This failed in so many ways, but succeeded in others. I will write about it only because Ms. Gyllenhall is worth watching almost anywhere.
Emma Thompson is on my radar because a friend has warned me of her intelligence. Here, you can see she was a tad over qualified. But she doesn’t have the youthful skills of integration Maggie does, so she almost exists outside the film here (which is a good thing given her character). But you still wonder if they should have gone with someone who simply delivered competently.
Now Maggie. Last time I saw her was in the multi-storied Don Roos TV comedy project “Happy Endings”. There is a scene in that film, nearing the end, where she encouters one of the characters of a seperate story we had been following.
Intelligent actors don’t exist in the world of character alone. They understand the world of the script and the nature of their characters as space-fillers of that given space. It is then a matter of the tone they adopt in their projection of the character. Penn does it very well, but he hogs too much space in my opinion. Streep is so precise when she does it that she seems theatrical. Maggie is the new school. The type of detachment that is needed to perform this is inherent to her, she grew up in an age of cinematic irony like most of us kids today.
So if you watch that scene, you’ll see how she places herself in the exact same space, at the exact same distance she’s in, in terms of the scripted seperation between the characters and the different stories. Only after does she inhabit and project the emotionality required. It is clean, it is precise, it is wonderful.
Now on to this. It is a romantic comedy wrapped in a outlook-change pessimistic-optimistic story. The twist here is that the outer story writes the inner story. The ending of the inner story is then put on the line when the pessimistic writer realizes the story is real.
Screenwriters use the story-within-story device to authenticate the general story. The idea is that this added layer of distance places the viewer a layer deeper in ‘watcher’ mode. So by watching a story about watching a story, the viewer’s place becomes blurred and therefore more entangled in the mechanics at work.
So what we really have here is a story about how this device works. The writer/watcher realizes the story she’s been writing/watching is real, she gets involved, and rewrites the ending.
There is only one problem in this story about writing. And it has nothing to do with Maggie who understands her life in the inner story and places herself in the appropriate space. The problem in this story about writing is that it’s… bad writing. The shape is fine, it’s clever. But what fills this shape is thin, already commited, manufactured. I have no problem with where the story is supposed to go, I expect familiar endings. It’s how we get there that bothers me. Here, it’s like the deserts Maggie bakes, sweet, maybe too sweet.