- The Muppet Man—A dreadful script that manages to dramatize much of Jim Henson’s life without ever providing any insight into what drove him to create.
- The Social Network—A quick, compelling read thanks to Sorkin’s ease with generating conflict and suspense almost entirely through well-written dialogue. The script also wisely focuses on Mark Zuckerberg and the other people involved in the foundation of Facebook more than the story of its founding.
- The Voices—A flat-out great script—funny, insightful, tragic, and brilliant. One of the best scripts I’ve ever read. If it can make it through development unscathed, it’ll be one hell of a movie.
- Prisoners—Too much intricately plotted story, too little anything else.
- Cedar Rapids—A mild-mannered but genuinely funny comedy. As a frequent visitor of Cedar Rapids, it’s nice to see a story set there that doesn’t condescend to what idiots assume “flyover country” responds to.
- Londongrad—One hell of a dull docudrama, telling an interesting story in a remarkably lifeless way.
- L.A. Rex—A convoluted yet hackneyed look at policing in South Central L.A. Full of everything you’d expect and little you wouldn’t (I didn’t see the pit sequence coming, so they have that going for them): gangsters with ties to celebrities, dirty cops, a veteran partnered with a rookie.
- Desperados—A bland but genial comedy that suffers from an overdose of Idiot Plot.
- The Gunslinger—Dull Country for Old Men
- By Way of Helena—An historical drama that manages to combine three of my favorite subjects (religious battles, post-Civil War America, and hunting men for sport) without making any effort to make the subjects compelling
- The Days Before—A sci-fi comedy that gets off on its own cleverness, which is particularly irksome because the script is not as clever as it thinks it is. It’s pretty much just Independence Day with a darker edge and time travel.
It’s not easy to draw any conclusions about why these scripts were as well-received as they are. Some (The Social Network and The Voices) are legitimately great despite the possible marketing problems in the future. Some flat-out sucked (The Muppet Man and By Way of Helena), which makes me question the politics of the whole List, as I did last year. Except, unlike last year’s flawed List, I can’t figure out why anyone would expect something like By Way of Helena to make money. It’s as esoteric as it is bad. At least The Muppet Man, for all its flaws, has a sizable built-in audience.
Other than the ends of the bell curve, the remaining scripts—for all their strengths and weaknesses—are pretty much genre fare, with all the trappings (Idiot Plot, convolution in place of real thrills) that usually make big movies sort of suck. Why film executives would like these scripts makes sense, but it shakes my faith in the development process.
Of course, my trending-positive feelings about the development cycle are no match for my utter confusion about the writing itself. As I’ve said many times, I’m under the (apparently misguided) notion that writers always put their best foot forward—it’s development that saps originality and causes a once-tight script to turn into an unwieldy mess. Because, of course, the writers have to accommodate the input of dozens of people, making them all happy without ever making the audience happy. That’s fine, and I respect that process…
But if what I just spent two weeks reading are selling drafts, as they allegedly are, then I consider it a problem. That’s before the crush of development, the pristine scripts that writers moan and complain about when the final product doesn’t match their original vision. Maybe they had to hastily revise the script in order to get it sold, but that doesn’t say anything positive about the sellers or the buyers. Even so, if you go to a Honda dealership and say, “Hey, do you have that Civic in yellow?” they don’t go to Lowe’s, buy a bucket of house paint, and slap on a coat so they can sell you that particular car. They take the time (and service charges) to painstakingly customize your car, giving you exactly what you want with the highest possible quality. In part, it’s because they want you to buy it for the highest possible price, but the reward is obvious: if you see a Civic with peeling canary-yellow house paint, you don’t just judge the idiot who bought it—you judge the dolts who sold it looking like that. It’s a poor reflection on that particular salesman, or his dealership, or Honda in general.
Maybe it’s a deadline problem. I don’t know. To stick with the Honda/housepaint analogy, even if they were on a deadline, wouldn’t they try their best to hide such a low-grade scam? Brushing on some cheap paint but taping the fuck out of it and maybe spraying it with some kind of sealing polymer to make it slightly less noticeable? In other words: even with finite resources (such as time and money) available, do the best possible work. Given the sold products of some of these scripts (Prisoners, I’m looking at you), if this is the best possible work, no wonder nobody has any respect for screenwriters. Unless they cobbled a rewrite together during a caffeine-fueled all-nighter, to paraphrase Billy Wilder, “This is shit, Mr. Chandler.”