Still Love Banks Script

Early last May I ran a rave review of Kelly Marcel‘s script of Saving Mr. Banks. The name of the piece was “If Saving Mr. Banks Is As Good as The Script…” Well, I saw Saving Mr. Banks in London this morning, and I’m sorry to say that the movie I “ran” in my head as I read Marcel’s script seemed a little better than the version I saw today, which has been directed in a cautious, somewhat rote fashion by John Lee Hancock. I didn’t hate or dislike it. I felt reasonably engaged. It pays off reasonably well at the end. But it tries very hard to please, and you can feel that effort every step of the way. And it’s aimed at the squares.

This isn’t to say that Saving Mr. Banks, which will open the AFI Film Fest on 11.7, lacks feeling or spirit or finesse. It has these qualities plus two stand-out performances from Emma Thompson as “Mary Poppins” creator and author P.L. (i.e., Pamela) Travers and Tom Hanks as the legendary Walt Disney. It will be popular, I’m guessing, with those who love the 1964 film version of Mary Poppins as well as the patented Disney approach to family entertainment. And it may snag Oscar noms for Thompson, Hanks and Marcel. And it may make a pile of money from a blend of family and general audiences. But it’s not my idea of a Best Picture contender…sorry. It doesn’t feel carefully measured or focused or shaded enough to warrant that honor. It’s too hammy, too family-filmish — it approaches a farcical tone at times. And it tries too hard to make you choke up.

The Disney-distributed flick will open commercially on 12.13.

Banks is about Mrs. Travers’ growing discomfort and anguish in seeing her very own Mary Poppins (i.e., a magical but tough-minded nanny she created in a series of stories that were largely based on Travers’ childhood experience in Australia) being turned into a cheerful whimsical Disney musical aimed at kids. The story focuses on a series of tough creative disputes between Disney and Travers over the Poppins screenplay when Travers, who had negotiated a script approval clause when she sold the rights to Disney, visited Los Angeles in 1961 to hash things out.

Travers calls for more reality, flinches at the whimsical lah-lah music and loathes the idea of animated penguins. She expresses these three points again and again. She feels she isn’t being heard and she won’t back off. Like any writer, she wants to protect her characters and mythology. For Travers, Mary Poppins is not about whimsy and fantasy but the difficulties of real adult life and the complex and shadowed fate that awaits all children. For her Poppins is personal and is definitely not about sugar-coating, and so while she needs the money, she despises the idea of turning an obviously fanciful and yet lamenting personal tale into a semi-animated Disney confection.

Marcel’s script conveys an experience familiar to all screenwriters and filmmakers, about the occasional frustration and anguish of translating a work of great personal meaning into a commercial motion picture, and about the dilutions and compromises and (when a family film is being made) sugar-fizz stirrings that are sometimes part of the process.

The movie eventually turns on the fact that the key emotional episode of Travers’ young life was the alcoholic torment of her father, Travers Robert Goff, played in the film by Colin Farrell. I didn’t relate. Farrell is playing a weak self-destructive drunk and we’re supposed to understand and empathize with his daughter not minding this or overlooking it? A drunk is a drunk is a drunk. Generally not “lovable.” Usually erratic, selfish and abusive. Why suggest otherwise? To what end?

Good as Thompson is at playing the frustrated, spinster-like Travers, I didn’t much care for her company. She warms up toward the end but is a bit of a drag for the most part — finicky, a scold, argumentative, a bit slow at times, emotionally blocked. And Thompson seems to play every scene exactly the same way, pursing her lips and crossing her arms and frowning and then frowning a bit more. Plus I couldn’t understand her half the time because of the echo-y sound in the Odeon.

I liked Hanks’ Disney a lot more — an amiable, good natured fellow who gently nudges and cajoles but never argues or confronts. He really is the low-key, easy-going Uncle Walt. And he has a very solid scene at the end when he visits Thompson in her London home and lays his personal-history cards on the table, and explains what movies have the power to do. Will Hanks get nominated for Best Supporting Actor? Maybe but he’s not delivering a blow-the-door-off-the-hinges performance here — he’s just being his usual smooth and workmanlike self.

And what’s with the wig on Hanks’ head? He and the real-life Walt have/had roughly the same hairline so I don’t get it. And why didn’t Hanks drop a few pounds before the cameras rolled? Walt never had a chubby face.

The supporting players were all apparently told to stick to the same two or three emotions through thick and thin. Paul Giamatti as Travers’ chauffeur — warm, kindly, patient. Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak as Mary Poppins songwriters Robert and Richard Sherman — earnest, anxious, a bit afraid of Mr. Travers. Bradley Whitford as Mary Poppins cowriter Don DaGradi — mostly confused and depleted by Mrs. Travers’ intransigence. Ruth Wilson as young Pamela’s mother — unhappy, frustrated, depressed. Kathy Baker as Tommie, a Disney executive and Walt confidante — anxious, perplexed.

I can only repeat that Marcel’s wise and intelligent script was one thing and the movie is a little different. The screenplay seemed like an emotionally poignant adult-level dramedy that was amusing and yet “real” in a low-key way — it was written with a certain comedic tension but it seemed to unfold in a more or less natural, semi-believable way. You could sense the hand of an adult (i.e., Marcel) taking you through it. Saving Mr. Banks, the movie, feels a lot broader and more on-the-nose.

Marcel’s script and the movie version of Saving Mr. Banks are nominally one and the same, and so both use the same flashbacks to Travers’ childhood in early 1900s rural Australia. (Naturally.) But somehow the Australian material (roughly 45% of the script) felt a little more shaded and water-colorish on the page whereas the screen version of this material feels less subtle and more “performed” — as if this portion is being pushed rather than happening on its own terms.

You think I’m happy about giving this film a comme ci comme ca review? I’m not. I flew a long way to see it a bit earlier than most. I’m not sorry I came (I love London) but I wish it had done more with the potential I saw in the script.

  • Joe Leydon

    OK, I don’t really expect an answer to this question because, really, there’s no way you could know the answer to this question. But don’t you think your reaction to this film might have been different — maybe VERY different — if you HADN’T read the script ahead of time?
    If nothing else, your review reminds me why I never read scripts before I review movies.

  • http://twitter.com/JordanWellin Alvy Singer/Songwriter

    Sorry to hear that $1,500 flight to London just to see a movie wasn’t worth it in the end!

    • http://2012diaries.blogspot.com/ tristan eldritch

      I gotta admit it, your name made me guffaw some.

  • daniel23

    Thank you Jeff, for spending the time and money to see this ahead of time so we could read your review. Even if it was a mild disappointment for you, HE readers reaped the benefit.

  • Mr Bohemian

    was julie andrews to old to play the female leed

  • Gautam Anand

    Basically, it isn’t the movie people were expecting it to be which means Best Picture still remains a two-way race between Gravity and 12 Years A Slave. I wonder if anything can come close to both of them. May be American Hustle, but honestly I don’t think it will.

  • cinefan35

    So, Wells wasted a lot of his own time and money both in reading the script and in flying all the way to London just to see a single film?

    • Mechanical Shark

      Well, it’s understandable given that he’s a hardcore middlebrow movie fan who read and loved the script, and wanted to be able to tell everyone what a wonderful movie this would be. Except that it didn’t turn out to be all that and a bag of chips.
      Also, given that Wells is nominally in the Oscar watching game, attending this was practically mandatory.

    • Morpheos

      Shouldn’t it be up to him to decide if he wasted his own money?

  • http://www.imdb.com/name/nm3769949/ thatpj

    LOL @ the overhype of this film. Did everyone forget it was directed by John Lee Hancock?

    • Pete Miesel

      John Lee Hancock is so bland he makes Ron Howard look like Quentin Tarantiono

  • Hunter Tremayne

    Both Variety and Hollywood Reporter reviews highly positive. As long as it makes money, this is a sure-shot for a BP nom, along with noms for Thomson and Hanks.

    • Morpheos

      I wouldn’t call the THR review “highly positive”. It’s just positive.

  • JoeS

    I’ll still see the film, but, I can’t say I’m surprised having watched the trailer a few times.

    Yes, I know trailers can be deceptive or poorly done, BUT, nothing in it leads one to believe that BANKS was anything but a soft-sop up the middle.

    Some of the “surprise Best Picture” talk was curious to say the least. We’ll see once a broader spectrum of critics is heard from.

  • JR

    I also don’t get the “read the script” ahead of the film fetish that Jeff and others have. But going to London to see this movie was an awesome thing to do, so thanks for that.

  • Great Scott

    This review has me convinced this will win Best Picture. Good but not great middlebrow just like King’s Speech and Argo and The Artist.

  • Phineas T. Prune

    Ms Kluft says ” Tell Jeff this is he doesn’t get to have nice things.”

  • Richard Groper

    Who the eff even bothers mentioning that they read the script beforehand? The casual reader here on HE hasn’t even got access to the script, so it’s very elitist to even mention it.

  • azmoviegoer

    I jumped the pond and all I got was this mezzo-mezzo?!

  • Vinci_Smetana

    Great review, Jeff. I’m sorry to hear you didn’t like it as much as you wanted. My personal take is that seeing a film after reading the script confirms, denies, or adds context to what one’s initial feelings were. See nothing wrong in it. I enjoyed Rush the movie just as much as after reading the script.

    Was Thompson’s lack of an accent ever explained? Travers immigrated to England in her 20s.

  • hupto

    I hate to break it to you, but countless “for the squares” and “family-filmish” pictures have won the BP Oscar.

  • Brian Bouton

    Man, oh man. This piece plays well in conversation with your high school post. Imagine those kids who mocked you hearing you flew to London just to see one film while most of them toil away in the salt mines. Too bad you can’t go back to high school-era Jeff to say it gets better.

  • http://modage.tumblr.com/ modage

    So… it was pleasant?

  • Mr. F.

    Any movie review that says “It’s not as good as the movie I imagined in my head months ago when I read the script” should automatically be ignored.

    Look, your actual review does make some good points. But you need to judge the actual *product* by itself, or at least compare to similar films… not compare it to some phantom film that you dreamed up. How does the movie work on its own terms? I get a sense of that from your review… but that’s it.

    It’s like saying you want to live in the blueprints for your new house rather than the house itself, because they made you think the house would be “better.”

  • waxrhapsodic

    Jeff, as an adult who, like you, stepped away from the booze I get where you’re coming from with the “drunk is a drunk is a drunk” line. But when you’re a kid and your parent is an alcoholic, that’s what you see as normal. And I know from personal experience a parent can be a raging drunk, without being erratic and can often be lovable.

    As an adult you may realize the behavior as more selfish and destructive that you may have being raised that way, but you don’t know what you don’t know as a kid.

    If the portrayal is a function of Travers’ memories, and her desire to save Mr. Banks, the portrayal makes perfect sense.