Black List Script #7 – Winter’s Discontent by Paul Fruchbom
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): “When Herb Winter’s wife of fifty years dies, the faithful but sexually frustrated widower moves into a retirement community to start living the swinging single life.”
On HERB WINTER’s 75th birthday, he attends his wife’s funeral. In voiceover, he gripes that, while he maybe didn’t want her to die, he hasn’t had sex in decades. He’s been faithful, but now it’s time to get some. At the wake, Herb talks to mourners and his best friend JULES ROSENBAUM, described as “a Jewish Mister Rogers.” Throughout his conversation, voiceover continues, providing ironic commentary to the relatively innocuous things Herb says. (This device continues intermittently throughout the script.) Herb bugs Jules for details on Spruce Gardens, a retirement community with a 4:1 woman:man ratio. Jules sarcastically plays it off and grumbles about Herb’s lack of compassion for his own wife. CHERYL (40s), Herb’s good-looking real estate agent, approaches, and Herb thinks lewd things while discussing the sale of his home.
When Herb arrives at Spruce Gardens, KATE BENTLEY (late 50s) gives him a grand tour. She shows Herb the music room and asks if he plays an instrument. Herb tells her piano, years ago. She shows him the gym and asks if he works out; Herb says he hasn’t since he served in Korea. Kate says her dad was in Korea, which stings Herb. WANDA NEWTON (70s) walks by, “eye-fucking” Herb as she passes. Kate asks what Herb used to do for a living; Herb sold typewriters, and not very well. Kate suggests it was a good fit — piano and typing.
Later, in the cafeteria, Herb tries to discuss all the feminine potential at Spruce Gardens, but Jules has no interest. Instead, Herb finds like minds in ELMER WILLIAMS and CHARLIE HASSELBACK, longtime residents who have a good thing going with the women at Spruce Gardens. They immediately welcome Herb to the fold, as they discuss fond wartime memories of women. Elmer and Charlie give Herb the lay of the land, describing each woman and her foibles. Herb’s really interested in Kate, but the others believe she’s too young — there’s no way she’ll give him the time of day. Herb asks who he should approach instead. They ask how long it’s been since he’s had sex. Herb can’t even remember. Elmer and Charlie suggest Wanda Newton.
Later, Herb watches TV in his room. EVA JANIKOWSKI arrives, offering him a carrot cake while make lewd advances. The process repeats with IRISH SHALOV and homemade toasted almonds, PATTY DELANO and a meatloaf, and Wanda Newton and…nothing. She just volunteers to have sex with him. Wanda asks if Herb has a condom, but Herb is baffled by the suggestion. Fortunately, Wanda has one for him. Herb goes into the bathroom to get it on but is unable. Wanda has extras. After several unsuccessful attempts, he finally gets a condom on…only to lose his erection a few seconds into it. The next day, Charlie and Elmer chastise Herb for not taking Viagra and not having his own condoms. Herb takes their abuse, but the others agree to help him. That night, he has some pills, some condoms, and an illustration of how to put one on properly. Everything’s going according to plan… Except Wanda dropped dead.
Kate, waiting with some paramedics, is surprised to see Herb there. They have an awkward conversation, during which Kate politely consoles him. The next day, Herb is enraged that Wanda dared to die before Herb could sleep with her. Charlie and Elmer tell him it could be worse — she could have died during the act, which would cause Herb to get blackballed in Spruce Gardens. Women don’t want to take chances. Jules is offended by the course the conversation has taken, but the others ignore him. They tell the detailed story of one man who “killed” a woman through sex, then suggest to Herb that Eva might be his best bet now that Wanda’s out of the picture. They tell him to wait a couple of days, and then things should be back to normal.
The instant he says that, MIKE MILLER arrives. A tan, well-muscled Lothario in his mid-60s, Mike’s an instant hit with the ladies — witty, charming, loaded with stories and life experience. Charlie, Elmer, and especially Herb see their chances dwindling before their eyes. They try to convince Mike that Spruce Gardens is filled with frigid women at death’s door, but Mike doesn’t fall for it. That night, through the thin walls, Herb overhears the sounds of Mike having sex with Eva. Weeks later, Herb is livid, even more than the others — after all, they had their fun before Mike arrived. Herb never got his chance. Jules uncovered that Mike used to work in pharmaceuticals and has access to experimental, unapproved drugs that provide super erections. They’re all angry, but they have no recourse. Mike has them beat.
Late one night, Herb has trouble sleeping. He gets up and pounds out the first movement of Beethoven’s fifth symphony. He stops suddenly when Kate arrives, telling Herb one of the residents complained about the noise. They have a drink together, during which time Kate talks nonstop about Herb’s wife. Later that night, Herb once again pitches the idea of sleeping with Kate to Charlie, Elmer, and Jules. They agree it’ll never happen; while Charlie and Elmer suggest that Iris remains untouched by Mike, Jules knows better. Herb is ready to bust, though — he needs to sleep with somebody. Instead, they start masturbating and smoking again.
Herb proposes a plan for them to recondition themselves in order to compete with Mike, but neither Charlie nor Elmer is interested. For some reason, Jules sticks by Herb. They start walking, which Herb suggests will eventually build up to running. Meanwhile, Mike blows by them, running along the jogging trail. Herb decides they can’t compete in stamina, so they should try technique. They drive to a dilapidated house. Jules explains he found a sexpert on the Internet who offers a training course.
JACKSON JOHNSON, a scruffy loser in his 30s, invites them inside. Jackson tells them he usually likes to take things slow, but he can tell they’re motivated. He says he’ll skip nipple play and clitoral stimulation, because he assumes they already know how to do all that. When Jules protests, Herb subtly kicks him and agrees that yes, they do. Jackson moves them to more advanced techniques. He produces some sex dolls for them to practice various positions and techniques. That night, Jules is concerned he slipped a disk. Herb grumbles that he shouldn’t be so negative, suggesting they just stretch next time. Herb is pleased with the results of their tutoring session.
Next on the agenda, Herb decides they must get involved in some form of cultural appreciation, to create the illusion of sensitivity and “outclass” Mike. Herb and Jules go to a painting class, run by Kate. Herb’s work isn’t very good, but Kate compliments it anyway. Kate presents a live, nude model, exciting Herb — until he finds out it’s Mike. And he’s hung like an horse. And he’s shaved. Herb breaks the bad news to Charlie and Elmer.
Late one night, Kate comes to Herb’s room. She tells him she was thinking about her (deceased) husband’s old piano and wants to take some lessons. Herb is surprised and a little deflated. He says he’d be happy to teach her, but he’s mainly interested in classical music that’s too advanced for a novice. Kate shrugs, suggesting she’d rather learn something more modern, like the Beatles. Herb’s never heard of them, but he agrees to give her lessons anyway. Herb borrows some Beatles records from Jules and is surprised by how good they are. Jules is surprised that he’s never listened to the Beatles. Herb gripes that there are a lot of things he hasn’t done, but nothing’s going to stop him this time — he’s going to fuck Kate. He gripes about his dead wife, whom Jules tries to defend, but Herb won’t hear it. He wants sex.
Herb goes to a record store and buys Beatles sheet music. He preps for Kate by practicing with a sex doll, practicing the Beatles songs on the piano, shaving his pubes, buying some penile enlargement pills, but everything screeches to a halt when Herb catches sight of Mike and Kate waving at each other and having a conversation that almost seems romantic. Some time later, Herb realizes how to take Mike out of the equation — they engineer a situation to get his cock blackballed at Spruce Gardens. Herb asks Jules who’s the most decrepit, at-death’s-door woman in the place. Jules suggests ROSE CHANDLER. Herb gives Mike some “friendly advice” about Rose. That night, Herb eavesdrops and hears what he assumes is Mike fucking Rose to death. The next day, they all discover that not only is she alive — she looks and acts 20 years younger.
Kate has her piano lesson. Herb teaches her to play “Let It Be,” and as she sings along with the music, Herb leans in. He’s ready to make a move when Kate stops, declaring piano playing better than sex. Herb offers another piano lesson. He goes back to the record store and asks the clerk for sheet music for a song that’ll get a girl to sleep with him. Herb gets ready for the next lesson — Viagra, condoms, looks. He plies Kate (and himself) with some gin, then teaches her to play “Faithfully” by Journey. As she plays, Herb leans in to make his move —
— and Kate’s horrified and offended. Herb’s embarrassed, especially when she tells him to go and Herb has to ask for a ride home. Herb goes to Jules to tell him about what happened, but he and Jules get into it about Herb’s wife. Jules is very passionate on the subject, and Herb slowly figures out that Jules was in love with her. He never crossed the line, but he spent decades in love with Herb’s wife. Before he can react to this, Jules collapses. Some time later, Christmas is arriving and rumors have floated around Spruce Gardens, and suddenly Herb is blackballed — and not just his cock.
Mike Miller sits with Herb and tries to extend an olive branch, as a thanks for his tip on Rose Chandler. They go to a bar and get loaded, and eventually Herb confesses that he’s never even gotten a blowjob. Mike’s aghast, so he drags Herb to a “gentlemen’s club” — as a Christmas gift. Mike gives Herb one of his secret pills, and the effect is instant. Herb gets into a room with a prostitute and realizes this isn’t what he wants. Before he has the chance to say anything, Mike drops dead in another room. Herb attends Mike’s funeral and gives a nice eulogy about him. This puts him back in the good graces of the Spruce Gardens folks. After the funeral, Herb lies next to his wife’s grave and recalls a few happy memories, but he realizes she loved Jules all along, as well. He apologizes for that. He wishes he had died, so she and Jules could be happy. Kate catches Herb lying on a grave, talking to himself. He explains the situation and apologizes for the incident at the piano lesson. Kate suggests maybe they could have another lesson, and then they start to kiss.
They go back to Kate’s apartment and make love. In the middle of it, Herb tries a complex maneuver and they both end up in the hospital with back injuries. While at the hospital, Herb visits Jules and apologizes for never treating him like a friend. Jules asks why Herb’s in the hospital, but Herb’s reluctant to tell for fear of giving him another heart attack. Jules insists, and he nearly has one after the shock of learning Herb and Kate had sex. Herb says that as he collapsed, he had a near-death experience and couldn’t help thinking that all the good times in his life involved hanging around with Jules. Later, Herb and Kate have an awkward reunion, but Kate mentions a “next time,” which encourages Herb. At his 76th birthday, everyone’s at the party, and Kate marches out with his birthday cake — and he’s never been happier in his entire life.
I am disgusted with the way old people are depicted on television. We are not all vibrant, fun-loving sex maniacs. Many of us are bitter, resentful individuals who remember the good old days when entertainment was bland and inoffensive.
— Grampa Simpson, “Bart the General”
Although much better than the other Black List comedies (so far), Winter’s Discontent nonetheless suffers from the usual problem — believability. I’m sure I sound like a broken goddamn record at this point, but too many sloppy moments shatter my suspension of disbelief.
A man who would have only been 30 in 1964 has never heard of the Beatles? This is not “never listened to” or “never liked,” both of which are reasonable explanations for Herb’s ignorance. But to have never heard of them? The Beatles weren’t just a moderately popular band like, let’s say, Coldplay; they were a phenomenon that changed the face of music forever. And as someone who prefers the Beach Boys to the Beatles, that’s tough to admit — but it’s true. This inconsistency speaks to a larger problem, however: these characters are elderly, but it doesn’t feel like they have any history. They mention the Korean conflict on occasion, but aside from that, they don’t feel like people who have lived. Big Hole is not a masterpiece, but its elderly protagonist feels like a real man who really lived for 78 agonizing years.
The larger problem of the lack of believable life history manifests itself both in the dialogue and the attitudes of its characters. I’d overlook the “attitude” part, because half the joke is the idea that these elderly men are acting like drunken frat brothers, and that’s actually a funny concept. However, the dialogue gets me riled — not the obscenities or the casual nature of their sex banter so much as the diction of their speech. They sound like 20-year-olds in addition to acting like them. Nobody uses outdated slang or expressions, they knowledgeably drop references to things like MySpace… Not only is it not convincing, it diminishes the comedic possibilities. Isn’t it funnier to hear somebody called a “slattern” instead of a “whore,” “nancy” or “queer” instead of “gay,” “bishop” instead of “cock”? The dialogue basically turns the whole concept into a one-joke story (“Isn’t it funny how these old dudes act like the guys from Porky’s LOLOLOL?!!!!!”), which does a disservice to the occasional legitimately clever joke or idea.
The idea of them finding a sex guru on the Internet is funny, if you ignore the fact that Jules has no business — and no believable motivation — for going along with Herb’s plans. The fact that Jules is savvy enough to instantly navigate to Craigslist is neither funny nor believable. Look, my grandfather — approaching Herb’s age — worked with computers for the bulk of his career. He was a nerd, but he retired right on the cusp of the Internet revolution and completely stopped caring. Now, he can’t figure out how to send an e-mail to save his life. He wouldn’t know Google, MySpace, or Craigslist from any other site in the Internet. Jokes about old people using the Internet have become somewhat of a cliché, but I don’t think the idea has been mined for its full potential. I could imagine a lot of good comic hijinks coming from two horny old men with no Internet savvy seeking out a sexpert and ending up with a dumpy, unshaven, chain-smoking 30-something.
What about that scene, though? Two elderly guys with obvious homophobia are A-OK with a creepy, male stranger walking them through sexual techniques? Without a single moment of terror or discomfort? It’s almost refreshing that Fruchbom doesn’t make the inevitable homophobia joke, but in this scenario it becomes an elephant in the room. Why wouldn’t these particular characters say something, or behave in a certain way that suggests their awareness of this strangeness? Even worse than that, the goal of getting lessons from Jackson Johnson is to outdo Mike Miller in the technique department, so why in God’s name would they turn down a chance to learn foreplay techniques? They admit (to the audience) they know nothing about it, but it’s not a pride thing because the guys hunker over sex dolls in front of this dude, so a kind-of funny moment turns stupid in record time. Come on!
Last word on the humor: the voiceovers are hit-or-miss, used too frequently, and are way too reminiscent of — but not nearly as impressive as — Kevin Nealon’s “Subliminal Man” bits on Saturday Night Live. It’s not that they’re not funny (sometimes they’re not, though); it’s just lifting a well-known gag without using it as cleverly, sort of like the condom scene that rips off The 40 Year-Old Virgin. It’ll probably still be funny, but it’s the exact same joke. And my last word on the ridiculous, persistence-of-disbelief moments: I know he’s going for a sort of bookend idea by having it start with birthday/funeral and end with birthday/happiness, but here’s the problem I had: it’s not like funerals happen on the same day as the death. If she died on his birthday, it’d be dramatic. Having the funeral on his birthday is just dumb and kind of melodramatic, especially when he gripes about how it’s his birthday, as if it’s his dead wife’s fault he scheduled the funeral on that day. Come on!
The plot isn’t bad. Fruchbom does a good job of introducing variety in the gags — some clever, some tired — and raising stakes every couple of pages. The romance with Kate and Herb’s slowly changing feelings are solid, although the notion of a guy learning relationships are about more than sex at age 75 is a lot more pathetic than learning the same lesson at age 25. Nonetheless, it worked for me, in part because it was so pathetic…
On the other hand, the impetus of Herb’s horn-dog outlook did not. I wanted to buy into it, but Herb comes across as such an asshole by page two, he has a long, long road to redeem himself. Basically, “I want to get laid because my dead wife wouldn’t put out” isn’t good enough for me. It’s a plausible motivation, which is more than I could say for the characters in Butter or The Oranges, but it makes the guy we’re supposed to like into somebody we don’t like. Call me crazy, but I’m not going to automatically root for the guy who’s talking about banging retirees at his late wife’s wake. Meanwhile, Jules is supposed to be the old fuddy-duddy, described as “the Jewish Mister Rogers” — he’s just no fun, Fruchbom wants us to believe. It’s never that simple. It’d be much more interesting if Herb’s newfound obsession with sex came from a deeper place. Maybe his wife isn’t simply uninterested in sex; maybe she’s shrew-like, withholding both physically and emotionally, and her death makes him feel free. Maybe he’s using sex to fill that sense of loss he feels for a wife he legitimately loves.
I don’t know. This isn’t my script, but this whole believability issue traces back to yet another tiny moment — a little throwaway moment at the funeral, where Herb mentions his wife was too liberated to take his name, a rather shocking and interesting character trait considering they would have married at some point in the early ’50s. Without having more information, I can’t accept that someone this liberated wouldn’t just divorce her husband. We’re supposed to buy into the idea that Jules loved Herb’s wife and vice-versa, even though neither acted on this impulse. I could buy generational mores as an explanation, but it all goes back to that “liberated” thing: if she’s so liberated and so unhappy, what’s the problem? Even if she were devoutly religious and part of a denomination that frowned on divorce… If they frowned on divorce, chances are, in the early ’50s, they also frowned on wives keeping their last names. Why stick with one tenet and not another? Maybe if we got more development from Jules, this “why didn’t they divorce?” issue would reveal itself. Maybe Jules sticks with the male code of ethics, which states (in part) that if your best friend has dated a girl for more than six contiguous months, you’re not allowed to get involved with her when they break up. (The rule compounds the deeper and longer the relationship goes — married for 20 years, you’re not allowed to speak to the woman if they divorce.) Or maybe Jules loved his own wife just that much more. Maybe he and his wife had kids and stayed together for their sake. I don’t know — I’m spitballing ideas because Fruchbom doesn’t provide enough information. He should.
The Bottom Line
The plot works. Much of the character stuff works. Even a lot of the humor — comic premises and the occasional one-liner — works. The dialogue doesn’t. The aspects of the characters that don’t work certainly trump those that do, and this nearly sinks the whole script. It’s salvageable with a solid, thorough rewrite.