There was a time in the late eighties and early nineties when it seemed every Hollywood studio had a comedy in the production pipeline in which a luckless schmo either swapped bodies with or was reincarnated as a woman, a child, or (in the best case scenario) a rich old guy.
The drama got dialed up a titch as our protagonist discovered that the body swap was an impediment to rekindling a romance with a former love (Chances Are) or igniting one with someone new (Switch). At heart though these were comedies played veeeeery broadly, frothier than a venti cappuccino—their charm directly commensurate to the chemistry and charisma of the stars.
Then four years ago Sexy Beast director Jonathan Glazer made Birth—a reincarnated-soulmate-story for the arthouse crowd. A dark comedy disguised as a psychological thriller, Birth cast Nicole Kidman as a widow who is at first amused and eventually hot for a ten-year-old boy who claims he’s her dead husband.
Birth examined reincarnation skeptically and yet more seriously than any of its predecessors. It was the first film of this type to acknowledge that if your dearly departed were to return as someone under the legal age of consent you’d be processing more than boatloads of grief and a few awkward encounters—you’d be having a freakin’ nervous breakdown.
Glazer shot Kidman’s world in still, chilly monochromatic gloom and set her moods to a writhing orchestral score. He gave her a pixie cut that channeled Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby and surrounded her with crusty Upper East-siders who thought reincarnation was ridiculous but great dinner party chatter. The film hit all the right notes (droll, suspenseful, creepy, even, uh, romantic) without turning reincarnation into a gimmick.
Bill True, I’m afraid, hasn’t been so lucky. In his script Incarnation, the local screenwriter tells the story of a grieving husband who has been on a cross-country mission to find the seven-year-old girl who he believes is the reincarnation of his late Indian wife. When he thinks he’s found that girl, he instead falls in love with her mother and is pursued by an FBI agent who is convinced he’s a child molester. If True gets his supernatural romantic thriller greenlighted, I hope he’s paired with a visual stylist as savvy as Glazer and with actors as gifted as Kidman. He’s gonna need it.
True previewed his Incarnation screenplay at the Ritz Theater last night as the latest installment in The Screenwriter’s Workshop ScriptNight series. Staged reading is one way of describing ScriptNight, but that conjures up a rather tweedy image for what’s really a fun night of barebones theater. The actors recruited to read Incarnation were a coterie of recognizable local talent (Aditi Kapil, Ansa Akyea, and Prairie Home Companion’s Sue Scott) and two weathered film/TV vets from LA, Chris Mulkey and John Ashton.
Film director Dean Lincoln Hyers, who hatched Incarnation’s story with True and also directed last night’s reading, warned the audience that what we were about to hear was a script (the fifth draft, True tells me)—not a movie. And that bears repeating here. Depending on the casting choices, the budget, and the behind-the-camera talent, True’s screenplay could become ten very different movies. The problem is, right now it feels like all ten of them.
True is clearly aiming Incarnation for the commercial multiplex market and that demands a certain adherence to genre conventions (the car chase, for instance, though True adds a horse). We also shouldn’t be surprised by the playbook of familiar character types—the lonely cop obsessed with catching his prey but haunted by his own loss, the single urban mom beaten down by alcohol/drugs/poverty/a bad man and reluctant to love again, and the sweet seer-like little girl who is the key to it all.
No one of these elements in themselves suggests a broken script. It’s that the screenplay piles on so many of them and none convincingly enough. Our widower protagonist collects evidence against the single mom’s drug dealer ex and pretends to be a lawyer to help her win back custody of the girl. There’s a silly flashback to his visit to a Hindu temple where he receives a prophetic message that helps him narrow his hunt for his wife. And there are lots of scenes of riding, communing with, and talking about horses that just seem so hokey I can’t imagine any filmmaker actually pulling it off.
Two characters, the dead wife (who we visit in flashbacks) and the FBI agent on our widower’s trail seem particularly thin, indistinguishable outside of the broad outlines of their character types. The single mom doesn’t fair well either but she has the advantage of more screen time.
Really, though, won’t this ultimately be about performance, tone, and the discipline to tell one story, just one, really well? It seemed to me a very thin line that kept a film like Birth from being ridiculous. Let’s see what’s in store for Incarnation.