I was at a screening of Cinderella Man when it happened.
In an early scene in that film, Russell Crowe, who portrays '30s prizefighter Jim Braddock, gives his daughter his only slice of bologna. "I had a dream last night where I ate a big steak," he explains to the little girl. "I'm stuffed. Can you help me out?" We are in the middle of the Depression. The little girl is starving. And Russell shows he is man enough to forego his own breakfast for the sake of his child. It's a touching moment; many in the theater are tearing up. And then, suddenly, right there at Mann's Chinese, some idiot begins giggling, and then yells at the screen: "Ha! You see! Save The Cat!"
I am ashamed to report the idiot was moi.
It's not that I wasn't swept up in the drama. It isn't that I can't get emotional at the movies anymore. But I am a working screenwriter, have been for twenty years, and I am a devoted slave to cracking the code of what makes movies work. I have even written a book about it. It's a little bestseller with the humble title of Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need. And I can't help looking for movie moments that reinforce what I talk about in my primer. Believe me, there are plenty of them. A movie like Cinderella Man is chock full.
The "Save the Cat!" scene is that moment when the hero does something that makes us like him. And watching Russell fork over his last slice of Oscar Mayer is just such a scene. Its purpose is obvious: We like Russell because of it. And we'll be rooting to see him win. There's a classic "Save the Cat!" in Aladdin, the Disney movie, when Aladdin hands over the pita he just stole to two starving kids in an alley, and one in Sea of Love with Al Pacino, when Al lets a parole violator go because he's with his young son. It's usually right up front, right when we meet the hero. And it's in all movies that work, or where the screenwriters know what they're doing (it's even in Pulp Fiction). Get the audience in sync with the plight of the guy or gal onscreen, and you are off to a good start. Fail and perish. And even if a movie "does well," i.e. my pet peeve, Lara Croft, the absence of a good "Save the Cat!" makes me say: Why care?
It is one of many rules I have in my book and even current moviemakers could benefit from what I've got codified there. Cinderella Man suffers, and I think failed to do well, because of two things that I discuss directly. #1: Bad title. As a title, Cinderella Man sucks. Is this about a gay boxer? Are slippers somehow involved? And even though it is explained in the movie, and makes perfect sense, it's a turnoff, man. You'll find a discussion of this phenomenon right up front in Chapter 1 of my book called "What is it?" #2: There're aren't many laughs in Cinderella Man, a topic I discuss in a chapter called "What's Wrong With This Picture?" in a section called "The Emotional Color Wheel." Cinderella Man is one-note emotionally. All the scenes play the same: heavy. And while Russell Crowe is not known for light comedy, a little lightness could have gone a long way in making the film seem less preachy. The filmmakers could have benefited from seeing a few Farrelly Brothers flicks, masters of "the emotional color wheel," and who despite being outrageously funny, pepper their films with scenes of human foible, fear, lust and romantic longing. Let's not even discuss Stuck on You. But you get the idea.
I shout a lot of things at the movie screen these days, giddy that the proven rules found in my book are being used all the time. "You see! Whiff of Death!" I yell during Elf when Will Ferrell contemplates suicide on the Verazano Bridge. Whiff of death being that moment in the film, usually page 75, when a part of our hero, or his world, dies. "Wa-hoo! Pope in the Pool!" I scream during Pirates of the Caribbean when we get the back story on Jack Sparrow from two funny guards; "Pope in the Pool" is a favorite story in my book -- and a great example of how to bury exposition. We screenwriters need to know how to do that for sure. And while I'm just the guy naming these tricks of the trade, someone, other professionals like me, already use them. Knowing that the craft of screenwriting will always need such sleight of hand, makes me think there are more snappy rules to come. My screenwriter buddies and I are discovering them all the time.
And I am not alone - not anymore.
Since my book came out, in fact, I think this fad is starting to spread. I was in the theater the other day watching Batman Begins,right when the ninjas appeared at the finale, I could have sworn I heard a lone voice in the theater shout: "They can't do that! That's Double Mumbo Jumbo!"
It's enough to make a moviegoer cry.