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Is "30 Minutes or Less" Wrong to Exploit a Tragic True Crime?

By Christopher Campbell | Spout August 8, 2011 at 4:33AM

It's one thing to be upset about a documentary portraying your misfortunes as farce, as in the case of Joyce McKinney's objections to "Tabloid," but is it necessary to go on record with disapproval of a narrative comedy that only loosely bases its plot on your real tragedy? The new movie "30 Minutes or Less" has been deemed terribly insensitive by the family of pizza delivery man turned bank robber Brian Wells, who was allegedly forced by others to commit the crime while a bomb was strapped to his chest. His life ended horribly when he was blown up in front of authorities and the media (and on live TV) after being taken into custody in the bank parking lot.
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It's one thing to be upset about a documentary portraying your misfortunes as farce, as in the case of Joyce McKinney's objections to "Tabloid," but is it necessary to go on record with disapproval of a narrative comedy that only loosely bases its plot on your real tragedy? The new movie "30 Minutes or Less" has been deemed terribly insensitive by the family of pizza delivery man turned bank robber Brian Wells, who was allegedly forced by others to commit the crime while a bomb was strapped to his chest. His life ended horribly when he was blown up in front of authorities and the media (and on live TV) after being taken into custody in the bank parking lot.

In "30 Minutes," Jesse Eisenberg plays a pizza boy similarly coerced into bank robbery similarly with a bomb strapped to his chest. For the rest of the certain parallels, in spite of Sony's claim the filmmakers were barely aware of the true 2003 incident, check out Jen Yamato's comparison over at Movieline. The only way the movie could have been more obviously inspired by the Brian Wells case is if director Ruben Fleisher had cast Bryan Cranston as the lead (tell me this photo doesn't make you think of "Breaking Bad"). And it may just come down to how recognizable the story is for how offensively exploitative it's viewed as.

Screenwriting students are taught to peruse the news for unique plots, and then it's all about fictionalizing the details to avoid legal ramifications (a very common practice for "Law & Order" scripts, and in fact a 2004 episode of "Criminal Intent" was mined from this case). Of course Wells' family can't sue anyone involved with "30 Minutes," so all they can do is get the public to empathetically reject the film. But should we really avoid a movie because it hurts an isolated group of people? I think it's more appropriate for us to object to any comedy with a humorous scene involving drunk driving, because that's a sore spot for a wider population. Might we have boycotted "The Change-Up" this past weekend for all the people whose kid succumbed to an accident in the home because it has a cartoonish sequence with babies playing with knives and electric sockets?

So much of comedy is at the expense of others, from minor insults and kicks to the crotch to hard-edged epithets and wood chipper murders. If any of these are relatable, that's often the point. If any are upsetting to people, that's on the offended not the offender. The title of the movie itself might evoke feelings in people affected by Domino's discontinued "30 minutes or it's free" policy, which led to a number of accidents. And anyone can be reminded of personal pain by anything. As far as I'm aware, "30 Minutes" features no credit claiming it's based on a true story, even loosely. When a film does make some kind of acknowledgment, it's more appropriate for, say, John Wojtowicz to go to the media with clarifications regarding his story, which was more plainly yet still only partially adapted into "Dog Day Afternoon." Everyone knows that film stems from a true story, mainly because it asserts such.

Wells' sister, whose quoted opinion about the movie being objectively unfunny is all over the web today, may feel she and her family are victims of Hollywood. In reality, although it's apparent that she was approached with this story and didn't start the controversy herself, she's helping to draw more attention to the specific tragedy and draw the link between the movie and her brother's death. She ought to be more annoyed with the Associated Press for bringing it up and even pointing out that "grotesque" footage of Wells blowing up can be easily found online. Now there will be more moviegoers with the awareness (and perhaps a visual) of the sourced events consciously laughing at them, whether they feel bad about doing so or not. But if they're not too dim they should be able to make the distinction between reality and fiction, as with any other movie.

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