Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The new "pizza bomber" movie: Disingenuous dissembling and, Why were the screenwriters only "vaguely familiar" with the real-life incident that inspired their story?

There is a new movie opening Friday called "30 Minutes or Less," which is apparently about a pizza delivery man who is conscripted into committing a bank robbery. Here's the synopsis from IMDb:
Two fledgling criminals kidnap a pizza delivery guy, strap a bomb to his chest, and inform him that he has mere hours to rob a bank or else...
I'm not sure where the "30 minutes" comes in, unless that's a reference to the old and discontinued Domino's Pizza guarantee of delivering a pizza within 30 minutes or it's free, if the pizza delivery guy has "mere hours" to rob the bank. But then, I'm not some bigshot Hollywood bigwig.

Anyway, I am in no way motivated to see this film. This piece of promotional artwork doesn't help matters:

So it's apparently about two retarded people, one very dazed person, and one person who is possibly a robot. It all looks very feebogzh to me.

But to some people, it's more than just feebogzh. It's also in questionable taste.
Remember the harrowing, horrifying real-life tale of Brian Wells, the pizza delivery guy forced to wear a live time bomb locked to his chest by a metal collar while robbing a bank in Erie, Pennsylvania? Well Columbia Pictures went and (sort of) made a comedy about it.
Waitasecondwhat? There actually was a pizza delivery guy who had a bomb strapped to his chest while he robbed a bank? Yes, there was.
Handcuffed and tethered to a bomb, pizza delivery man Brian Douglas Wells sat on one of the city's busiest streets and wailed for help.

"Why isn't nobody trying to come get this thing off me?" he screamed to police. "It's going to go off. I'm not lying. Did you call my boss? I'm not doing this. This isn't me."

Police had just arrested him on suspicion of robbing a bank. Officers backed off after they noticed the bomb, and they called the bomb squad. Wells sat on the street that afternoon, Aug. 28, handcuffed for nearly 30 minutes.

At 3:18 p.m., the bomb exploded, killing the meek, gentle man who did not appear to have a criminal record.
This was in 2003. Apparently, some local kids used the incident as inspiration for their trick-or-treating outfits:
Barely two months after Wells was killed, his family had to deal with the image when numerous Erie children were seen trick-or-treating in homemade "pizza bomber" costumes complete with oversized shirts and fake bomb collars.
That kind of stuff happens, I suppose. Human beings are morbid, and fascinated by the macabre. At least, I am. Maybe I'm projecting. Anyway, it seems pretty clear that the artists behind this new film took their inspiration from this bizarre 2003 crime.

Or... did they?
A spokesman for Sony's Columbia TriStar Motion Picture group says the filmmakers and stars knew nothing about the Wells case, though he acknowledges the screenwriters were vaguely familiar with it.

The screenwriters haven't responded to requests for comment through their agent.
That Sony Columbia TriStar Motion Picture group spokesman really earned his money that day. The stars knew nothing about this case that made national headlines, but the screenwriters were "vaguely familiar with it." That is some world-class dissembling right there.

They were either familiar with it, or they weren't. How is one "vaguely familiar" with something? Most especially a screenwriter, writing a screenplay, about an incident that is almost exactly like the one about which you're writing? If these people were only "vaguely familiar" with a real-life incident that closely parallels the premise of their screenplay, then Sony Columbia TriStar Motion Picture group should sue the hell out of them for dereliction of screenwriting duty. How do you write a screenplay about a pizza delivery guy who robs a bank with a bomb strapped to his chest, and only be "vaguely familiar" with a real-life incident in which a pizza delivery guy robbed a bank with a bomb strapped to his chest?

At the very least, the screenwriters should have been passingly familiar with the incident. That is screenwriting 101. Or, maybe screenwriting 104. It is a basic foundation of screenwriting. Write what you know. Research.

The actors are also weighing in, for what that's worth:
[T]he movie's stars Aziz Ansari, Jesse Eisenberg and Nick Swardson say there's no connection to the real-life tragedy.

"I think if you watch the movie, you know it's not based on [Wells]," Ansari, 28, told Us Weekly at 30 Minutes of Less' premiere Monday in Hollywood. "It's about normal guys who were forced to rob a bank, and I don't think we are poking fun at any kind of tragedy."
Mr. Ansari is making a semantic argument. Maybe it's not "based on" Wells, but it certainly seems to have been inspired by the story of his death. If Mr. Ansari wants to get into a semantic argument, I can do that, too. I haven't seen the film yet, but I can tell you from the trailer that it certainly does "poke fun at any kind of tragedy." Take a look at the trailer:

You'll note about a minute into the trailer, the Jesse Eisenberg character, the one with the bomb strapped to his chest, has gone to visit his friend, portrayed by Mr. Ansari, at a school "filled with young children." It is Mr. Ansari's character himself who points this out.

Is there nothing more tragic than the deaths of young children? A bomb going off at a school would be a terrible tragedy, and clearly this film is "poking fun" at that idea.

So, Mr. Ansari is being disingenuous in his dissembling. As for the other actors:
Swardson, 34, said he "would never make something disrespectful to [that] guy or his family" but finds the controversy surrounding the film "bizarre" and "blown out of proportion."

Eisenberg, 27, reiterated his costars' sentiments. "When [we got] this script, we saw it as these fictional characters put into this insane situation," he said.
More semantics. "Disrespectful" is in the eye of the beholder. And, yes, the screenplay is about fictional characters in an "insane situation." The question is, was it inspired by a real-life "insane situation"? As Oscar Wilde wrote in The Picture of Dorian Gray,
It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.
The family of the pizza delivery man killed during the commission of this bank robbery saw in the premise of "30 Minutes or Less" a reflection of Brian Wells' story. Wells' sister, Jean Heid, sent an email of complaint to the Associated Press. The Associated Press wrote a story about it that has been picked up by several different websites. The "controversy" about the film might be "blown out of proportion," but it is human nature to blow things out of proportion. That's hardly "bizarre" -- if you don't believe me, try getting on an airplane sometime without being groped.

Ultimately, anything is fodder for art, whether it is tragic or beautiful. If we try to make the world safe for the most sensitive of our fellow citizens, then we'll be left with no art at all.


A.Jaye said...

No comedies about 9/11 yet? No Osama Bin Laden trick or treaters?

Sorry Wells and family. You just don't count.

Anonymous said...

Wells was in on it. Barnes pleaded guilty in 2008 and admitted Wells was involved. One reason why he only received 45 years while the third accomplice received life plus 30. Also, as a pizza delivery guy, I have come up with this scenario without ever having known about the real life incident or movie.