willis and his wife have lost each other emotionally and it takes a spectacular event to reunite them.
Here the loss is at its most explicit. And its most phony. I cant say I find anything enlightening in Nights work (so far). But the sadness displayed by the people in his movies has seemed real and genuine. In LABOR OF LOVE it feels like a contrivance -- something to create a plot.
M. Night Shyamalans strength as a writer is his ability to come up with great stories. Big-time, oh-wow ideas. But he fails himself as a writer. I thought THE SIXTH SENSE had a great story, but the execution doesnt hold up. The dialogue is prosaic and the characters are dull. Same goes for UNBREAKABLE. It has a truly intriguing story line but Night squanders it to give us a boring action scene lifted from LETHAL WEAPON.
LABOR OF LOVE doesnt even have a good story going for it. But, even so, Night still neglects it because he sends this guy out on the road but doesnt give him anything to do.
M. Night Shyamalan talks of the studio men who overtook LABOR OF LOVE as if they were bad-guy bullies who snatched it away while he was having a fun time with it.
He should be happy and thankful. He moved on to THE SIXTH SENSE and superstardom. Had he made this movie his career would have been over.
-- Darwin Mayflower.