This week the Roundtablers sneak into the Crime genre and make off with a rather poor impression of the 2007 caper comedy Mad Money, written by Glenn Gers and directed by Callie Khouri.
This film is about three women, Bridget, Nina and Jackie, who steal money from the Federal Reserve Bank in Kansas City.
Bridget Cardigan lived a comfortable upper middle class life until her husband Don was “downsized” from his position. The couple sink heavily into debt and Bridget, who had been a stay-at-home mom, is forced to go back to work. With no marketable job skills, the only work she can find is with the Federal Reserve Bank as a janitor.
On her first day on the job, Bridget hatches a scheme to steal worn-out dollar bills slated for destruction. For her team she chooses Nina, who works in the shredding room, and Jackie, who takes bill carts from the Secret Service room to the shredding room.
The plan is this: In the Secret Service room Bridget will switch the official Master-brand lock on a cash cart, with a near identical lock she’s purchased at Home Depot. Then, she’ll tell Jackie the cart number and give Nina the official lock. When Jackie gets the chosen cart, she takes some bills from it and dumps them into the trash before bringing the cart to Nina who replaces the bogus lock with the official bank lock and proceeds to shred the remaining bills. Meanwhile, Bridget, in the course of her janitorial duties, retrieves the dumped bills from the trash.
Their first robbery is a success and they repeat their scheme amassing untold fortunes and eventually bring one of the bank’s security guards in on the secret.
Eventually, authorities get suspicious. Although the women (and their significant others) try to destroy the money, all but Bridget are arrested. She hires a lawyer who gets everyone off the hook for their crimes, provided that they forfeit all remaining stolen cash.
Eight months later, Bridget reveals to Nina and Jackie that she had, in fact, stashed away much of the stolen money. The film ends with the three women squealing and tossing cash into the air.
The Editor’s Six Core Questions
Want to learn more about the Editor’s Six Core Questions? Check out our Story Grid 101 episode.
1. What’s the Global Genre? Crime-Caper – Kim
In the Crime Genre, the Life Values at Stake are Justice & Injustice, with the spectrum being as follows.
A Crime story begins with, you guessed it, a crime, builds with an investigation of the crime, and pays off with the identification of the perpetrators. It is resolved with the perpetrator/s being brought to justice or getting away with the crime. Interestingly in this story, they do get away with the crime. And Leslie has some great information to tell us why that is, in just a minute.
In this specific story, the subgenre is Caper, the story is told from the POV of the criminal and focuses on committing the crime. It begins with an opportunity for a crime, builds with the preparation for the crime and committing the crime, and pays off with a close call on getting caught (possibly a double cross, so someone does get caught) but someone will get away with it.
In crime stories, the core emotion is Intrigue. People choose a Crime Story to experience solving a puzzle and keeping the world safe, without the risks faced by the sleuth or cop, or in this case the criminal.
Shawn lists some other examples of caper stories for us: Ocean’s Eleven and Sexy Beast. I know several of my fellow editors here did not enjoy this movie, but I enjoyed it. It’s been 10 years since I’d seen it, and I think I may have enjoyed it more this time around. I realized all my favorite crime stories are caper/heist stories: The Italian Job, Heat, and The Score. And I used to work in banking (as a compliance officer / auditor) so I like all the nerdy bank references.
Leslie: Caper stories caused me some preliminary head scratching because crime stories are about justice and injustice, yet these stories end positively when the protagonist-criminals get away with their crime. What’s up with that? I decided to get to the bottom of it.
Like the noir story, we analyzed in season 1, Double Indemnity, the caper is a crime story from the perspective of the criminal. Capers explore what drives ordinary people to crime, how we define justice, and at least in the US, the lengths people will go to in pursuit of the American Dream. (More on this in conventions below.) (Compare the caper with the heist story, which is similar but usually involves experienced criminals.) As opposed to looking at the dark and gritty side of injustice as in Noir, capers employ comedy to distance us from the emotions evoked by financial insecurity. Modern caper stories employ irony, as in O Henry’s story “The Ransom of Red Chief,” and are inspired by elements from the tales of Robin Hood. Given this provenance, I would identify the typical range of life value as starting with the negation of the negation, TYRANNY and moving to the positive value POETIC JUSTICE.
Kim: Internal Genre: Status-Sentimental? It was interesting to look at because in this case, we have ordinary people who choose to switch to a crime, so it seems like maybe it would be Morality, but it’s not Punitive because they are not punished. There are moments of testing, or at least what appear to be testing, when Bridget appears to be leaving everyone with the bag and during the interrogations when it anyone could roll on the others at any time. They never give up their loyalty to one another and that seems to be an important element here, and maybe of caper stories in general. It seems like in order for an audience to accept that you’re going to get away with the crime, you have to show you’ve “earned it” by being morally sound in other ways. But the testing element doesn’t really appear until the end, so it doesn’t feel substantial enough to the be the internal. So if it’s not morality, than it seems like it must be Status — they all start out in financial need and lacking in tight-knit relationships, and by the end they are wealthy with tight-knit relationships (with each other, with their spouses). The group seems to act as mentors for each other, which forges loyalty, which is the key their rising in their circumstances to SUCCESS. (changing their definition of success, choose to give up the money but stay true to one another?)
Valerie: Kim mentioned that the core emotion is intrigue. For me, this is one of the areas that Mad Money really missed the mark. I found it utterly predictable and was not intrigued at all.
Anne: One problem is that the story only moved from unfairness to some version of restitution.
2. What are the Obligatory Scenes and Conventions of the Crime story?
Conventions of Crime-Caper Story- Leslie
Caper conventions are best understood in light of the ideas these stories explore: what drives ordinary people to commit crime, how we define justice, and, at least in the US, what lengths will people go to in pursuit of the American Dream?
Bridget says, “Crime is contagious. … People can catch it from each other, and when they catch it, they change, and then they change other people. The truth is, we’re all capable of anything. You don’t want to believe it’s true, but it is.”
MacGuffin – The villain’s object of desire, but also the key to their plan. How does hero-villain inversion in a caper affect that? Not much. The tyrant-antagonist and criminal-protagonists both want cash, though the security needs behind the desire for the cash is different. Glover wants the cash until it’s properly destroyed because he needs the Federal Reserve Bank to be a “totally secure environment.” The protagonists want the cash because it represents financial security for the things they need.
Red Herrings – Because the story is told from the perspective of the criminals, we see them set up the red herrings, and the payoff is about whether law enforcement (the tyrant) will be taken in by the red herrings or when and how they will be discovered.
Making It personal – Glover needs the Federal Reserve bank to be a totally secure environment. This creates an interesting payoff in the end because he would rather let the protagonists get away with theft than admit that his system had been compromised.
Ticking Clock – We learn that a bank examiner is on to the protagonists. It’s only a matter of time before they are caught, so they believe they must get rid of the money, fast.
Sub-Genre specific conventions:
Type of protagonist(s): Typically a clever “everyperson” with an audacious plan and an ensemble cast of misfits or lovable rogues. The motive is usually to gain financial security and right a perceived injustice, but there is a sense that they are in it for the challenge as well.
Circumstances: The protagonist(s) lack financial security, often because they have been the victims of a crime at the hands of the tyrant or a similar figure. Each member of the cast possesses a unique skill or has access to a vulnerable source of wealth. They can’t pull off the plan unless everyone does their part. The plan is audacious, and the crime, beyond their skills. The crimes are usually thefts or swindles (rather than murders).
- Bridget is the clever leader with an audacious plan. As a cleaner, she has access to the empty money carts (to change the locks) and the trash (where the money is dropped when pulled from the carts). She is financially vulnerable because her husband was downsized, they are in debt, and she doesn’t possess marketable job skills in the then-current economy. Her motive is to pay off her debt, but clearly she enjoys the thought that she’s the only person who’s come up with such a clever plan and pulling this off under Glover’s nose. [Post Great Recession, I don’t think this character is very sympathetic, even if she might have played well before 2007. More on this below.]
- Nina has access to the keys for the money carts. She is financially vulnerable because needs to keep her sons from getting caught in the criminal justice system that isn’t fair to African-Americans. She’s a working-class single mother who wants cash to send her sons to a safe school outside her neighborhood where her sons can get a quality education. [It’s hard to square her devotion to her sons with her willingness to risk prison, which would leave them alone, even when it’s Queen Latifah playing the role. Keep in mind that in a novel, a great actor can’t save a story that doesn’t work.]
- Jackie has access to the money carts. She is financially vulnerable because she is young, working-class, and has early-onset diabetes, but she’s not even unhappy with her lot in life. She agrees to the plan immediately and says, “Why not?” [This seems unsatisfying to me. Even if she is a carefree character who will sign up for anything and isn’t concerned about consequences because she doesn’t have a social position (like Bridget) or children (like Nina) at stake, she should want something badly for the audience to relate to her, which is why I don’t think this role works as well as it would if she had a clear want and need.]
Type of antagonist: Villain-hero inversion creates the need for bumbling or corrupt law enforcement officer(s) or a greedy tyrant as “victim” of the protagonists’ plan (or both) so the audience can sympathize with the criminal-protagonists. Law enforcement is presented as bumbling and powerless because they can’t prove that the cash in the protagonists’ homes came from the Federal Reserve Bank. Glover is the “greedy tyrant” victim. Objectively, a person in his job wouldn’t be unreasonable for wanting tight security, but he’s presented as an obsessed voyeur, so we won’t feel sorry for the women getting the best of him.
Style: Comedy. Capers are lighthearted stories that aren’t “intellectually challenging” and in which no one gets hurt (at least not too badly).
The main difference between comedy and drama is that in comedy, the gap between expectation and result must be funny. To make it funny, according to Robert McKee, is not to add clever lines and gags, but to focus on the turning points by taking the result to an off-the-wall extreme. The ensemble cast of misfits in a caper makes for great tension and humor because their differences annoy one another, and they must work together to pull off plan. The story seems to promise a somewhat serious tale dealing with serious challenges for people delivered with irony and some humor. What was delivered by the end was slapstick humor that was zany and silly. This is fine if that’s what you telegraph at the opening. But the link between the styles at the beginning and end were too different to support a connection—without a story-related reason for the shift.
McKee also notes that comedy allows the writer more leeway in narrative drive (“the forward projecting mind of the audience”) to include scenes that are solely for laughs. He also says that comedy tolerates more coincidence than drama and even deus ex machina if (1) the protagonist has suffered (according to the audience’s standards) and (2) the protagonist never gives up hope.
How well does the movie deliver? Bridget certainly never loses hope, even when the others are ready to give up, so the movie meets the second condition. As for the first, Bridget’s upper middle-class lifestyle doesn’t evoke much sympathy, but the multinationals “merged her husband out of a job” (in other words, powerful corporations are further up the food chain and misfortune in this story is relative), her husband keeps her in the dark about the extent of their debt, her neighbor is condescending about her husband’s job, and Bridget suffers age discrimination when she seeks employment. Is that enough? I think it depends on the audience, but the suggestion is planted in the opening that the audience member might do something like this, too, under certain circumstances. (FWIW, the film broke even in theatres and doesn’t get much love in critical or audience reviews.)
Obligatory Scenes – Anne
An Inciting Attack by the Villain – Since the villain is presumably the economy or big corporations, I think we can say that the inciting “attack” is the recession that causes Don Cardigan to lose his job, triggering Bridget’s sudden discovery of latent criminal genius. But to the other two characters–Nina and Jackie–it’s when Bridget gets a job where they work.
Hero sidesteps responsibility to take action – Nina is the only one who sidesteps. She says no to the concept of robbing the Federal Reserve twice–once in the parking lot and once at her house–before reconsidering..
Forced to leave the ordinary world, Hero lashes out – I feel like this happens out of sequence. Bridget is forced to leave her comfortable world, but she never sidesteps responsibility, and the only lashing out I could see is the decision to solve her problem with crime.
Discovering and understanding the villain’s object of desire (Macguffin) – Is the villain law and order now? The big corporate villain doesn’t make another appearance, so let’s go with the villain now being the head of security. His his object of desire is clearly to be known as Mr Security. Why he goes around explaining the security protocols in detail is a mystery UNLESS his desire is to be seen and known as a leader in the security trade.
Hero’s initial strategy against villain fails – The women’s strategy succeeds until past the midpoint, when, as Bob says in the framing story, “one tiny screw” drops into the the supposedly perfect machine. This is when the key falls down the drain. The delay arouses the suspicions of the well trained security guard, and the entire strategy has to change. They co-opt the nice guard into the scheme.
Realizing they must change their approach to salvage some form of victory, Hero reaches All Is Lost moment – We know from the outset that they all get arrested, so the All is Lost Moment seems to happen when we–and the other five characters–learn that Bridget has betrayed them all…or so it seems.
The Hero at the Mercy of the Villain – When the bank examiner and the local police stake out all three couples, they destroy their stashes of money, but too late. They’re all arrested, and we see them being interrogated by the police. Bridget is cornered by the bank examiner–but she doesn’t seem to be at his mercy, so much as vice-versa.
The Hero’s Sacrifice is Rewarded – When the chief of security can’t actually admit that any money could possibly leave the bank, they’re all off the hook for lack of evidence. The “sacrifice” appears to be that they all destroyed their money, but it turns out that Bridget’s sacrifice involved simply waiting long enough for the matter to cool down before revealing that she has stashed millions of dollars for them all to share.
Jarie: This movie felt like a fill-in-the-blank Mad Lib. It has all the OS/C but innovates none of them. I really want to like these characters but I just could not bond with them. I don’t believe in them. I don’t even like them. They are just blah, blah, blah.
3. What is the POV? What is the Narrative device? – Kim
POV: Omniscient, switches around a lot, but focused on what an individual is seeing, whether it’s Bridget, Nina, Jackie, the Security guys, Mr. Glover.
Narrative Device: Framing story – begins at the end, with everyone speaking directly into the camera about what happened. Bridget is seems to be in some kind of restaurant, but the others all appear to be in police interrogation rooms. This leads to dramatic irony — we know they get caught. But Bridget gets away? And no one seems angry about it? This raises intriguing questions. We flashback three years to before Bridget ever worked at the Federal Reserve. By the end of the story, we’ve caught up to the present, and then the story continues from there, then jumps ahead eight months to the final scene where they reunite and Bridget reveals she stashed a bunch of money for them all.
4. What are the Objects of Desire, AKA wants and needs? – Kim
Wants: To get the money
Needs: To change their definition of success—it’s not about money, it’s about relationships.
It’s important to ensure that the characters’ motivations are set up and supported as to why they want the want. Here we have a failure of credibility in several aspects, regarding how they conduct the crime, but also the stakes for why they would take the risk. Here we have a believability problem with why each of the characters would get on board with this plan.
5. What is the Controlling Idea / Theme? – Kim
Crime pays / [Poetic Justice] prevails when everyday people band together to cheat the system but never cheat each other.
Valerie: Interesting theme for a story – I don’t argue that Kim is right! I just think that “stick it to the man, don’t stick it to each other” is a weird premise to build a story around.
Anne: It would be a great story if “The Man” had been a) the person or institution responsible for Don losing his job or b) any sort of hostile force in the lives of the three protagonists. Like say in Nine to Five. But here he’s just a buffoon doing his job, in an institution that has given all three women boring but presumably living-wage employment.
Kim: Exactly, Anne. I think that is the part for me that this movie misses. I can handle and even appreciate all the silly, but Bridget not wanting to lose her upper class lifestyle is not compelling to me. So there were certainly areas of character motivation that could have been set up differently.
6. What’s the Beginning Hook, the Middle Build, and the Ending Payoff? – Jarie
Beginning Hook – When faced with losing her house, Bridget Cardigan must get a job or else lose her status. Bridget gets a job at the Federal Reserve and realizes soon after that she can steal the old money.
- Inciting incident: Bridget Cardigan is about to lose her house because her husband Don lost his job.
- Progressive Complication/Turning Point: They have to sell their house but that would lead to social isolation.
- Crisis Question: Can I steal the old money?
- Climax: It’s too complicated for one person. I need others.
- Resolution: Bridget recruits Nina and Jackie.
Middle Build – When the team starts to get more money, they must figure out how to make it look like they earned it legally or else they could get caught. They all get jobs and say they won’t spend beyond their means.
- Inciting incident: They successfully steal their first money.
- Progressive Complication/Turning Point: Smuggling the money out, they almost get caught.
- Midpoint Shift: They decided to keep stealing even though they got the money they needed.
- Crisis Question: Should we keep stealing money even though we said we would stop?
- Climax: They almost get caught when they lose the key.
- Resolution: Crisis averted. They decided that was the last job.
Ending Payoff – When a bank investigator starts to investigate, they must figure out how to hide the money or else get caught. they get caught and destroy the money they have, only to be let off on a technicality. After lying low for a while, they all share in the fortune that Bridget has stashed away.
- Inciting incident: A banking investigator starts to look into the operations at the Fed.
- Progressive Complication/Turning Point: Cras ornare urna vel mattis maximus. Etiam maximus, nulla et vehicula aliquet
- Crisis Question: How do we get rid of the money?
- Climax: The police arrest everyone except Bridget gets away and hires a lawyer.
- Resolution: The lawyer gets them off but they have to pay taxes. Bridget actually stashed more cash that no one knows about.
Jarie: They attempted to pull a Double Indemnity with the reveal that they got caught. It’s supposed to setup suspense, but it’s not done well at all.
7. Other Story-Related Observations
Leslie: I found an interesting note about audience emotions for capers: They evoke schadenfreude, the German word for deriving pleasure from another person’s suffering. At certain times, we all feel powerless to control life circumstances, and we like to see characters who can do that in the context of a story because we experience the journey without taking the risk. It wasn’t effective in this film, but that is something you’d want to understand if you’re writing a story like this.
Anne: This caper movie breaks the reality rule for me. It’s set up in a comic but pretty realistic world, where if you rack up a quarter million dollars in debt, you have to sell your house and look for a job. In the name of comedy, it asks me to stretch that level of reality by asking me to believe that you can flush that much shredded money down a toilet. Okay. Maybe. Yet in that same world, unemployable Bridget gets a decent-paying government job with benefits, and goes from a helpless rich woman who doesn’t know how to clean her own house to a criminal mastermind, the “only person in the whole world who thought this up.” Overnight she becomes capable of robbing the Federal Reserve. There, currency isn’t serial-numbered, weighed, or counted, and security is run by a convenient moron. The tiny flaw in the massive security system of a giant federal bank can be exploited with a Home Depot lock that even the bankrupt Bridget can afford.
As Robert McKee says, “CONSISTENT REALITIES are fictional settings that establish modes of interactions between characters and their world that are kept consistently throughout the telling to create meaning. Consistent reality, therefore, means an internally consistent world, true to itself.” Better comedy, better dialogue, more clearly-drawn characters with clearer motivations–any of those things might have helped me suspend disbelief.
Jarie: Every part of this movie was predictable and not believable. Even Bridget getting a job as a janitor at the Fed is just not believable in the least. She’s a stepford wife for gosh sakes.
The worst telegraphing offenders: 1) Money coming out of Jackie’s pants. 2) Losing the key in the sink. 3) Bridget freakout in the bathroom. 4) The boss picking up Bridget’s badge. 5) Bridget having the stash of cash at the bar basement. 5) The security guard catching Nina with the money and him being “okay” with it.
Logan Lucky, which was equally dumb, at least had a unique twist that was not predictable at all. Logan Lucky is a heist because it’s professionals that are planning. You must innovate it and make the characters likable. Like Tower Heist with Ben Stiller. You really believe in the characters because they are getting even with the person that screwed them. That’s a well done caper.
Valerie: Further to Jarie’s point, to me, the key takeaway from this film is this: Stories have form, but they should not be formulaic. When we talk about story principles, like obligatory scenes and conventions, many writers cry foul and say that Story Grid is nothing more than a formula for writing novels and that it stifles creativity. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. OS/C are about meeting audience expectations; they’re a bare minimum. What the audience really wants, is innovation. We’ve seen stories like Mad Money a hundred times. We’ve seen characters like Bridget, Nina and Jackie a hundred times. Show us a new take on the hero lashing out, or on the objects of desire. When a story, like Mad Money, fails to innovate, it’s formulaic. It’s lazy writing. As Robert McKee says, “Story is about principles, not rules.” So when you’re writing your novel, think of all the ways you can present the various elements of your story. Your first ten or twenty ideas will all be cliche; that’s true for seasoned professionals as well as emerging authors. Vince Gilligan and the Breaking Bad writing team talk about this all the time. If you’re willing to do the hard work of digging deeper, and challenging yourself as a writer, you’ll begin to find ways to innovate – and that’s when the magic starts to happen.
Next time we bring the the Morality genre in for a rough landing with Flight, the 2012 film by Robert Zemeckis starring Denzel Washington. Why not give it a look during the week, and follow along with us?
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