Synopsis: An upper-class New York family of five bratty sisters must fight for their father’s inheritence.
About: Taxonomy of Barnacles is an adaption from the novel of the same name.
Writer: Amy Lippman adapting Galt Neiderhoffer’s novel.
Now I’m going to go on a little rant here so hang with me. I hate book adaptations. When you adapt a book, you’re writing a screenplay to adapt a book. When you write a screenplay, you’re writing a screenplay to write the screenplay. It’s natural, organic, and the only thing you have to worry about is telling a story. Adapting books, your first priority is to find a way to tell the same story but in screenplay form. So you’re fighting a battle even before you place a word on paper. This is very evident in screenplays like Taxonomy of Barnacles, where 6 characters are being jammed down your throat in the first 3 pages and FIVE of these characters have names that start with the letter “B”. A screenplay rule for as long as there have been screenplays is to give your characters distinct sounding names to make it easy for the reader to differentiate between them. Five characters all having names that start with “B” is absurd. Especially when you meet them all at once. I had to keep going back and checking who was who. It was incredibly annoying. And this is just a minor problem with adaptations. The big one is that old problem of having to tell 100% of the story in 10% of the space. But I digress.
The movie begins with four rich bratty sisters, Benita (10), Beth (20), Bridget (24), and Belinda (15), (we’ll meet Bell – 27 – later) complaining about everything from school to life to boyfriends. We’ve got a roomful of complete brats and it’s hard to like a single one of them. After 10 pages I wanted to nail these girls to my door and throw darts at them til they bled to death. So far so good.
But then Barry Barnacle (God does this author like the letter B), their father with a hard-on for Charles Darwin , comes home to inform the girls that he’s decided to use their inheritance money to have a room at the Museum of Natural History and Art dedicated in his name. He’s giving the girls one last chance to convince him that they’re “worthy” of the inheritance. If they somehow achieve this feat, one of them will get it all. That’s right: only ONE of them. And thus Barry infuses their lives with his own little Charles Darwin experiment. Survival of the fittest indeed.
Can I just say? THANK GOD! I was so worried this was going to be some novelized version of Privileged about a bunch of snobby rich girls bitching about how difficult it is to be rich (I’ve never actually seen Privileged but this is what I assume it’s about). Now we actually have a story. Bravo. I’m on board. But dammit. This means I’m going to have to learn these girls’ names!
It’s actually a nice setup, as each of these girls must now face their deepest flaws and see if they can overcome them. Bridget never finishes anything she starts (her boyfriend Trot wants to set a date to get married but she’s reluctant). Beth won’t even interact with a man. Belinda can’t think for herself. And there’s something wrong with the other one too. Is Bartha her name?
But Barry is a peculiar character. He cheated on his wife. He resents having all girls. He’s disappointed in Bell for leaving her husband, even if the man was a compulsive cheater. So this “prove you’re a good person” bit doesn’t hold much water when you think about it. It’s kind of like gutters in Los Angeles. They’re not really equipped to handle a lot of rainfall. When Bell claims she doesn’t want the half of the money she’s entitled to through her divorce, Barry is the first to tell her to take it. So the man who’s trying to teach her a lesson about being entitled tells her she’s entitled to half her husband’s fortune? Uhhh, what?
The most compelling storyline is Bridget, who left her previous fiance, Billy, unannounced. Then Trot, her current boyfriend, the only person in the story with any actual working blood in him, finds out that Bridget’s gone back and slept with Billy. He confronts them both and tells her he can never be with her again. Billy lies and tells Trot that Bridget won the inheritance, in order to prove to Bridget (in an effort to win her back) that Trot’s been in this for the money all along. Trot changes his tune once he finds out that Bridget won the money, and ole Billy’s point is proven. The problem with this is – TROT’S THE ONLY PERSON WE LIKE IN THE WHOLE GODDAMN SCREENPLAY. Now you just made him an asshole like everyone else.
The rest of the story is fun. Beth finds out she’s a lesbian. Belinda tries to marry a punk rocker to rattle her father (who she dumps because he ends up being jewish – which wouldn’t have rattled her father at all). All Benita wants is her father’s appreciation. And what we find out, in a rather touching finale, is that their mother committed suicide because of depression. Barry needed a way to rationalize it, and used Darwin’s theory of Survival Of The Fittest to explain it away – hence his peculiar obsession with the theory.
There’s a humorous subplot about a nest of rare eagles living out on the ledge that Barry’s been trying to get rid of for years (but Animal Activists groups have prevented him from doing so). Again, there’s some Darwanism going on here – will the birds make it? But I think the biggest strength of the script is watching these little bitches battle each other for the gold. Making us dislike them from the get-go was a calculated move, and now we revel in their misery. And it’s so wonderfully written (save for the noted problems) that even without a character to root for, you’re desperate to find out how it’s all going to end. I see Taxonomy of Barnacles as the movie I had hoped The Royal Tenenbaums would be. As it is, it’s probably too obscure to be made into a film. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be.
What I learned from Taxonomy of Barnacles: The power of a strong theme can really unify your script. Everything in Taxonomy stems from Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, and it works superbly.