Reeling your audience in with good characters

There is always controversy when it comes to plot-driven plots, or character-driven plots. When a story is character-driven, the protagonist will drive the movie’s progress, and the audience will focus more on what’s happening with the character than the storyline. The protagonist’s true self will shine with each obstacle (whether internal or external), and the audience will watch conflict managed through his or her actions.

In Kenneth Lonnergan and Peter Tolan’s situation comedy, Analyze This (1999), the audience is reeled into the plot as the credits roll and made aware that something “big” is about to happen.  With the understanding the plot and character are tied together, Lonnergan and Tolan use the emotional and external need of the flawed protagonist, PAUL VITTI to push the plot forward—this is a character-driven screenplay.

Vitti has a problem (here comes conflict).  The once “feared” mobster has seemingly gone soft, and not just in his ability to function as a mob leader in New York, but in his love life too (when it rains, it pours).  For the first eleven minutes in the script, Lonnergan and Tolan take us back in time and reveal the followings:

  1. Dominic Manetta [who is dead] narrates as a montage of news photos flash over the screen.
  2. A big meeting is about to happen between all of the wise guys [Carlo Gambino, included].
  3. Manetta’s voice over continues [who is he talking to?]. “Your father and me, we were goin’ up with Tommy D., Fat Tommy.”
  4. The F.B.I. closes in and gangsters are running for their lives.

The big meeting never happened.  Time spans forward, and Manetta [now in his 70’s] Manetta tells Vitti that times are changing and that he would make a great leader.  The two men are in a restaurant having a meal together. Vitti sarcastically says, “What are we gonna get, a fuckin’ web site?”  However, it is not just about the changes ahead, Manetta made a promise to Vitti’s father before he died—to watch over Vitti.  The mob is going to have another meeting, and Vitti does not want to be a part of it. History repeats itself, because just as he and Manetta start to leave the restaurant, Vitti goes back inside to get a toothpick.  The minute he does, a round of gunfire hits Manetta and his bodyguard, and once again, the meeting never happens.

Twelve minutes into the script and the audience/reader is set up for the introduction of BEN SOBOL, the Jewish psychiatrist that gets pulled into Vitti’s journey of self-discovery.  Sobol’s character brings more conflict into the plot by boldly confronting Vitti while at the same time bringing understanding to the emotional side of his character.  The flawed Vitti does not really get what he wants, he gets what he needs, and this is paramount for his transformation.  For example:  When Vitti cannot perform sexually for his young mistress, he begins to panic (imagine his frustration).  In fact, he ends up at the emergency room, fully convinced that he is having a heart attack, when in fact the doctor assures him that his heart is fine.  He is having a panic attack.  At the same time this episode is going on, Sobol is on his way to a birthday party with his 14-year-old son, Michael.  Sobol is not paying attention and he rams into the back of the mobsters limo, being driven by two henchmen, JELLY and JIMMY.  What Sobol does not realize, is that they have a guy tied up in the trunk.  Naturally, they are not concerned about a fender-bender, especially when Sobol suggests that they call the police!  Obviously, that is not going to happen, but Sobol, who accepts full responsibility for the accident hands Jelly his business card.  This scene sets up Vitti’s need for a therapist, since he is dealing with anxiety.

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Every scene in this screenplay is a comedic situation that continues to move the plot forward.  Vitti is not the only one with problems in Analyze This.  Sobol is a therapist that does not get a long with his parents, he hates his ex-wife, and his son Michael is an eves-dropper, as he continually listens to his father’s sessions with patients through the air-conditioning vent.  The tension only heightens when Jelly shows up unannounced during a session with his patient, CARL ANDERSON.  Suddenly the door opens, and Jelly enters:

JELLY

Dr. Sobol?

BEN

Excuse me!  I’m in a session here.

JELLY

Yeah, I know, I’m sorry.

BEN

You’re … You’re one of the guys

I rear-ended the other night.

JELLY

Bingo.

(to Carl)

Get outta here.

Jelly takes Carl by the elbow and lifts him off the couch.

JELLY

Upsa-daisy. You got a coat, nutbar?

It is an amazing boldness that comes on Ben, as he tells Carl not to leave.  However, the old saying, “Money talks” holds true as Jelly pays him off.  Once Carl leaves Vitti shows up, and this character [though he does not realize it yet] is on a comedic journey to redemption.

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