A Beginner’s Guide to Endings
Author: Jonathan Sobol
Writer’s Potential: 5
Logline:When three brothers learn they only have a few months left to live, they each embark on death-defying activities.
Synopsis:In voice over, DUKE WHITE (60s) explains that he’s done something horrible to his sons, and his only way out is death. He attempts to hang himself, but the tree branch snaps, so he decides to throw himself over Niagara Falls without a barrel. The “Li’l Chapel of Love” (a cheap, kitschy chapel run by UNCLE PAL, Duke’s brother) hosts Duke’s funeral. Uncle Pal eulogizes him by quoting the lyrics to “Freebird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd. Duke’s five sons gather in the front row: MILO (30s), the jittery hipster; TODD (10), precious and half-Asian; JUICEBOX (22), muscular and dopey; NUTS (30s), a grizzled, paunchy version of Juicebox; and CAL (30s), handsome and quick on his feet. As the brothers pass by the casket to mourn, they toss in mementos of their father. Unaware that he would have to do this, Juicebox tosses in a bus schedule. Cal steals Juicebox’s gold watch and tosses it in. Juicebox punches Cal, then Nuts punches Cal to show the correct way to throw a punch. Pal has to break them up.
The brothers, along with Uncle Pal, go to a bowling alley and get drunk, in honor of Duke’s memory. Cal eyes an attractive waitress who has “BAD NEWS” tattooed on her lower back. Uncle Pal reads Duke’s will. He leaves Nuts a silver bar, Cal the family wedding ring, and Milo a rhinestone-covered jumpsuit worn by Elvis in 1972. To Juicebox and Todd, he leaves $380 to split. Then, Duke’s will announces that he’s done a bad thing, and that his three eldest sons only have a few months to live. In need of cash, Duke offered them up to a pharmaceutical company; they took an experimental drug, and Duke got paid. Duke also received a packet from a lawyer showing that each of the sons got $100,000 in a settlement with the drug company — which he bet on a losing horse. Angry and shocked, the sons decide to get as drunk as humanly possible.
Title card: EDWARD “NUTS” WHITE - 1973-????. Nuts wakes to the sound of his cell phone. FITZ asks Nuts if Juicebox is ready for his boxing debut against TANK BOY. Turns out, after Nuts bottomed out of the boxing world, he started training his dull younger brother. Nuts is horrified to find Todd has given Juicebox two black eyes. He hopes Juicebox does better against Tank Boy. When Cal wakes up, they talk about their death sentence. Nuts insists they’ll be fine, because Duke was such a liar. Milo steps into the house, announcing he saw a doctor who confirmed their impending death. Todd’s hamster chews through the TV power cord and dies. The brothers have to bury and mourn the hamster. Nuts goes to Fitz’s boxing club, where he sees Tank Boy in action and decides to cancel the fight. Fitz says it’ll cost him $20,000 to cancel the fight. Nuts offers himself up to fight Tank Boy. Fitz laughs, bringing Tank Boy over to hear the story of how Nuts got his name: boxers’ fists have a gravitational pull toward his nuts, resulting in a great record for Fitz, because he always won when the boxers got disqualified for hitting below the belt. Nuts is humiliated, but Fitz allows him to fight.
Nuts seeks out Uncle Pal, hoping to get some of his old boxing equipment. Pal warns Nuts against fighting Tank Boy. He explains that Duke never really thought Nuts was a good fighter — he actually sold Nuts out, rigging fights and betting on them. The reason everyone punched him in the nuts is because Nuts has a medical condition where any blow to the head will kill him. When Nuts insisted on changing that — changing his name and his win-by-disqualification record — Duke paid the referee to beat the hell out of Nuts, ending his boxing career. Nuts is disappointed and a little frightened by this revelations, but he decides if he’s going to die anyway, he’d like to do it preventing Juicebox from humiliating himself. He goes to Fitz’s gym to train and gets his ass kicked by a sparring partner. He tries to pay Fitz off with the silver bar, but it’s not enough. He has no choice but to let Juicebox fight. When he sees how loyal and stupid Juicebox is, he decides once again he can’t do this to his brother, and decides to fight despite the odds. He steps into the ring, and as the bell rings, the action cuts to black.
Title card: CAL WHITE - 1975-????. Cal wakes up next to Bad News. He’s horrified to learn she also slept with Duke. He flees quickly and returns home, where he unloads on Milo, terrified that he’ll end up just like Duke. Cal decides he’s going to marry MIRANDA, “the one that got away.” He goes to get the ring from Uncle Pal, who tries to talk him out of it by showing Cal she’s been a “three-peat” at the Li’l Chapel of Love. All Cal takes away from it is that Miranda is currently single. Cal gets dressed in his nicest suit and goes to Miranda’s house. She doesn’t recognize him and assumes he’s either selling something or religious. Cal tells her who she is, and she’s thrilled to see him. They decide to “play tourist” throughout Niagara Falls. He takes her on the Skywheel and begs her to give him another shot. Miranda informs him that she’s not easy prey, but Cal is undaunted. He loves her and is up for any challenge she can throw at him. Miranda takes him to a biker bar, Satan’s Finest, where her ex-boyfriend, BIG MITCH, hangs out.
Cal realizes she’s using him as bait to make Big Mitch jealous, so he decides to confront the situation head-on. Big Mitch decides to resolve their differences using the bar’s “Wheel of Misfortune.” The wheel lands on “stick and nail fight,” so Big Mitch and Cal take 2x4s with nails poking out of them and go out to the parking lot to fight. Big Mitch sends Miranda home. Cal fights Big Mitch ineptly, but by coincidence, Nuts passes by, throwing the silver bar out the window. It nails Big Mitch in the head, knocking him out cold. When Big Mitch regains consciousness, he allows Cal to date Miranda — but he handcuffs himself to Cal, to make things as awkward and creepy as possible if Cal attempts to do anything with her. Undaunted, Cal attempts to walk away. As he goes over some railroad tracks, Big Mitch handcuffs his free hand to the tracks. A train is approaching, which Big Mitch didn’t plan for. Terrified, he pulls a machete out of his jacket and orders Cal to cut through the handcuffs. It doesn’t work, so Big Mitch insists Cal must cut Big Mitch’s hand off — it’s the only way. Cal doesn’t want to do it, but he realizes he also doesn’t want to die, so he chops off Big Mitch’s hand, then drives him to the hospital. Covered in blood, Cal shows up at Miranda’s place. She’s shocked to see Cal there. They go to the Falls, where Cal attempts to propose to Miranda. The scene cuts to black in mid-sentence.
Title card: MILO WHITE - 1979-???? Milo wakes in the middle of the night, unable to sleep from the anxiety of his impending death. He goes to the emergency room, where the doctor explains they won’t know anything for sure until his blood work came back, but if he did indeed take “Affektorol,” he’s as good as dead. Milo immediately starts making a list of things he wants to do before he dies. He calls his job and quits over the phone, insulting a wide variety of coworkers. He withdraws all the money from his bank accounts, buys a ‘68 Torino fastback, and dresses up in the Elvis jumpsuit Duke left him. Amused, Todd decides to tag along on Milo’s adventure. Milo gets a tattoo, only to discover how painful it is. He goes to Niagara Raceway, sets up a ramp and six mannequins, and attempts the world’s lamest jump (not even clearing the mannequins’ heads). Milo and Todd spot Cal and Miranda. Milo immediately knows what Cal is up to and orders Cal to give him the ring. Cal refuses, instead telling Milo he should get a girlfriend for himself before he dies. Milo and Todd do reconnaissance on Milo’s crush, MINDY, who works at a tourist-trap haunted house. Milo asks her out in a rambling, inept sort of way. She’s flabbergasted.
Meanwhile, the boys’ mother, GOLDIE, shows up at the empty house. Milo steals a barrel from the Niagara Falls Daredevil Museum. Milo drops Todd off at home, then goes to a scenic overlook to attempt to go over the Falls in a barrel. As soon as Goldie sees Todd, she suspects something is up. He refuses to tell, until she offers him $5. Goldie and Todd race to the scenic overlook, with Todd explaining Milo’s motivation for doing something so dangerous and stupid. They spot Todd’s car. He’s positioned the barrel on an incline a great distance from the river, trying to push himself over it but only moving an inch or so with each motion. As Goldie explains that she would not let her children do something so risky as take experimental pills and replaced them with Tic Tacs, both Goldie and Milo attempt to get him out of the barrel, but only push it closer to the river. It rolls into the river, at which point Milo declares that he wants to live. Cut to black.
Title card: DUKE WHITE - 1941-2009. As Duke narrates about his desire for a miracle to redeem the mistakes he’s made with his son, we resume where each vignette left off: in mid-sentence, Cal is horrified to see Duke White’s bloated, two-week-old corpse shoot out of the river and land at Miranda’s feet. Calling it a sign, he opts not to propose and leaves her alone. An ambulance crashes into a power line next to a hydroelectric power station, knocking the lights off in Fitz’s boxing ring. When the lights come back on, Tank Boy is on the canvas, and Nuts stands victorious. Milo’s barrel is stopped just shy of the Falls by the noose and branch Duke threw into the river before diving in himself. A tourist calls 911. Goldie leads the family through a nice, civilized dinner, and Duke now knows a miracle has officially happened — and it made him so happy, he must be dead.
Comments:A Beginner’s Guide to Endings is a fairly funny script about a dysfunctional family. Despite a well-written first act, the story deteriorates rapidly with barely related vignettes that cut to black just as they’re building up a head of steam, and characters who become more grating than endearing. As written, it merits a pass.
The first act is solid, establishing Duke, Pal, the five brothers, and the setup with a number of well-earned laughs. It’s really entertaining and shows what this script could have been if the writer hadn’t made a variety of poor choices. After the first act, the script loses its structure, focusing on three vignettes (depicting how Nuts, Cal, and Milo react to the news that they’re dying) that feature some moderately amusing situational jokes, but the stories as a whole fall flat, playing like the sort of Saturday Night Live sketches that have a one-joke premise but last for 12 minutes. Then, just as they seem to be heading somewhere more interesting, the writer cuts to the next segment. It detrimentally affects the momentum of the script, and although each “sketch” has some amusing moments, it’s difficult to get invested in the characters.
The ending doesn’t redeem this. It relies on two of the worst crutches of writers: wacky coincidences (none of which are as clever as they could be) and lazy voiceover narration, explaining how the actions sum up the script’s themes rather than letting the actions speak for themselves. It’s a deeply unsatisfying resolution for a script that had a lot of potential that’s ultimately wasted.
The main characters suffer as a consequence of the writer’s joke-first mentality. Brief opportunities arise to really dig deep into each character, his feelings on mortality, and his complicated relationship with a deceitful, drunk, obnoxious father, but the writer eschews these moments in favor of easy laughs. The audience will leave each vignette feeling like they spent 20 minutes watching this character in action without really getting a sense of who he is. Ultimately, the brothers serve as lightning rods for wacky situations and wackier supporting characters. As a result, it’s difficult to empathize with their struggles.
The supporting characters don’t fare much better. By design, they’re a menagerie of over-the-top weirdos who provide a great deal of laughs, but don’t really provide any insight into the main characters. They just say and do strange, often cartoonishly violent things, while the main characters react like dull straightmen. Even Duke, whose poor parenting should cast a shadow over each of the characters, isn’t much more than a walking joke dispenser, with the exception of his uncharacteristically sentimental, philosophical voiceovers.
The biggest change necessary to save this script is something that could happen in an editing room: dropping the “vignette” idea in favor of cutting back and forth between each brother’s story, giving a better sense of narrative drive as it races toward the finish line. Without a major change like that, this script is a disappointing lost cause.