Kill These Cliches, Please (Or: Why ‘Wonderfalls’ is Kinda Awesome)

Posted: September 9, 2009 in Jeff Holland, reviews, Threat Quality
Tags: , , , ,

sunshinecleaningHoward Hawks on what makes a good movie: “Three good scenes, no bad ones.” Which made me wonder what he have made of Sunshine Cleaning, a movie where you can fast-forward through long stretches of it and still not be the least bit surprised when you finally hit the play button again.

It’s got a good cast (Amy Adams, Emily Blunt, Steve Zahn and Alan Arkin) and a solid, immediately interesting premise (a maid-service worker starts her own business cleaning up crime scenes) with tons of true-life professional anecdotes to draw from.

But instead of cracking open the Google and doing two minutes of research on this very fascinating profession and the people who might take it up, first-time screenwriter Megan Holley uses it as a backdrop for a parade of worn out movie tropes that bear no resemblance to reality.

Let’s run down a list of its clichés and why they just don’t work, in hopes that they go away for a while:

1. The hard-luck protagonist running into a high school acquaintance, who doesn’t realize asking a person in a cleaning uniform “So what are you doing nowadays?” might be clueless and demeaning.
In the movies: It is meant as an ego blow to remind the character she’s far from her youthful dreams.
In reality: People I know who don’t keep in touch with people from high school, do so for a reason – they don’t relate to those people anymore, and likely don’t care what those people might think of them.

2. Wacky grandpa who treats grandkid like age-appropriate buddy.
In the movies: Grandpa’s young at heart, and the kid is wise beyond his years.
In reality: Adults babysit kids all the time, but don’t necessarily treat them as colleagues. To do so might signify mental impairment of some kind.

3. Mismatched siblings – she’s hardworking and industrious but with low self-esteem; she’s hard-partying and acerbic but doesn’t fit in!
In the movies: It sets up a dichotomy that will reach a crisis point in act II, and then be resolved with a tearful understanding that they are a) more alike than they realized, or b) don’t need to take care of/be taken care of anymore.
In reality: Most people I know aren’t 180 degrees away from their nearest sibling – most of them, if they get along and spend time with each other, actually have a lot in common, and are kind of fun to observe because of that ingrained familiarity.



4. Fringe characters who say weird shit out of the blue, like “You have really nice veins – you should give blood.”
In the movies: This is a lonely person in need of the transformative power of friendship with the lead character, who will in turn be affected herself.
In reality: If a stranger said this to you in an elevator you would punch her in the throat for fear of being attacked.

5. Female protagonist whose chief flaw is sleeping with a married man.
In the movies: The lead character is displaying flawed decision-making capabilities, making her more realistic and relatable to the audience.
In reality: If you were close with someone who was involved with a married person, you might be able to understand the complicated nature of the relationship. But if the first thing you learned about someone was, “Oh, she’s sleeping with a married man in motels,” you’d probably think, “That’s a terrible idea. What kind of stupid-ass masochist is this?” Which might not get you in her corner.

6. Grownups with serious attachments to cheap candy and other childhood items.
In the movies: It signifies that they’re still in touch with their youthful spirits.
In reality: You’d get into a bitter shouting match with someone who insisted that different colored Smarties had distinct flavors. Alternatively, you’d both be pretty damn stoned.

If sitting through Sunshine Cleaning taught me anything, it was how much I had taken the short-lived TV series “Wonderfalls” for granted. Because that show – from the pilot on – actually HAD a bunch of these clichés involved, but tweaked them into something new and actually essential to the story.

High School Friends: Gift-store clerk Jaye sees an old acquaintance who brags about her engagement, then asks if Jaye “ended up over-educated and underemployed, like [her] yearbook quote.” And Jaye matter-of-factly explains that, yes indeed, she graduated with a Philosophy degree from Brown and just now got passed over for a management position by a teenaged mouthbreather.

Children: Jaye interacts with kids at the gift store. She speaks to them as though they are children who wouldn’t know what the hell she’s talking about.

Mismatched family: At first glance, Jaye’s family does appear totally different. Dad Darrin is a positive-thinking power-Republican, mom Karen is elegant and soft-spoken, sister Sharon is aWonderfalls high-strung attorney, and laid-back brother Aaron is working on his second PhD (even the names separate the lead from her family: Darrin, Karen, Sharon, Aaron, and…Jaye). But they all share a sense of humor and worry over each other – to the extent of not really seeing their differences as all that profound. In other words, you can easily believe these people grew up around each other.

Kitschy Kid Stuff: Animal souvenirs start talking to Jaye. Does she think it’s cute or whimsical? No. She immediately takes it as a sign that she’s had a complete nervous breakdown.

Married Men: There is a tentative romance developed with a married man – except the married man is going through a horrible breakup that’s completely shattered his sense of self.

In “Wonderfalls,” potential clichés instead become real people, useful story fodder, and integral background elements. If you can recognize what’s worn out in the overused tropes, it’s possible to repurpose them in order to tell a new kind of story. (And yes, “TV and movies are different formats with different story requirements.” Hell with that – if Bryan Fuller had wanted to turn the 40-minute pilot into a 95-minute movie, he would have already laid all the groundwork AND subverted six movie clichés in the first 30 minutes alone. Filling out a plot would have been an afterthought at that point.)

So kindly skip Sunshine Cleaning, and grab the 13-episode “Wonderfalls” series. The pilot to which, by the way, contains at LEAST three great scenes, and no bad ones.

  1. Tad says:

    Smarties do have different flavors! Your whole premise is flawed. Flawed, I say!

    After all, its on wikipedia, it HAS to be true.

  2. V.I.P. Referee says:

    It does seem the last 10 seasons of film have produced many “who are these people?” kind of characters. The groundwork is always there; class expectations, education-related cliches, mannered/stylized quirkiness, obvious irony, self-destructing relationships. But it rarely connects. They’re just problem fantasies–glamorous fantasy about human disorder. And characters are always divided into two camps; intellectuals with a lack of loyalty to their partners or simpler folk who have only that. Sort of like the notion that all Liberals are without morals and all Conservatives are without intellect.

    Excess quirkiness might also act as a vulnerability safety-net, something flashy to distract from any flaws; “Oh, that wasn’t a blooper, we were in on the joke the entire time.”

  3. V.I.P. Referee says:

    You don’t say, Tad. I won’t even bother with any extensive “Wikipedia” research, since you wouldn’t spread misinformation about such an integral part of any 1980’s childhood, would you?

  4. Tad says:

    I also learned that Canadian Smarties have stronger flavors, but you can only get those in the states around Halloween when domestic Smartie production lags behind the Smartie demand.

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