The Fairy Godmother Technique


Cinderella Godmother

"Don't cry. Your Fairy Godmother is here."

I’m still trying to digest the ending of The Tourist (2010), which I watched  just this past weekend. The problem isn’t that it was unexpected or implausible. In fact, one could make an argument that is was both. However, it was just too damn easy from a screenwriting perspective. The problem here is poor craftsmanship.

If you haven’t seen the movie and don’t mind having the ending spoiled, this is what happens:

At the movie’s climatic showdown, we find Elise (Angelina Jolie) and Frank (Johnny Depp) cornered by four armed gangsters in the living room of a lavish Venice apartment. Frank, the proverbial hero, wants to protect and save Elise, who, as the classic damsel in distress, is being held hostage by the mafiosos. On the rooftop of surrounding buildings, snipers stand by. What do the mobsters want? They want the combination for the vault, or course, but neither Frank nor Elise is capable or willing to tell them. As the stakes get higher and the suspense intensifies, the resolution of this scene betrays craftsmanship.

How so? Well, the snipers finally receive orders to shoot. As they fire, a slo-mo effect lingers on the screen… Surreal… Silent… It’s almost as if the filmmakers want to make sure that we really understand what’s happening. Well, we do. It’s crystal clear. But that’s just not what we want. As I mentioned in my review of The Tourist, what I really wanted to see was the drapes of the living room being slide shut by the gangsters. Leave the snipers out of this, and let Frank and Elise find a way out.

By poor craftsmanship, we mean carelessness and negligence – a lack of professionalism and skill towards creating the scene the movie deserved. The filmmakers were remiss by allowing those snipers to fire. We wanted to see Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp – two of the most famous and prolific actors of our generation – find a way to overcome that precarious situation without external intervention. What if the drapes were shut already? Would they have died? Would the cleaning lady be guilty for the killing?

What the filmmakers did was evoking the Fairy Godmother. Remember Cinderella (1950)? When all is lost, the Fairy Godmother comes to her rescue.  In both Cinderella and The Tourist, the natural progression of a well-crafted narrative brings the main character to a situation of distress and helplessness. Bringing the Godmother works in fairy tales but is unacceptable in serious, grown-up movies. In the The Tourist, the Fairy Godmother was wearing a bulletproof vest and holding a rifle instead of wand. Not really congruent, is it?

Well, the purpose of this post is not to vent my frustration. Rather, I want to alert screenwriters and directors of some pitfalls that can be overlooked. There’s no telling whose fault was it, so let’s not point fingers. After all, it’s Christmas Eve’s eve.

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