The Nth Degree
Author: James Bird
Writer’s Potential: 1
Logline:A disparate group of people with mysterious ailments join together to find a doctor who can cure them.
Synopsis:KATE watches as her LANDLORD beats on the door of neighbor SPENCER’s apartment, threatening to bring a Marshal to escort her out of the building. He pins an eviction notice to her door and walks away. Spencer emerges from the apartment, sees Kate watching, and yells at her. Kate is inexplicably covered in water from head to toe. Spencer smokes a cigarette and reads an old letter in an envelope. She remembers (courtesy of a flashback) convincing ADAM to commit suicide. They both take an overdose of pills. After they’re both dead, MR. MACHINE revives Spencer with some magical, illuminated substance inside a brown bag. She begs him to let her die, but Mr. Machine says their work isn’t finished. In the present, Spencer hears crying coming from another apartment. She goes to investigate and finds Kate’s apartment floor soaked with water. She sits in a bathtub overflowing with water, crying. Spencer ridicules her, and Kate throws her out of the apartment. The next day, Kate apologizes to Spencer, who calls her a freak.
Meanwhile, ELLIOT is a bum who is missing his pinky finger. He has a letter from his father, begging him to come home, saying he’s dying. Over the course of one night, Elliot decides to take a bus back home, and more appendages start falling off: a pinky toe, a middle finger, eventually a whole foot. Kate works as a waitress at a restaurant. She’s having a hard time controlling the water that soaks her body. Her male customers make lewd comments about her being “wet,” until she vomits water all over their table. Spencer convinces MARY to commit suicide. This time, she waits to ambush Mr. Machine. When he arrives shortly after Mary’s death, Spencer beats him unconscious with a frying pan and storms out the door. Meanwhile, DR. W (50s) gives NOAH (30s) a list of names and tells him to hurry back. Kate comes home and finds Spencer lying on the floor of the hallway, having attempted suicide once again. Kate rushes to save Spencer, who is enraged once she regains consciousness. Kate finds Spencer’s letter, which is from someone who calls her special and insists one day he or she will find Spencer and explain everything. Spencer demands the letter back, and Kate denies reading it. Spencer accuses Kate of attempting some sort of lesbian necrophilia. Kate leaves.
Kate finds a letter taped to her door, from Dr. W, postmarked from “Wilby, Califoregon.” Kate is baffled, but whatever’s in the letter is enough to make her take action. She packs a box and waits for a taxi. Spencer sees her. Kate confesses she’s dying, and Spencer claims she is, too. They argue about whether or not wanting to attempt suicide counts as “dying.” Kate gets so worked up, she forgets her box. She comes back for it later, thrilled to find that Spencer has taken it instead of letting someone steal it on the street. Spencer confesses she’s leaving, too, and offers to drive Kate if she’s going north. The landlord and the marshal show up to take Spencer away. Kate decides to flee with Spencer. They hop into her van and head north. Mr. Machine checks Adam and Mary off a list of names that includes Kate, Spencer, and Elliot (among others). Elliot waits at a rural gas station off the Interstate. When Kate and Spencer stop for gas and food, Elliot hops into the van. Spencer immediately wants to throw him out, but he begs for a ride. Kate is sympathetic, and when he reveals he’s dying and headed for Califoregon to see a doctor who may be able to help him, they realize they’re all headed to the same place, possibly for the same reason.
Spencer is disturbed to learn Elliot is “melting.” Elliot and Kate try to get Spencer to tell them why she wants to kill herself, but all she’ll say is that she’s tired. That night, they sleep parked on the side of the road. The next morning, Spencer tells Kate that Elliot died during the night. Kate is horrified, moreso when she learns Spencer was joking. They argue about whether or not to stop for breakfast, and then on the most effective way to commit suicide. They realize they’re all orphans. Later, the van sputters to a stop, out of gas. The trio walks back to a gas station they passed, where they encounter Noah, who is ready with gas for them. He claims to be a psychic and knows enough about them to wow Kate and Elliot, but Spencer remains unimpressed. Noah cryptically tells them to take the Sadman with her. The trio returns to the van to find a parking ticket. Meanwhile, Noah returns to his car and pulls out a list identical to Mr. Machine’s. He circles Kate, Spencer, and Elliot’s names, then follows them in his truck. Flashbacks reveal that Noah is Mr. Machine’s son, and that because Mr. Machine killed a number of unknown people, Dr. W packed eight babies into Noah’s truck and begged him to take them to an orphanage far, far away.
In the present, Spencer passes a house isolated in the desert, covered in sand. Kate forces her to stop. Spencer doesn’t believe Noah, so she won’t stop. She accuses Kate of reading her letter (it was wet) and throws Kate out of the van. Elliot goes with Kate. Spencer speeds away. Kate and Elliot go to the sand house, where they meet BILL, a man grotesquely covered in sand. They explain the situation, but Bill doesn’t want to go with them. Eventually, he agrees to go — as long as Kate gives him a kiss when they leave, and a kiss when they arrive in Califoregon. Kate is disgusted. She decides to sleep on it. They spend the night at Bill’s house. The next morning, Kate wakes Bill up and kisses him. The trio leave together, with Kate and Bill crammed on a bicycle and Elliot on a wheelbarrow tied to the bike. Spencer parks her van and tries to commit suicide, but Mr. Machine revives her once again and forces her to find the others.
Noah follows Mr. Machine and Spencer. They go to the sand house, which is now empty. Noah takes Spencer away, leaving Mr. Machine behind. He returns Spencer to her van, insisting she take the others to the doctor. Spencer asks him all sorts of questions, but he’s evasive and simply says the doctor will answer the questions. Kate, Elliot, and Bill show up at a dive bar, looking for food. When a waitress mistakenly takes HANK’s beer, Hank accuses Bill of taking it and picks a fight. Bill gets his ass kicked, until Kate freaks out, and a sudden vat of water appears from above, crushing Hank. Spencer arrives at the bar, apologizing. When Hank regains consciousness, she beats him up. The others pile into her van. Spencer wants to know how to get to Califoregon. Elliot has a map, which says to “take the I-5 highway… then take the 5-1 low way to Califoregon.” Hungry, they stop at a diner. Spencer notices that Mr. Machine is working the grill. She slams into the waitress as she brings their food, accuses her of being clumsy, and orders the others to leave the diner. Mr. Machine comes after them, and they run. Flashbacks reveal that Mr. Machine blames Dr. W for the death of his wife, who died while giving birth to a child. Apparently, Mr. Machine manipulated and drugged his wife into staying with him. In the present, Noah helps them escape Mr. Machine, but he stays behind to fight him. Mr. Machine kills Noah.
The group knows that Spencer knows more than she’s letting on, but she won’t tell them much. They reach the California border, but there’s no “5-I low way.” Elliot notices that in the mirror, “I-5” looks like “5-I.” The others see what he sees, and Spencer throws it into reverse, which leads them to the “low way.” Eventually, they find Wilby and take the exit. Wilby isn’t much more than Dr. W’s house. He welcomes them home. They’re all baffled. Dr. W reveals that all of them are wizards, each with their own special powers, which they can control with his help. The only except is Spencer, who is a half-wizard, or “hazard.” Everyone’s disbelieving until he proves that they can manipulate the sand, water, and flesh that appear to be ailing them. They prepare to fight Mr. Machine. That night, Spencer floats up to the roof. This is her power, which she doesn’t believe she has. Dr. W can’t convince her that she’s doing this. The next morning, Dr. W creates “uniforms” for each of them (such as a rain slicker for Kate).
Just after they dress, Mr. Machine shows up in Noah’s pickup truck. Mr. Machine reveals that he’s Spencer’s father, and that her mother is the one who died in childbirth. He’s trying to rid the world of all wizards, because all of them — himself included — are an abomination. This gets Spencer in the fighting spirit. She hatches a plan, tricking Mr. Machine into thinking she’s killed all the others. Meanwhile, an invisible Elliot uses the distraction to empty Mr. Machine’s brown bag of magic powder into dead Noah’s mouth, reviving him. They replace the contents of the bag with sand from Bill’s body. Spencer and Mr. Machine flee quickly, and Spencer drives the truck off an incomplete bridge. She “floats,” returning to Dr. W’s house, while Mr. Machine plummets to his death.
Free of Mr. Machine, who has been drugging her the same way he did her mother, Spencer dreams for the first time ever. She sees the two remaining wizards. She knows how to find them. Noah uses what remains of Mr. Machine’s dust to revive Adam and Mary. Noah declares it’s time for them to rebuild their family.
Comments:The Nth Degree seeks to answer a question that has plagued moviegoers for decades: “How much worse would Waiting for Godot be as a road movie about wizards?” The script is little more than aimless, sporadically amusing dialogue and a dull road-movie plot, with a fantasy element haphazardly added to create the illusion something worthwhile is happening in the story. As written, it merits a pass.
The first act ambles lifelessly from one disjointed scene to the next. The writer desperately wants to create an air of mystery, but the key to doing that is actually compelling the audience to want to learn the solution to said mysteries, instead of just pasting scenes together where random characters do needlessly bizarre things with little rhyme or reason. Worse than that, the writer saddles his script with a protagonist who’s so unnecessarily shrill and bitchy, it’ll have audiences rooting for a quick yet painful death — and she’s ostensibly the hero of the piece!
The script finally attempts to have a plot when the characters hit the road in the second act, but the writer has the characters talk in irritating circles in order to pad out a story that evidently is not feature length. The scenes don’t build any sort of energy or drive the story forward — they just seem to talk until the writer gets bored with a certain combination of characters, at which points he puts them in a new setting with different people (like the dive bar) or adds a new character (like Bill) to do some more aimless rambling. The dialogue isn’t as funny or as clever as it needs to be to keep an audience engaged when nothing is happening except people yammering cutesy absurdities at one another. Meanwhile, the subplot with Noah tracking Mr. Machine and the endless flashbacks that spoonfeed backstory that, ironically (considering how obsessed the writer is with having the other characters talk without revealing anything), explains too much, making the third act annoyingly predictable.
Then again, since the third act is pretty much just more wacky dialogue with a few fight sequences tossed in, maybe it doesn’t matter how predictable it is. Dr. W doesn’t do much beyond explain everything that’s already been shown in flashback, and then some. By the time it arrives, the “surprise” reveal that they’re all wizards is as eye-rollingly obvious as it is stupid, and the final confrontation with Mr. Machine is neither exciting nor funny. It seems like they want to split the difference between Harry Potter and an X-Men or Justice League-type superhero squad, but this script lacks the mystery of the former and the action of the latter. It’s just an awful short-film script puffed out to feature length courtesy of reams of bad dialogue.
The writer’s inability to create compelling mysteries and pay them off in any satisfying way carries over to the characters. As mentioned, Spencer is the script’s heroine, and she is a nightmare. Maybe the half-assed explanation that Mr. Machine kept her drugged up explains some of her issues, but that doesn’t make her a character anyone would want to spend any time with — including characters in the film. Why do they put up with her? Because she has a van? At the eleventh hour, the writer tries to make her character a little bit sympathetic, and then a little bit triumphant, but it’s all a lost cause by that point.
The supporting characters aren’t much more than dialogue-spewing machines. They exist so Spencer has people to have circular conversations with, and to support the “mystery” that they’re all wizards being hunted by Mr. Machine for unknown reasons. The fact that they all put up with Spencer’s awful behavior is the script’s most compelling mystery, but it’s the only one that’s not overexplained by the writer — in fact, it’s never explained at all. Similarly, Mr. Machine is not exactly Voldemort. He never comes across as much of a threat, considering his M.O. is to force his drugged-up daughter to do his dirty work for him, against her will. The reasons for this are never satisfactorily explained, and while the final confrontation with him is deeply unsatisfying, the fact that he’s not as tough to beat as he looks will come as no surprise to audiences.