Monday, March 17, 2008

Twisting the Formula

It turns out that my agent wasn't sitting around twiddling her thumbs, waiting anxiously to leap on this book the moment I send it to her (imagine that!), so I gave myself the weekend off and am planning to do my final read-through today. Good thing, since I developed a killer headache over the weekend. It was as though I sprained my concentration muscles. Seriously, it felt like when you haven't exercised in a while, and then you take a tough exercise class. The way your muscles feel the next couple of days is the way the muscles around my head felt. It doesn't help that my neighbor is doing renovations, and the power saw is set up by my windows. The only thing that saved the workmen from being put through their own saw yesterday was the sunny day, since bright light also didn't help the headache and I didn't want to go outside. I was on the phone with my mom this morning explaining the headache, and she was all worried that it was a sign of a greater health issue, and then the saw kicked in again and even over the phone she knew exactly why I had a headache. We're supposed to get rain or even storms today, so that should stop the sawing (is it bad if I cross my fingers and hope that the power tools attract a lightning strike?).

So, as I said Friday, I saw Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, and I absolutely loved it. It was almost as though someone found an old, unreleased screwball comedy from the late 1930s in a vault somewhere in Hollywood, spiffed it up and put it out on the market today. It had that kind of tone and flair to it, and it even followed a lot of the screwball comedy patterns, while putting a new twist to them. The only hints that this movie was made for 2008 instead of 1938 were a bit more nudity than you'd have seen in the 30s (but still in more of a teasing manner than raunchy) and the hindsight we have about what happened next in the world. The specter of World War II looms over the movie, adding some weight to the fluff, and I don't think they had any idea what was about to hit them in 1938, not to be able to use that the way this movie does. (I didn't notice in the movie when it was supposed to have taken place, though I suspect there were clues in the newspaper headlines we saw. I didn't pay much attention to those, not enough to then be able to look up dates for the events. I have a feeling it was meant to be 1939, but I was going with the 1938/2008 just to make a neat parallel rather than specifying the date of the movie.)

Brief teaser blurb: A down-on-her-luck governess desperate for a job filches the contact information for an employer from the agency that refuses to place her again, and finds that instead of the job being for a governess, it's for a social secretary to a flighty American actress who is trying to "socialize" her way to stardom. The governess spends one life-changing day caught up in the whirl of the actress's life as she juggles men and decisions about her future.

Frances McDormand was brilliant, as always, and I'd love to see her get another Oscar for this because she did such a brilliant job of balancing poignancy and humor. Even in some hilarious moments, she never let you forget that she was this close to sleeping on the streets. Amy Adams could have been Carole Lombard reincarnated as the actress, all wide-eyed and breathless, and not the least bit innocent. Throw in Shirley Henderson, who makes fabulous use of that unique voice of hers, and Ciaran Hinds. And then there's Lee Pace. I love him in Pushing Daisies, but in this, slightly scruffy and doing a British accent, which seems to drop his vocal register to a near-growl .... swoon. (I did look it up to make sure he was doing a British accent and not actually yet another Brit doing an American accent on a US TV show, and it turns out that, like me, he's an Oklahoma native who ended up in high school in Texas after living overseas. Cool. We could start a club.) He does the sad-eyed yearning look better than just about anyone.

I came out of the theater with my cheeks hurting from grinning too much and my eyes red and puffy from crying, which is the very best way to leave a romantic comedy. It managed to be all fluffy and effervescent on the surface while still having a lot of depth and meaning to it. Plus, great music, fabulous costumes and gorgeous Art Deco settings. I want to see it again already, I know I'll be buying the DVD as soon as it comes out, and now I want to read the book it's based on. But it also made me think about how you can work within established genre patterns while still giving the patterns a twist.

The classic screwball comedy was essentially a Depression story -- the down-on-his luck or struggling working man got caught up in the whirl of a wacky heiress who didn't know where money comes from, and she learned a lesson or two about the world from him while he ended up moving up in society by being with her. It was kind of a reverse Cinderella story that was meant to validate the working man while possibly making the upper-crust think about how the other half lives.

Though, if I'm going to get pedantic about it, Cinderella wasn't about a working-class girl moving up in the world by marrying a prince. It was about a mistreated upper-class girl being elevated above those who'd abused her. There were only a couple of fairy tales in which true lower-class girls got princes. The vast majority of tales involved poor young men who gained a kingdom by marrying a princess, so I guess the screwball comedy was actually just reflecting fairy tales instead of twisting them. They were made before Disney made some of the tales more famous with his movies, so it's possible that audiences then would have been familiar with that more common pattern and recognized the screwball comedies as essentially fairy tales set in modern times.

Even the classic screwball comedies threw twists into the formula. Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby was a professor, which isn't really "working class," but he was still in need of money, not for himself but for his museum. Then in My Man Godfrey, the bum hired as a butler was actually the victim of mistaken identity playing along with it. In The Philadelphia Story, Jimmy Stewart's "man of the people" reporter taught the wacky heiress a thing or two, but she ended up marrying someone from her own class.

Miss Pettigrew puts a spin on the formula by making the down-and-out working class hero a woman, and the focus of the story is the friendship that develops between her and the "heiress" character instead of a romance. There is still romance, for both characters, and both of those subplots reflect the screwball comedy patterns (one of them in a gender reversal). Meanwhile, our "heiress" character isn't actually much better off than our down-and-out heroine. It's a great example of how you can use an existing framework, then give it a fresh look by turning one or two elements around in a way that affects the whole story while still being true to the original genre.

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