Winter 2008–2009

Screenplay Pitch for An American Plaice

Coming, perhaps, to a cinema near you

Tim Davis

Sketch for a poster for An American Plaice. Image Alicia Puglionesi.

We see Gutsy Housewife (Holly Hunter) noticing something new. The chilled counter is featuring American plaice, a fish she’s never heard of, whose fillets look flaky and light, and might just fail to offend Ty and Babe, her fraternal twins. Ty is fat and jovial; Babe, lean and severe, but neither of them will sniff at fish. It is the ‘80s in America and the Library of Congress has just changed its subject heading for “Macaroni” to “Pasta.” Yuppie foods are appearing on shelves; people wrap their mouths around “mahi-mahi,” “polenta,” and “wasabi,” like they were exotic strains of flu. Gutsy Housewife is recently divorced and keen to feed her kids deeper meanings. The Grocer (Chris Cooper) is cute, divorced-looking, a little ragged around the edges, but solid, clear-eyed and thorough, the kind of man you’d be happy to find in your life raft. He offers her a recipe for plaice featuring something called a “cardamom glaze,” which she snatches with a flirty whack.

Ty and Babe love the cardamom-glazed plaice. They ask for it night after night and Gutsy Housewife observes their lives transforming as they start staying home to cook rather than huddle playing Dungeons & Dragons with acned local boys. When the Grocer is invited to dinner, he smiles utterly radiantly, insisting he’ll bring the plaice. Frenzied house cleaning to Fleetwood Mac. The twins produce a raspberry chocolate torte; the table is set with a center garland of autumn bittersweet.

When the Grocer shows up, he is kissed furtively and hard by Gutsy Housewife on the front landing. Their suburban cul-de-sac is misty after a late rain, and they both look around at the unlikely setting for such a romantic effusion. She sneaks a look at his hands but finds them empty. “Let’s all sit down,” he insists with a twinkle. “Have you heard of ‘overfishing’?”

Here’s where our Kramer vs. Kramer goes Little Miss Sunshine on its way to Pirates of the Caribbean. The Grocer is not a grocer, but an agent of “Project Hayduke,” a radical cell of environmentalists named for George W. Hayduke, the leader of Edward Abbey’s Monkey Wrench Gang. The American plaice is ecologically fragile, they are told, and is quickly being fished out. “Your nuclear family atom is split,” the Grocer entreats them, “join us and shine again.” Frenzied packing to Kenny Loggins. Little Babe hangs a “Gone Fishin” sign on their door, as Ty loads Blondie, their pet chinchilla, into an idling Vanagon.

Gutsy Housewife looks good sweating in The Gobbler’s hold, and her choir training helps her find acceptance among the diverse and muscular radicals. As they polish brightwork under a moody dawn, she sings their altered sea shanty:

And it’s roll, roll, Gobblers roll
Them Japanese driftnetters got us in tow

The Haydukers are gaudily eclectic and habitually underfunded. Before leaving port, Pere Jules (Bruce Willis), the crusty first mate, teaches Ty and Babe a bit of fundraising. They approach seaside tourists who are alternating photographing one another and offer to take their picture together. The twins wave them back, wave them back, into the scene, and then disappear down the port’s tiny alleys to fence their booty. On the high seas, this family, so dissolute in the suburbs, throws itself into its work. The kids, once too timid to vacuum up after the chinchilla, swab the decks with the passion of converts amid nautical perils. And perils there are! A hail of gelatinous material, which Pere Jules calls a “goonami,” blankets the ship. Three-beaked octopi clamor on board. A neocon mole is found among the bunch, morsing their coordinates to Interpol. Dinner is tofu.

Shipboard romance can run from African Queen to Dance, Fools, Dance, depending on the state of PG-13. See moonlight on the waves, and kisses to bazouki music. See jealousy from sexier, younger, more committed mates. But when their white whale is spotted, a Japanese fishing trawler scooping up holdsful of plaice in protected waters, elaborate and freewheeling unity breaks loose. A good old-fashioned naval set-to is staged for easy translation into theme park rides. The twins swing in on enormous ropes, and deploy the chinchilla to chew through the trawler’s electrical cables. The captain, a jovial, bearded former restaurateur (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) bellows Puccini while trying to ram the offending vessel. Evasive action leads to a video-game-tie-in-ready chase amid icebergs. The fishing ship is rammed, and as its sailors climb into life rafts, the camera pulls back to find Pere Jules and the twins signing an oath in blood. The two young actors didn’t know it at the time, but the prop oath was a bona fide contract for three sequels.

Tim Davis is an artist and writer living in Tivoli, New York, and teaching photography at Bard College. His most recent solo shows, “Kings of Cyan” and “My Life in Politics,” were at Galerie Edward Mitterand in Zurich and the Luckman Fine Art Center in Los Angeles, respectively.

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