Black List Script #6 – Fuckbuddies (a.k.a., No Strings Attached) by Liz Meriwether
MAJOR DISCLAIMER: Since these scripts, bought or not, are currently unproduced and/or in the midst of long, tedious development processes, they may not make it to the screen for up to three years, if ever. You should know that the synopsis contains MASSIVE, EARTH-SHATTERING SPOILERS, even though this screenplay may not resemble the finished film (if any) in any way. Read at your own risk.
Secondary Disclaimer: I refer to what follows as “coverage” by the loosest definition of that term. In keeping with this blog’s tradition, I’ve crammed the notes so full of rancorous rants, it’s 1/10th as concise as actual coverage, almost falling into the category of a review. However, since I’ve included the loglines and a detailed synopsis, it’s close enough to coverage for my purposes. Deal with it.
Logline (provided by The Black List): “A guy and a girl struggle to have an exclusively sexual relationship as they both come to realize they want much more.”
EMMA FRANKLIN and ADAM KURTZMAN lie in bed together, discussing the word “fuckbuddies” and trying to find an alternative to it.
In 1994, a group of 13-year-olds at summer camp sneak to watch the girls dance — specifically, the one girl in the group whose recently developed breasts bounce with each movement. Adam is among them, but he’s not looking at this girl — he’s looking at Emma, tall and scrawny. He asks her if she wants to “freak.” Moments later, they’re freaking to TLC’s “No Scrubs.” Emma doesn’t understand the song lyrics, so Adam attempts to explain in a faux-black patois. Annoyed by the noise from other campers, Emma invites Adam to “the Dumpster.” Adam’s surprised. We discover this is a mysterious make-out spot because of the moderate privacy it affords. Adam and Emma talk about themselves — Emma’s “life is pretty fucked up,” Adam’s parents are getting divorced, Emma believes marriage is bad and that people aren’t meant to be together forever. A couple of other campers ask for their spot since they aren’t even making out. Instead of leaving, they make out, which causes Adam to cry. Emma’s not very sensitive to the situation.
In 2001, Adam is at a University of Michigan frat party with his friends SCOTTIE (athletic) and ELI (unknown). Adam makes out with his girlfriend, VANESSA. When she goes to get a beer, Eli gripes that Adam’s never going to have sex with Vanessa. Adam doesn’t mind. Eli observes that Scottie, who’s dancing shirtless, has a gay nipple. This prompts Eli to mention that he was raised by two gay dads and he’s proud of them. Adam catches sight of a girl walking into the party — it’s Emma. He hasn’t seen her since camp. Adam approaches her, and she knows exactly who she is and where they met, immediately. Surprised to see her, Adam asks if she goes to the school. Emma says she goes to MIT but grew up in nearby Ypsilanti.
Adam and Emma flirt with each other until Emma asks if he has a girlfriend. Adam points out Vanessa, whom Emma describes as “fat” and having a “McDonald’s face.” She asks why Vanessa won’t sleep with him; Adam is surprised she guessed that but denies it. Adam’s baffled, but Emma explains she’s pre-med and is, therefore, comfortable talking about the human body. Also, she’s kind of a slut, so she knows a lot about the genitalia in particular. Adam reluctantly confides that he and Vanessa are waiting until they’re ready. Emma doesn’t understand this logic. They go out to her car and have sex. In the midst of it, Adam feels a little uncomfortable about cheating on his girlfriend. He starts to ramble, so she gives him his pants back.
Walking around campus, Emma explains that, while she doesn’t regularly sleep around, she doesn’t have a problem with it because people just want to have sex, so why deny those feelings? Emma invites Adam to go to “this stupid thing” with her tomorrow. It turns out to be her father’s funeral. At the wake, a neighbor approaches Emma to share sympathy, and Adam claims to be Emma’s “baby-daddy,” much to her amusement and the neighbor’s confusion. Emma has a conversation with her mother, SANDRA, about what a bastard her father was. Sandra wonders why she loved him, and Emma insinuates it’s Sandra’s belief in hopeless causes. Sandra wonders why Emma doesn’t believe in anything that’s hopeless. Sandra decides to go inside and watch Bambi and cry. Inside, Sandra watches the movie and sobs. Adam also watches and cries. Emma sits between them, dry-eyed. Emma drops Adam off at his dorm, telling him he’s wonderful and she hopes she never sees him again.
Los Angeles, 2007. Adam plays personal assistant to a precious child sitcom star. After a taping, he goes to his father’s huge house. ALVIN is in his late 50s, but he’s tan and muscular. He tells Adam that he’s now dating Vanessa, with whom Adam broke up eight months earlier. Adam’s enraged. He goes and gets drunk with Eli and Scottie. Once he gets drunk enough, Adam decides to call every woman he knows and tell them how wonderful Vanessa was. Eli and Scottie try to stop him. The next morning, Adam wakes up…in Emma’s apartment. He’s confused, because she doesn’t live in L.A., but she tells him she just moved. Adam apologizes for the state he must have been in when he called. They have sex. Emma gripes about Adam’s Nixon-esque “sex face.” When he orgasms, Adam tries to impersonate Nixon, which disturbs Emma.
Afterward, Emma’s all business. She’s okay with Adam having meaningless but safe sex with her, as long as they lay out some ground rules. A montage follows, during which they have sex amid endless quips and banter. The only relevant information delivered is that Emma is now at UCLA Medical School and Adam has a strong desire for a career in standup comedy. While at the teaching hospital, Emma discusses the notion of fuckbuddies with friends SUMAIRE and CONNIE. Connie is puzzled as to why Emma doesn’t long for more, while Sumaire’s unhappy marriage is a textbook example of why she doesn’t long for more. DR. METZNER, their good-looking mentor, sends them back out to work. Scottie, Eli, Emma, and Scottie’s gay dads watch Adam’s standup debut. It’s awful. A fat woman throws jalapeño poppers at him. When Emma isn’t around, Scottie double-checks to make sure Emma and Adam aren’t really “dating,” because he wants to ask her out.
Adam asks Emma if she sleeps with other guys, even though asking such a question violates their rules. Emma asks why he’d ask, and Adam tells her that Scottie wants to ask her out. Emma gets mad that Adam already told Scottie “no,” so Adam gives her Scottie’s number and they get into a passive-aggressive argument about seeing other people. Some time later, Adam notices a cute assistant making eyes at him. While having sex, Emma gives Adam some pointers on asking the assistant out. Adam humiliates himself in front of the assistant and a bunch of others. Alvin comes to work to invite Adam out to dinner with himself and Vanessa. Adam goes to the teaching hospital, where he tries to hit up Sumaire for some drugs that will numb him mentally for this dinner. For some reason, Sumaire does, so Emma is forced to take Adam to the restaurant for the dinner. Throughout the dinner, Adam’s lowered inhibitions prompt him to say a variety of stupid and/or bizarre things, while Emma tries to explain his behavior as symptoms of an allergic reaction “to his own hair.” Adam tries to pick a fistfight with Alvin, at which point Emma drags Adam out of the restaurant. Later, while coming down at his apartment, Adam tells Emma this arrangement is no longer working. He tells her he loves her and begs her to be his girlfriend. Emma leaves.
At the teaching hospital, Emma loses her first patient. She calls up Adam and asks to come over, but Adam’s on a date (with CARMEN, the assistant he humiliated himself in front of earlier). She finally responds to Dr. Metzner’s subtle flirtations, going with him to a hotel room for sex. She doesn’t respond well to his bailing on her afterward, the way she usually does. Meanwhile, Adam tries to inject his and Emma’s cutesy sex talk into the act, but Carmen doesn’t respond to it. Adam’s immediately bored and going through the motions. Later that night, Emma and Adam talk to each other on the phone, each griping about their respective sex partners. When Emma hears Adam had sex, she gets jealous. When Adam accuses her, she denies it, but Adam knows better. He dedicates the next few days to intentionally trying to make her jealous by describing outlandish, untrue sex acts. He goes to an improv class where he meets an actual woman, who finds him funny. They make out in the parking lot when Emma calls. For some reason, Adam answers. They snipe at each other, then Adam hangs up. When he and Joy arrive back at his apartment, they discover Emma waiting. She claims to be Emma’s doctor, who performed a testicle transplant on Adam. Emma and Joy get into a verbal girlfight, until Joy gets pissed off and leave. Adam and Emma have sex. Afterward, Emma gives Adam a belated birthday present — a rubber chicken. They discuss the many uses of a rubber chicken.
Adam convinces Emma to go on a real date with him. He dresses up nice, buys her a flower bouquet, takes her to a museum to look at art and a meditation garden. In the middle of the garden, Emma freaks out. She hurls dozens of hypothetical “bad” scenarios at Adam, who has a rational and/or “funny” and/or “cutesy” solution to all of them. Nonetheless, it descends into an obnoxious argument that results in Adam dropping Emma off at the hospital and telling her he can’t see her anymore. She agrees, so he follows her into the hospital, repeating over and over that he’ll never see her again. Adam gets wasted and decides to embrace Emma’s fuckbuddy philosophy, getting laid multiple times in the process.
He performs his standup act, which has improved significantly enough to garner the attention of a talent agent. The agent claims Alvin told him to go to Adam’s show. Adam goes to Alvin’s house and thanks him sincerely. At the hospital, Emma robotically breaks the news of breast cancer to an older woman. Angered by Emma’s emotionlessness, the woman forces Emma to just sit with her, holding her hand, and then maybe she can try again. Dr. Metzner approaches Emma in the hall, but Metzner blows her off. She gets a VoiceMail from Adam — ostensibly for the first time since they broke up — inviting her to his standup act. Emma shows up and watches him with pride.
After the show, Emma seeks out Adam but sees him talking confidently to a bunch of girls. She panics and leaves; Adam, meanwhile, scans the crowd for Emma but doesn’t see her. Emma goes on a date with MIKE, an obnoxious financial guy who’s the grandson of the cancer woman from earlier. Emma tells Mike she wants to take it slow. Emma picks up Sandra from LAX but is embarrassed when her mother acts like an obnoxious, rube-like tourist. Sandra also surprises Emma with a new boyfriend, TUCK, whom Emma immediately hates. Mike calls and invites Emma out to meet her friends. She’s uneasy but agrees to it. Before the date, Emma and Sandra talk about men. Emma demands to know why Sandra feels the need to be “taken care of.” Sandra explains that she wanted to be their for Emma’s father and wanted to raise Emma, and now she just wants to be loved and taken care of. Emma doesn’t agree with this mindset, but Sandra argues that Emma doesn’t have much room to talk, since she’s never experienced love.
Thanks to his agent, Adam has a one-line guest spot on a crime show. A makeup artist works up a massive head wound. Emma meets Mike, his friends, and their girlfriends at a bar. They’re all vapid and obnoxious. On the sound stage, a P.A. hands Adam his cell phone — it’s Emma. She’s drunk, stoned, and irritated by everyone talking about weddings. Immediately, Adam bails on the job, races to the bar. Still in his bloody wardrobe and head-wound makeup, Adam baffles the bar patrons as he approaches Emma and they make out. Emma confesses that she loves him, and they have sex. It’s different — intense, intimate. Later, Emma suggests they have breakfast. Adam’s scared. When Emma wakes up the next morning, Adam’s gone.
Before leaving for the airport, Sandra gives Emma some sage advice: Emma was forced to grow up tough, but now it’s time for her to stop being so strong. She can let herself hurt. Emma sees them off, then goes to another of Adam’s standup performances. He’s surprised to see Alvin and Vanessa in the audience, laughing loud at his bits about them. Afterward, Emma tries to run away when she sees Adam chatting up yet another girl, but this time Adam sees and goes after her. He apologizes for not staying and explains that she can’t just decide everything’s different after he spent so much time trying to get over her. He suggests that they might have blown it — their timing is off. Emma says maybe that’s true, but she’s still in love with him, and she’s sorry she spent so much time pretending not to care. Somebody in the comedy club whisks Adam away. He asks Emma to wait; she leaves.
After everyone’s cleared out, Alvin and Adam have a heart to heart that basically amounts to: Adam’s not an asshole, so he should stick with Emma since he clearly loves her. Emma goes to have some meaningless sex with Dr. Metzner, but it depresses her. Emma calls Sandra to tell her she thinks she finally gets it. Adam rushes to the hospital in search of Emma, who’s not there. Suddenly, she calls him and tells him to turn on channel 27. Adam changes the waiting room TV. Bambi plays. Getting it, Adam rushes to Emma’s apartment, where she’s finally mourning the loss of her father. Adam holds her, and they both bawl. Then they have sex. Then they discuss how great things will be now that they’re really a couple — they’ll break all their rules. The next morning, Adam wakes her up and asks what they’re going to have for breakfast.
I have a theory about how this script came into existence. Maybe it’s wrong, but it feels right. Screenwriter Liz Meriwether tape-recorded an improv group whose main game involved asking the audience for three things: a generic scene from their favorite romantic comedy, a non-sequitur not commonly associated with romance, and five or six “shocking” obscenities the troupe has to work into the scene. After taping these improv scenes, Meriwether transcribed the dialogue and cobbled together Fuckbuddies, 124 pages of schlock masquerading as sharp, edgy wit. I want to give it points for trying so damn hard to be funny. Unfortunately, any points I would have rewarded for effort would get canceled out by how severely it fails.
Picture 124 pages of dialogue like this:
Crammed into the confines of a bland romantic comedy that hits all the typical beats, Fuckbuddies lacks the psychological and biological insight of the movies it’s most obviously ripping off (Annie Hall and When Harry Met Sally…, mainly, but there’s also a heady dose of the Seinfeld episode “The Deal”). The foundations of their respective relationship perspectives work for me. Emma’s fear of intimacy stems from an abusive, alcoholic father, and Adam’s obsession with rescuing his partners is a direct result of his philandering, drug-addicted father forcing him, as a child, into a caretaker role with possibly both parents. However, it seems like Meriwether picked up these plausible motivations through cultural osmosis rather than genuine understanding of human behavior. My only evidence is the rapid, nonsensical character changes in the third act, which misidentify the characters’ hang-ups and solve them in dumb, inorganic ways. Oh, also, this line of dialogue (Emma justifying why she’s attracted to jerks): “There must be some biological reasoning, like assholes used to be the better hunters or something.” Careful readers will remember that Emma is supposed to be a doctor, and yes, there is a biological explanation, and she would know what it is and probably be in therapy to work through the problems. This is why screenwriters shouldn’t be allowed to give people any profession more advanced than retail “customer associate.”
The plot lingers far too long on backstory and the “fuckbuddying” section of the script. Because it adheres to the most generic possible formula, the story needs to move past the “gettin’ along, fuckin’ fine” section much more quickly. It lacks conflict, which in turn causes it to lack momentum, which means we’re watching a flabby, overlong Saturday Night Live sketch with Tourette’s syndrome and even fewer funny jokes. Because of this, the script is about 30-40 pages longer than it needs to be, and much of that extra page-count comes from aimless, conflict-free scenes that mostly involving rhyming, repetitive dialogue peppered with pop-culture references (most egregious example: “Not even if you’re a Care Bear giving me a care-stare”). Meriwether is the first screenwriter I’ve seen that makes Diablo Cody look like Woody Allen.
The inevitable “we no longer get along” section isn’t much better, but at least it has some forward motion. Still, allow me to linger on the “fuckbuddying” stage for as long as Meriwether does. After all, it’s the title of the script, so why not? Look, I don’t want to get on my soapbox about what’s wrong with romantic comedies, but this script just plays into all the typical problems — juvenile, unbelievable romances; hacky rehashes of scenes lifted from better movies; generic conflict/plot/resolution; and so on. Yet, it has… Well, I can’t call it a “fresh” concept, but it’s hitting the culture at the right time. When Harry Met Sally… is better in every conceivable way (and it’s a movie I don’t particularly like, which should illustrate Fuckbuddies’ overall quality), but in the intervening 20 years, the “fuckbuddy” concept has become more of a social norm. Rather than using that to her advantage, Meriwether is content to pilfer reliable but overused ideas and offer simplistic solutions instead of facing the real challenges her characters need to overcome.
The disaster area Fuckbuddies calls its third act undoes what little the script has going for it. Meriwether’s evident but poorly developed “female-empowerment” subtext works fine until she decides Emma’s only problem is being too tough to cry. The overall message goes from “if you can make it work, fuckbuddying is A-OK” to “the only way for a woman to make it in a man’s world is to turn into a puddle of mush and let the man take care of you.” The less said about Adam’s quick change-and-change-back bullshit, the better, but I’ll say this: Adam’s a rescuer. This is evident in everything he does — until he ditches Emma for breakfast. It’s evident from the first moment we see him, attracted more to the sullen, damaged girl in the corner than the perky girl with big tits. It’s part of who he is, so the instant — the very second — the words “I love you” escape from Emma’s lips, he’d be attached at the hip. What’s with the crisis and the false drama? Meriwether never even tries to make it coherent, but if she wants to give him a crisis, why not have him identify his “rescuer” tendencies during that brief broken-up period? Maybe he goes for a little therapy, maybe he just reads a psych-101 textbook, and he says, “Hey, I’m that guy,” and works on trying to fix it. So Emma tries to work her way back into his life, and that’s where the conflict comes from. It’s more believable than whatever the hell his crisis is supposed to be the way it’s written now. I still don’t know. Feel free to drop a comment explaining it to me. Nevertheless, something like this could lead to roughly the same treacly, happy ending with maybe 10% more satisfaction.
Anatomy of an Unfunny Joke
This special section is devoted to one particular scene in Fuckbuddies that drove me nuts. It takes place in 1994, when Adam and Emma are 12-13.
A long pause. They’re looking at each other. Then:
Do you want to freak?
INT. PAVILLION- MOMENTS LATER
TLC’s “No Scrubs.” Emma and Adam are freaking awkwardly- Emma is too tall and Adam is holding on too tight and just bouncing up and down.
You freak good.
(singing along with the song)
“No, I don’t want no scrubs”-
I don’t get it.
Um. She doesn’t want a scrub. Because he’s hanging out of his best friends ride, trying to holler at her.
What’s wrong with this picture?
- “No Scrubs” came out in 1999, but this scene takes place in 1994, the year of their breakthrough CrazySexyCool (which didn’t come out until November, long after summer camp). I’m not even a TLC fan and I knew that off the top of my head. Okay, I didn’t know the November part, but you know what? It took me ten seconds to look it up. Why is basic research so difficult for writers?!
- The lyrics aren’t even transcribed correctly!
- Extremely white people talking like black people hasn’t been funny since Silver Streak.
- The joke exists solely to turn the idea of “freaking” into a bland sex joke and make a stale pop-culture reference. I’ve already gone into the fact that the pop-culture reference is almost as anachronistic as Juno’s Blair Witch Project reference, but how is this even a punchline? “It sounds like he’s propositioning her, but they don’t cuz it’s innocent cuz they’re 13.” LOLOLOLOL!!!!! I see where the funny is supposed to be, and yet it’s not there. Maybe my sense of humor is not sufficiently drenched in retarded irony.
- I hated this script. Worse than Butter, if you can imagine (I couldn’t).
In fairness, Fuckbuddies did have one dialogue exchange that made me laugh (which is more than I can say for Butter and The Oranges (even though those are still, in terms of story/structure/character, better scripts — we’re talking varying degrees of shit, of course):
Do you think we’re the only people who’ve ever fucked while watching Bambi?
Yes. The only ones not in jail.
The Bottom Line
It’s not an original idea, but as I said, with some good, insightful writing, it could fit nicely into the current cultural zeitgeist. It could even remain relevant in the future, the way the movies Meriwether rips off have, by concentrating more on believable human behavior than cheap jokes and clichés. Human behavior won’t change in the next 25 years; how people respond to a “No Scrubs” joke will. Hire someone else to rewrite this. Someone with a better understanding of the psychology and biology of both genders, someone who can play with the conventions of romantic comedies instead of just adhering to them, someone with insight into the current generation of 20- and 30-somethings… Or maybe just somebody who’s funny.