Yesterday afternoon I saw David Frankel‘s One Chance, a simplistic, made-for-the-schmucks heartwarmer about the struggle of real-life British tenor Paul Potts (James Corden) to find the confidence (and overcome his incredibly bad luck when it comes to accidents and ailments) to become a professional opera singer, which he manages to do in 2007 after breaking through on Britain’s Got Talent. The problem is that we have to hang with a sad-sack, next-to-no-confidence, one-expression Fatty Arbuckle for two and three-quarters acts until he gets it together at the very last minute. Yes, the ending works — it makes you feel good. But this is “populist”, dregs-of-the-gene-pool filmmaking at its most obvious and tiresome.
Potts was at a Toronto party a couple of days ago and was telling a friend that the filmmakers took his same-titled book and exaggerated the hard-luck, doomed-to-fail stuff. “They took my book and they made this movie” was the gist of his comment. Potts didn’t say this in so many words, but this seemed to me like an admission that Frankel and screenwriter Justin Zackham had simplified his life so it would play to the rubes.
Potts’ self-esteem issues came from a rough childhood that included disdain from his working-class dad (played by Colm Meaney) and constantly getting picked on and beaten up by school kids. This is nothing to dismiss or treat lightly. (I know a little bit about low self-esteem issues myself, being the son of an alcoholic dad.) But there’s something about Corden’s glassy-eyed, waiting-for-the-light-to-come-on, almost-but-not-quite-comprehending expression that began to drive me nuts after a while, particularly since he has to play two or three “choking” scenes (i.e., freezing with flopsweat when he needs to perform and deliver).
Showing a character frozen with fear and unable to act or perform at a crucial moment because they’re overcome with emotion is a device that filmmakers have used time and again. The same bit is trotted out in Parkland when Zac Efron‘s resident doctor looks down at the mortally wounded John F. Kennedy on a stretcher and…freezes. Marcia Gay Harden, playing a head nurse, has to goad Efron into action by saying “this is the President.” That shakes him out of it. “Yeah, yeah,” I was saying in my theatre seat. “We’ve seen this shit a hundred times. Let me tell you something, Efron. No semi-competent doctor in the history of the world or of medicine has ever frozen as a bleeding, near-death patient was wheeled before him. Never. Ever. This is horseshit.”
I’m saying this because I’m getting really sick of choking scenes, and if I see another one I’m going to respond rather badly. I’m saying this knowing that screenwriters and directors are going to keep using them willy-nilly for years to come.