Here’s a short lesson on why you never want to make your script into the equivalent of a root canal. Why you always, always wanna make a friend of humor, of laughter, even with the bleakest of subject matter.
I was looking forward to seeing Black Mass. Johnny Depp vs. Daniel Day Lewis is a toss-up for greatest actor around. A look at the trailer showed a harrowing scene around a dinner table with an associate giving up a secret family recipe and Depp as James “Whitey” Bulger, in a complete transformation, comparing giving up that recipe to giving up his friends to the FBI. How could the guy be trusted if he gave up the recipe that easily?
Great scene. There were laughs, it was all a gag, right up the alley of Goodfellas with the “What do you mean I’m funny?” scene. The comparison seems clear enough and my expectations were high, so I actually hit the multiplex to see it. I wasn’t sure why it was getting all these two-star reviews (a 75% on Rotten Tomatoes) but I would find out for myself.
Please note, I’m no critic, but if Whitey Bulger put a gun to my head I’d have to say: Two-stars is about right.
How could that be? Seems like a can’t-miss considering the pedigree of actors and gangster material.
The Goodfellas comparison is useful. At the top of that movie at least through the midpoint we’re laughing. Yeah, these guys are gangsters but they’re “relatable”. We can take a ride with Henry Hill, maybe even sympathize with him. The voice over brings you into his head and he seems like a reasonable, almost working class type bringing home the bacon for his family. And Joe Pesci?! Sure, he’s a maniac, but he’s also funny as shit. We’re laughing with these guys throughout and Scorsese does that on purpose. You get the audience to let its guard down, to bait them in, maybe even sympathize with these guys. It’s not until the body count rises and the desperation and drugs kick in that the laughs drop and hard-edged drama kicks in. But by then, you’re locked in to the ride.
Comedy as a weapon, locking you in. THAT is what’s missing in Black Mass.
There is no light in this movie. No laughter. Oh sure, they laughed at that kitchen table scene, but Johnny Depp’s Whitey Bulger isn’t Joe Pesci here. In that makeup he appears half mortician, half vampire. Absolutely bloodless. In Goodfellas you’d see the boys as family, eating lasagna together, taking trips, shopping, telling jokes and drinking. In Black Mass we get none of that. I see no great love for Whitey Bulger toward his crew or his wife. They give him a love for the IRA as he assembles an arsenal for them that gets grabbed by the FBI. They also give him a love for his son, but only give him two small scenes with the kid before he dies. When that happens Whitey becomes full vampire, totally isolated. His killings are brutal (and actually pretty predictable. Recall the woman getting bailed out of the police station and taken to the apartment. You knew she was as good as dead in the car.) When this happens the audience dials out. At least I did.
Even in the bleakest script you’ve gotta find some light. This flick—aptly-titled—was black, black, black.
When you pay money for a Based On A True story movie (the trailers before this were for Everest, The Wire, The Revenant and Steve Jobs, all true stories—why would I write a Studio or big-budgeted Indie spec script that wasn’t?)…you know the story going in. What you’re paying for isn’t the what so much as the how. We know Bulger had a long run as crime lord, escaped, and was later captured. The question is how that happened. With Johnny Depp in the lead, hell yeah I’ll pay $12 to see that.
But this Whitey Bulger never changes. He starts off as brutal killer and finishes the same way. I need some gray in the character, some light in the story. Tony Montana in Scarface doesn’t change either, starting and ending as killer. So why’s he one of the all-time classic characters? Because there were a handful of scenes in Scarface where we could relate with Tony, where we could laugh at and with him.
Makes all the difference.