Posts in Category: Script to Screen

[Five] Killers (2010) by Bob DeRosa and Ted Griffin

Everything that went wrong with Killers can be traced to the title change: from the fairly specific (or, at least, enigmatically intriguing) Five Killers to the generic, not-at-all-compelling Killers. On the page, Five Killers spins an entertaining, occasionally thrilling tale that blends Mission: Impossible-esque espionage with good-natured romantic comedy. On the screen, it seems the filmmakers decided to scale way back on the espionage in favor of the romantic comedy angle. The result is uneven, to put it mildly.

Let’s start with the screenplay’s storyline, which I will eventually contrast with the differences in the film. Spencer (Ashton Kutcher) is essentially portrayed as a low-grade Ethan Hunt, a young but masterful spy. The early scenes do a great job of setting the tone: while Spencer lurks around Corsica, tracking and ultimately bombing a mysterious, supervillain known as “Leveneux,” he has a goofy Meet-Cute with Jen (Katherine Heigl), who’s vacationing with her overbearing, intrusive parents. They share a cute, slightly awkward moment, at which point Spencer asks Jen out. Gleeful, evidently lonely Jen prepares for a date with Spencer, while he plants a bomb on Leveneux’s escape helicopter. They both dash to an outdoor caf&eacute, overlooking the Mediterranean, just in time to see the chopper explode.

A montage follows, depicting their whirlwind courtship and marriage. During this montage, Spencer quits working as a spy and opens a small design firm in the suburbs. The script then jumps ahead three years, to a much more complacent Jen and Spencer. They’re still in love, but they’re decidedly a settled married couple. Spencer has some issues with the amount of time Jen spends with her parents. Jen has some issues with how much time he spends at work. After the script introduces a cavalcade of suburban stereotypes with outsized personalities, Spencer gets a call from his old handler, who has a line on “The Leopard,” the mysterious, Blofeld-like boss of Leveneux. He’s not dead. The handler wants to meet, but Spencer refuses. That night, Jen throws a surprise party in anticipation of Spencer’s birthday. The following morning, Spencer finds his best friend, Henry, trying to kill him.

From there, Jen learns of Spencer’s secret past as a spy, and Spencer learns (from Henry) that he has a $20 million bounty on his head. Henry knows more assassins will be hot on Spencer’s trail, but he doesn’t know how many, who put the bounty on Spencer, or why they were paid to “sleep” in Spencer’s subdivision for three years before activation. Spencer assumes it has something to do with his handler. The remainder of the story focuses on two major plot threads: Spencer and Jen uncovering information about who hired the assassins (Spencer assumes it’s The Leopard, who realizes Spencer and his handler have gotten too close, so his main goal is to use information about the assassins to find out The Leopard’s true identity), and the couple attempting to elude and/or fight various assassins. With all this happening, Jen struggles to deal with Spencer’s deception, and Spencer struggles with the idea that he may be a father (yes, the pregnancy subplot rears its ugly head midway through the script).

Overall, the script is a fun read. The spy material is engaging but not overwrought, and the writers do a solid job of balancing the tonal shifts. They also mine a lot of suspense and a sense of paranoia from the idea that literally anybody could be an assassin. The ending, which I’ll be nice and not ruin, is inevitable but not at all predictable. It’s not without its flaws, however. In particular, Jen is a one-note character. She doesn’t really have any traits beyond “overly dependent on her parents.” The attempt to give her a conflict of her own—anxiety over when and how to tell Spencer about her pregnancy—doesn’t add as much dimension to her as the writers seem to think. They also don’t play enough with the idea of Spencer deceiving Jen on an epic scale, making her pregnancy secret a relatively minor offense.

The portrayal of the assassins constitutes another big flaw of the screenplay. The writers lay it out pretty simply: shortly after their marriage, an unknown boss hired five killers (hence the title) to befriend or work with Spencer and/or Jen. The assassins had two conditions: they’d have to wait an unknown length of time before the boss activated them, and they’d be dueling with each other for the $20 million bounty. Here’s the main problem: once revealed as assassins, the killers don’t break character. They remain wacky suburban stereotypes, preoccupied with fishing trips and property lines despite the fact that they’re in the middle of car chases and shootouts. The incongruity is amusing on a basic comedic level, but it doesn’t make any actual sense.

Another, more minor problem with them is how easily Spencer dispatches them. He kills four of the five assassins with relative ease, leading to a third-act block party filled with paranoid dread as Spencer and Jen try to identify the final killer. The fix for these two issues is sheer elegance in its simplicity: make the assassins go soft. They’ve spent three years assuming the cover of a dull suburbanite, a UPS driver, or an intern. The way these characters describe the torture of suburbia left me with the impression that they’re not used to “sleeping” in these covers identities for so long. Humans—even sociopathic assassins—are very adaptable creatures. It wouldn’t be entirely surprising or unreasonable to think they’d put on a little weight and got a little more invested in fishing than in keeping up with target practice or the latest in bombing technology. It kills two birds with one stone, explaining why Spencer has such an easy time killing them and why they remain fixated on their bland suburban lives as they spray machine-gun fire in Spencer’s direction.

Did the film rectify any of these problems? Sort of…but it makes a lot of new, more debilitating mistakes. This is the rare film that is wildly divergent from its screenplay. Usually, some things change in production, but only a few scenes and the (very) basic storyline remain intact in Killers.

On the positive side, the film gives Jen and her parents much more personality—so much so that it no longer makes much sense when she and Spencer argue about her dependence on her parents. As the Kornfelds, Tom Selleck and Catherine O’Hara mine some of the biggest laughs, but the characters are totally different. Gone are the overbearing perfectionists; in their stead, Selleck is a cold, constantly disapproving bully, and O’Hara is an over-the-top lush (the sort of woman who makes a pitcher of Bloody Marys for breakfast and drinks the whole thing as if it’s a giant glass). Jen treats them more with annoyance than dependence.

Jen, herself, has much more going on. When we first meet her, she’s a sentient bundle of anxiety, in constant fear of saying or doing the wrong thing. Heigl does a nice job of showing the change “three years later”—she’s much more relaxed and subdued now that she’s found her soulmate. However, the groundwork is there for her to panic and overreact when the assassins come calling. The script eventually attributes this to mood swings associated with pregnancy, which is sort of a lame explanation that attempts to make the character less interesting.

However, the assassins remain the same, warts and all. The entire supporting cast is populated by comedic ringers like Rob Riggle (The Daily Show), Alex Borstein (Mad TV), and Martin Mull (Fernwood 2 Night). That they’re all recognizable makes it harder to identify whom the assassins might be. That they’re all comedians forces them to go a few hundred shades over the top, compounding the problems with the assassins’ portrayal in the script. (However, Mull gives an impressively restrained performance, but he’s in the movie for a total of about 38 seconds.)

The film’s plot is a curiosity. Whereas the screenplay combines the romantic-comedy elements with the legitimate sense of a thriller, the changes to the story and characters reflect a definite “rom-com first, thriller seventh” attitude. The film strips away the majority of spy material, making those delicately balanced tonal shifts jarring and weird. Shootouts and car chases are inexplicably punctuated with music left over from the Under the Tuscan Sun scoring sessions. The lack of suspense and simplification of the plot present serious problems because they make the characters’ movement from location to location meaningless. It feels like they’re just traveling to a different place to vary the action sequences. Admittedly, that’s the script’s ultimate goal—but it gives the characters palpable purpose for going to the places they go.

I have one question, to which I have no definitive answer: what the hell happened? How did a reasonably good (if slightly problematic) script turn into such a wildly uneven, borderline incoherent movie? Is this another example of too many cooks spoiling the broth? Director Robert Luketic bears at least some of the blame. The film de-emphasizes the thriller aspects, but that doesn’t mean they’re completely gone. It is, after all, still a film about a couple trying to get away from assassins. He’s responsible for the total lack of suspense and poorly staged action sequences.

Worse than that, though, the film feels like a bunch of ill-fitting pieces jammed together. Some scenes—notably, Jen and Spencer’s meeting and the “they buy a pregnancy test” scene—are identical to what’s in the script. Everything surrounding these scenes changed, but they don’t quite sync up anymore. It’s almost like they started shooting with the draft of the script I read, but the writers were forced to rewrite the script on-set to accommodate both what they’d already shot and what the director or producers or actors or agents or executives decided the movie now “needed.” For instance, the pregnancy is a major subplot in the screenplay, but in the finished film it’s an unnecessary distraction. Now that Jen’s character has totally changed, for the better, why not just cut it altogether?

It’s always a shame when a good script goes bad. Five Killers had its share of problems, but it would have turned out a lot better than Killers did.

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A Single Man (2009) by Tom Ford and David Searce

When I first read the script for A Single Man in 2008, I hated it. I generally react to scripts I dislike with a mixture of disappointment and indifference. It’s very rare that something’s so bland and devoid of apparent meaning that I actively hate it. A Single Man managed to accomplish that difficult feat.

Why? From page one, it fails to answer the most basic, screenwriting 101 question a writer should ask before starting a project: “Why does this story need to be told?” That’s not much more than a polite way of asking, “Who cares?” Either way, if the writer can’t answer the question, he or she probably should find something else to write about. Co-writers Tom Ford (the fashion designer) and David Scearce never attempt to answer that question. Obviously, Ford felt some sort of connection to Christopher Isherwood’s novel: in addition to co-writing, he produced, directed, and financed the project. However, any connection he may have to the material is neither present on the page nor on film. It’s like a museum: very cold, and very beautiful. Technical beauty is simply not enough.

Although this column is not called “Novel to Screen,” it can’t hurt to examine how the novel form compares to a screenplay. In a novel, a writer can have a character who sits around doing nothing, passing through a single uninteresting day, without getting into any conflict with others—without even interacting with others—and it can be fascinating, if the character is compelling and his worldview is unique and interesting. The same cannot be said for a film, no matter how good everything surrounding its story is. Films are works of drama, and the foundation of drama is conflict. Internal conflict is a tricky thing to pull off in film, because the audience has to understand the conflict, and pained silence only goes so far. Eventually, a writer has to start relying on more dangerous tricks of the medium—voiceovers, flashbacks, monologues. Great filmmakers can pull this off (see Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters for brilliant uses of all three techniques).

Ford, to put it bluntly, is neither a great filmmaker nor a great screenwriter, and A Single Man suffers from its dearth of conflict. I hated the screenplay because nothing interesting happens, and whenever something interesting comes close to happening, Ford and Scearce cut away to another flashback.. The redundant story, set in 1962, follows George (played by Colin Firth in the movie), a British college professor living in Los Angeles. An opening flashback makes it abundantly clear that George’s longtime lover, Jim (Matthew Goode), died in a car accident one year earlier. George still grieves for him. The movie rinses and repeats three basic scene types: (1) a mournful-looking George preparing to commit suicide, (2) a mournful-looking George going through the motions during what he intends to be his last day on Earth, and (3) a slightly-less-mournful flashback to George’s life with Jim.

Ford might as well have titled it We Get It: The Movie. After the opening flashback, we understand the source of George’s internal conflict. To some extent, we even understand why he’s intending to commit suicide. Do we need a half-dozen more flashbacks showing George and Jim in happier times? In terms of the narrative: no—please God, no! In terms of practicality: well, the script runs a scant 87 pages, and the bulk of that consists of moody descriptions of George’s facial expressions and other characters’ wardrobe and makeup. The shorthand of the medium is “1 page = 1 minute,” making 87 pages barely feature length.

We understand George’s internal conflict—fine. Pretend the script doesn’t feature tons of other redundant flashbacks. What’s left? George goes through the motions of a typical day, and he seems oddly disconnected from other people. This fits: George considers Jim his one true love, so Jim’s death has made him turn his back on the outside world. It fits, but it’s not dramatically interesting. George meanders through a day, but he doesn’t seem terribly interested in any of it. This could have become a source of external conflict—George’s apathy frustrating his colleagues, neighbors, and friends, perhaps increasing his suicidal tendencies. Instead, George’s nonplussed reactions and polite, if terse, dialogue does nothing to build suspense, intrigue, or even further develop his character.

Opportunities for real dramatic tension creep into the third act, but it’s too little, too late. First, George has dinner with Charley (Julianne Moore), a boozehound friend who has spent much of her life disappointed that George won’t go straight and marry her. Later, one of George’s students (Kenny, played by Nicholas Hoult) arrives unexpectedly at the same seaside bar where George met Jim 16 years earlier. (In reality, Kenny found out where George lived, staked out his place, and followed him to the bar to engineer the “chance meeting.”) George quickly finds himself smitten by Kenny. They go for an erotic late-night swim, after which George seems to realize how silly his suicidal plans are. And so, shortly after putting away the gun he’s spent most of the script staring at wistfully, George dies of a heart attack. The end.

It struck me as odd that George could be so easily pulled from the brink by a guy who, really, isn’t terribly interesting. Aside from looking good and being gay, he doesn’t offer much that should interest George, regurgitating pop psychology and talking about how great marijuana is. I did a little research on the source novel (without actually reading it myself, so pardon my ignorance if what I learned was incorrect) and discovered the suicide angle is an invention of the screenwriters. In the novel, George is just moderately depressed and unable to overcome his grief. Making George suicidal raises the stakes but instantly makes everything else harder to believe. He seems too disinterested in his life to really want to end it—apathy should never be confused for soul-crushing misery.

Even if they made the suicide angle believable, they have a much bigger challenge in making Kenny resonate enough to make George’s change of heart (no pun intended) convincing. Excising the suicide angle altogether wouldn’t make this a brilliant script, but at least the Kenny development would work. Hell, maybe the rest of the script would benefit from such a change. George’s fastidious preparations for suicide don’t match his laissez-faire approach to life in the rest of the script. Firth does his best to make the dichotomy work, but the burden is really on the writer. The flashbacks don’t illuminate enough about him to show a marked change in personality—they never suggest that meticulousness to the point of obnoxiousness once defined George, before grief and despair caused him to stop caring. At the end of it all, from page one to page 87, nothing in this screenplay really works, but maybe it could have in the hands of better adaptors.

A year later, long after I’d forgotten the existence of A Single Man, reviews trickled out during its limited theatrical release. Nearly all of them were positive. Huh, I thought, maybe this is one of the rare screenplays that doesn’t accurately reflect the film it would become.

So I watched the movie, and… Well… The acting is really good, almost in spite of Tom Ford. As producer/director, Ford assembled an ace cast, absorbed Mad Men‘s excellent production team to create the same early-’60s look, and trotted out every single trick in the “flashy director” playbook: weird jump cuts; variable-speed shots; super-slow motion; a rapidly transforming color palette; mise-en-scène more reminiscent of a photograph than a film; inundating the soundtrack with ambiance instead of dialogue. I’m sure I’m leaving something out.

All this excess detracts from the performances. Firth somehow manages to turn in a great performance in an emotionally hollow film. He works his ass off trying to serve as the emotional center, but every step of the way, Ford tosses in obnoxious flourishes that make Firth’s read on the character needlessly confusing. For instance, when George leaves for work in the morning, Ford shoots his drive down the street in super-slow-motion, lingering on George’s neighbors as he passes them, watching, playfully “shooting” the son dressed like an Indian. What the hell is the point of that? Neither Firth nor the script give a sense that, perhaps, George is missing something by not having a “normal” family, but that’s the only conclusion to be drawn from such unnecessary lingering on a scene any other writer/director would cut long before production.

It tempts me to say, “Well, Tom Ford is an artist, not a filmmaker.” That way, I could excuse the unnecessary stylistic showiness, chalking it up to inexperience and lack of confidence. It doesn’t feel like inexperience, though. It feels like distraction—from the fact that there’s no real story here, no matter what Firth does to prevent George from feeling as bland and dickish as he comes across on the page. In short: A Single Man is a small group of excellent performances in a terrible film that tries to gussy up its dullness with impeccably overwrought technical craftsmanship. It’s wonderful to look at and nothing else.

All of that started on the page, though. The script started out bad. The film makes many attempts to hide the flaws, but ultimately a work of drama can’t succeed when its characters are mostly inert. Potential for real drama exists within the script, particularly in George’s difficult relationship with Charley, but Ford fails to capitalize on these opportunities. The result is a frustrating, dramatically inert film. If this is Ford’s passion project, why does it feel so passionless?

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The Book of Eli (2010) by Gary Whitta and Anthony Peckham

Note: Gary Whitta is the only credited writer in the finished movie, but the screenplay used for this column also listed Anthony Peckham’s name.

This might sound like a strange statement, but here it goes: screenplays, on the whole, aren’t meant to be read. By anyone. Over the course of 100 years, everyone in Hollywood who isn’t a writer but must—for one reason or another—read a screenplay has beaten the literature out of screenwriters. (If you don’t believe me, search online for screenplays for films like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre or Sunset Boulevard and compare the prose to something like Avatar, and you’ll understand what I mean.) This does not mean writers don’t write great scripts despite the constraints of the medium; it just means that they operate differently from literature. They serve as a blueprint for a film yet to come, not something that should be consumed for pleasure.

There are many schools of thought as to why this evolution has occurred. Many attribute it to the egos involved in making a film. If one makes scene descriptions too vivid and/or filled with camera jargon, the director may feel like he or she can’t make a creative contribution. If one fills scenes with dialogue inflection notes, descriptions of facial expressions, or “business” for the characters, the actors don’t feel like they can make creative contributions. And so on and so forth, until screenplays are worn down to nubs that mostly rely on robotic dialogue and clipped, turgid descriptions of action to tell the story. Legitimately great writing stands out because it’s so rare in an industry where the hallmark of a great screenwriter is the ability to condense lofty (and not-so-lofty) ideas into a haiku.

(I know that last paragraph sounds like I’m denigrating the entire screenwriting community. I’m not; it actually is, in its own way, exceptionally challenging and rewarding to write a screenplay that “gets away” with creating imagery that’s vivid enough to be interpreted correctly by the filmmakers but not so vivid that they feel as if the writer is “directing on the page.” But that still doesn’t mean a screenplay should be mistaken for literature, or even an accurate depiction of the finished film.)

The Book of Eli, on the other hand, throws caution to the wind and attempts to operate as a work of literature unto itself. It tells a fairly basic neo-western story set in a post-Apocalyptic wasteland a few decades in the future. Writers Gary Whitta and Anthony Peckham pack the screenplay with dense, disturbing imagery, building a decaying world that rivals only Philip K. Dick’s nightmarish Dr. Bloodmoney in its portrait of survival. It opens with three solid pages describing the horrors of this world, peppered with stark reminders of how things used to be. It’s a breathtaking opening that tosses aside pretty much every modern screenwriting convention in the book (Screenplay by Robert McKee) in favor of telling a really good story.

The opening pages of The Book of Eli effectively absorbed me into its universe, and it hooked me all the way. I even remained onboard in its goofier moments, because even when the story got a little shaky, the writing was just too good to dismiss.

Here’s how the story goes: Eli is a professional badass. He knows all the tricks of the nomadic scavengers who steal, rape, and kill to survive. He knows his way around swords, guns, and arrows. He can hunt and forage and take advantage of what little shelter still remains. In short, he knows how to survive. And he’s walking through a mysterious desert on an unknown destination. He carries with him a thick, leather-bound, gold-leafed King James Bible, with a big lock to keep it safe. He reads from it nightly. This, for those who don’t understand how titles work, is The Book…of Eli.

The Bible becomes the MacGuffin in this western story, which pits Eastwood-esque antihero Eli (played by Denzel Washington in the movie) against raving maniac Hawthorne (for reasons unknown, his name became Carnegie in the movie, and Gary Oldman played him). Eli is on some sort of unknown quest that has to do with keeping the Bible safe. Hawthorne (I’ll just call him Carnegie from now on, to avoid confusion) wants the Bible for himself, because although he doesn’t exactly remember its content, he remembers the power its words wielded over the world. He wants that power for himself. Right now, he controls a small California town from the luxury of an abandoned movie theatre. He wants more for himself, and he sees the Bible as the way to get it. Even before Eli’s arrival, he sends his crew of illiterate bikers out to scavenge for books. Nobody’s found one.

When Eli arrives in town to get a battery recharged (he uses a car battery to charge a worse-for-wear iPod, which is great product placement for Apple, but the condition of my well-maintained four-year-old iPod suggests to me that it wouldn’t actually weather 30+ years and an Apocalypse), Carnegie is intrigued by his presence. In stark contrast to the rest of the survivors, Eli and Carnegie remain able-bodied and mentally intact. They can both read, and they both know how to stay alive in this world.

Carnegie’s interest in Eli increases when Eli dispatches several of Carnegie’s toadies, who tussle with him in a bar fight. In an attempt to curry favor, Carnegie offers Eli food, lodging, and the “company” of a young barmaid, Solara (played by Mila Kunis). Eli has no sexual interest in the girl, but Solara finds him fascinating. She wants to know about the way things used to be, and neither Carnegie nor Solara’s blind mother will satisfy her curiosity. The next morning, when she says grace before breakfast, Carnegie realizes what Eli has. This sets up the conflict that drives the rest of the script: Carnegie will stop at nothing to get what he wants, but Eli’s the only man in 100-mile radius who won’t play by Carnegie’s rules.

The script takes its time establishing the world and the characters before descending into an orgy of well-written, deeply satisfying violence. While on the run from Carnegie, Eli and Solara develop a sweet, father-daughter relationship. The writers wisely keep this far, far away from anything romantic, a refreshing change of pace. It builds to a twist-filled third act that satisfies because the writers manage to make the twists rely on the characters’ perceptions of each other, not on some weird mindfuck for the audience.

The familiar elements of the story—it’s pretty much a classic western structure, right down to the shootout on Main Street—are energized by the harrowing post-Apocalyptic backdrop and the writers’ impressive attention to detail. They never take for granted the way the priorities in this world have changed (after spending the night in the home of a man who, at some time in the distant past, hanged himself in a closet, Eli trades his beaten-down walking shoes for the dead man’s pristine pair) or the fact that the younger characters, notably Solara, have never experienced the way things used to be. All they’ve ever known is this hellhole, and the writers never hit a false note in portraying that. Even when Eli, late in the script, describes his “religious quest” to Solara—the idea that, after a year of wandering the ruins of his planet, “a voice” began speaking to him, led him to the last remaining Bible, and told him exactly where he needs to take it—the writers never say, “He really did hear God talk to him,” which leaves some impression that he could just be crazy. The script has ample opportunity to get stupid, but the writers never overplay their hand.

The finished film is a different story. Remember all that talk earlier about not “over-writing” a screenplay for fear of “directing on the page”? Well, the Hughes Brothers don’t fear directing on the page, because there’s not a scene description that’s been written that they can’t over-direct. The Hughes Brothers have style to spare, and they direct The Book of Eli with a flare that frequently detracts from the drama at hand. Their artistic tricks can be very effective, particularly during action sequences (the siege on the cannibals’ house in the second half of the film is staggeringly impressive). The quieter moments don’t fare so well, lending a glossy, comic-book feel to a script that’s about as gritty and depraved as The Road, just with a lot more ass-kicking and a nice spiritual message.

The Book of Eli‘s overt message—that the Christian Bible is the most important thing in all of civilization—doesn’t have much to do with why I liked the script. Call me a heathen, but I don’t have a religious bone in my body. However, as someone who’s paid attention to human history, I’d be an idiot not to acknowledge that—whether I agree with it or not—the Christian Bible is, at the very least, one of the most important things in all of civilization. The script is remarkably secular, however. It preaches the importance of the Bible as a tool for enlightenment and understanding. That’s really all it is: a book of fables designed to help people understand the world in which they live. There have always been people like Carnegie using it as a weapon of exploitation, which is one of the great strengths of the script. Neither Eli nor Carnegie seems to have found religion—they’re just two men who understand the Bible’s role in shaping human history.

This subtlety gets lost in the finished film, in which Washington plays Eli like a stoic apostle whose function is to spread the word on behalf of a God he really does have a personal relationship with. Meanwhile, Oldman plays Carnegie as a greasy, simpering asshole. Both of these guys are typically fine actors—among the best of their generation—but their performances here lack the shades of gray that exist on the page to the film’s great detriment.

Speaking of performances that miss the mark: Mila Kunis. She impressed the hell out of me in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, but she plays Solara as too tough and streetwise to make her interest in Eli ring true. In the script, she’s timid and sort of mousy, naïve and gleeful about anybody who can connect her to a past she missed on account of not yet being born. This characterization makes some of her stupider decisions—such as saying grace in front of Carnegie and following Eli out of town—pretty believable, but that believability gets lost in Kunis’s glowering read on the character.

A perfect example of the Solara problem comes early in the film, when Eli reads a Biblical passage to her. Keep in mind, this is the King James Version, which is full of “thees” and “thous” and other Elizabethan words Solara would never have heard before. Solara responds with, “That’s beautiful—did you make that up?” Although that moment in the movie does not exist in the draft of the script I read, it’s the sort of response that would have fit with the wide-eyed naïveté of Solara on the page. However, it rings false when Kunis says it—a more believable reaction for her take on the character would be along the lines of, “What the hell does ‘maketh’ mean?”

Worse than that—I hate to get shallow, but she looks like she just walked off a Vanity Fair shoot. Washington, Oldman, and even Jennifer Beals as the blind mother are all dressed down and grimy. To paraphrase Mystery Science Theater 3000: “In the future, survivors rub themselves with old oil filters.” Kunis sticks out like a lovely, lovely thumb in this universe. She’s clearly wearing makeup (especially evident on Bluray), which it’s hard to believe exists in a world where hotel-sized shampoo bottles are a novelty, and she even makes post-Apocalyptic fashions look stylish. I’m not sure who thought it was a good idea to make her look that good and that different, but every second she’s on screen is bound to take viewers out of the moment. It just doesn’t fit.

Although the performances aren’t necessarily bad, the story loses much of its impact as a result of the actors’ handling of the characters. Moments that worked beautifully on the page just don’t hold up.

Maybe the direction is to blame for the performances, in addition to the comic-book sheen. After all, what the script describes as rusted-out junkers rumbling through abandoned streets becomes, in the film, Mad Max knockoffs plated with so much armor it’s amazing the suspension doesn’t just collapse. A sequence of nail-biting suspense, in which Eli and Solara unwittingly enter a house occupied by cannibals, is played like a bad Three’s Company episode. Finally, the finished film leaves audiences with no choice but to accept that Eli is, indeed, a shepherd of God’s word, led by the Big Man Himself on his quest. Eli literally gets shot in the neck in that Main Street shootout, but nothing happens—not a scratch on him. This moment does not exist in the script, nor should it.

I know this article has sounded like relentless hostility, but that’s more tricky gray area: I didn’t dislike the movie. It’s passable entertainment. I have an issue with it because it could have been great, a well-written, multifaceted exploration of the positive and negative effects of religion on society, with tons of ass-kicking. Not as emotionally draining as The Road, but a movie that’s nonetheless filled with smart ideas and a complex point of view. Whatever the reasons, the finished film robs the script of its subtlety and complexity, which makes it a disappointment despite its merits.

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Hot Tub Time Machine (2009) by Josh Heald and Jarrad Paul, Andrew Mogel & Steve Pink

Note: The script reviewed credits different writers than those credited in the finished film.

Let’s talk for a minute about bodily fluids. They aren’t funny. In movies, they exist to provide the shock value. The audience laughs not because of a funny sight gag, but because the sight of shit chunks in a motion picture they have paid money to see has startled them. There’s a word for that: cheap. Similarly cheap are bodily functions. Now, as a male, I have to admit the dark truth we men try to hide from the fairer sex unless we’re drunk enough or generally obnoxious enough: farts are hilarious. Nothing is funnier than the fart smell, the moments anticipating the smell, and sharing the horror of the stench itself. Nothing. In a movie, though, it’s still cheap. If it’s the only way the writers can get a laugh, they’re in trouble.

That’s the pathetic thing about Hot Tub Time Machine: it doesn’t need those jokes, but the movie has them anyway. It’s as if somebody said, “Well, we’re gonna get an R rating, anyway, so we might as well graphically feature every possible human excretion and add some fart sound effects because comedy legend Chevy Chase just isn’t funny enough.”

Before I get ahead of myself, let me say this: I liked the movie. It’s a testament to the script itself, the cast, and director Steve Pink that the movie works despite the occasional super-cheap gag. In many ways, I think I actually prefer it to the script. I like the script, but the ending felt too happy and unearned. Somehow, without many significant changes (aside from the addition of shit/piss/vomit/semen/fart jokes) to the overall story, Pink and his cast made it feel appropriate. That’s impressive.

The screenplay’s story doesn’t deviate much from the film: Adam, Lou, and Nick (played in the film by, respectively, John Cusack, Rob Corddry, and Craig Robinson) are best friends who have drifted apart over the past 25 years. Lou’s attempted suicide (“Home Sweet Home” by Mötley Crüe plays on his car stereo, so he listens to it until the end, even though his running car is in his closed garage) brings the trio back together. Adam and Nick vow to take Lou’s mind off his many failures by bringing him back to Kodiak Valley, a ski resort where they spent some great times in the ’80s. Adam brings along Jacob (Clark Duke), his 23-year-old nephew, because he thinks Jacob needs to get out of the house and away from his video games. This does not make Lou happy.

Kodiak Valley has changed since the mid-’80s. What was once a thriving, fun-filled resort community has turned into a depressed town full of shuttered storefronts. The grungy resort is dilapidated and populated primarily by elderly people waiting to die. A surly, one-armed bellhop (hilariously portrayed by Crispin Glover in the film) just adds to the creepy, tragic atmosphere. Undaunted, the group decides to get in their room’s hot tub and get hammered on some of the imported, outdated Soviet beer Lou brought. When it gets spilled on the electronics, the hot tub becomes a time machine, sending the group back to 1986.

This, naturally, leads to the core of the story. After their hilariously horrified realization that they’ve gone back in time, the group discusses the various complexities of time travel, primarily informed by movies on the subject. Jacob convinces them that they must relive their lives exactly as they did in 1986 to prevent a butterfly effect. Naturally, things go awry almost immediately, especially when Adam realizes this is the weekend he broke up with his teenage girlfriend, Jennie (Lyndsy Fonseca), which he considers the worst mistake of his life. He leads the rebellion against Jacob’s nagging insistence that they don’t stray from the original timeline.

I don’t want to step up to the pulpit for my half-assed brand of Comedy Theory, but I will say this: the best comedies are about something. Pure laughs are great, but it always works better if some semblance of meaning exists beneath the surface. That’s part of the reason Hot Tub Time Machine makes such an effective script. They could have lazily relied on ’80s joke after ’80s joke, but the script focuses more on the tragic undercurrent of failure. Adam, Nick, and especially Lou are all deeply unhappy about the way their lives have turned out, and that they’ve drifted apart. They’ve even grown to hate the ’80s, even though they simultaneously consider it the best time of their lives. It’s a satisfying, deceptively complex midlife crisis metaphor masquerading as homage to the dumb teen-sex comedies of the ’80s.

One consistent problem in both the script and the movie is the character of Jacob. His presence serves as little more than an ironically detached Greek chorus, commenting on the other characters, the storyline, and the setting without adding much to it himself. It would have been nice if the writers had taken the time to either integrate him more fully into the story or just given him a more interesting character than the stereotypical nerdy hermit. I understand why he’s in the script—the movie wants to have its cake and eat it, too, by appealing to a more youthful audience who may not appreciate the sadness of the older characters’ stories—but that doesn’t mean it works. Unlike Rob Corddry—who takes another fairly stereotypical character and breathes surprising life and nuance into him—Clark Duke isn’t up to the challenge of making Jacob more interesting than the way he reads on the page. Which is to say, not very.

On the other hand, Pink addresses and corrects a number of the script’s flaws as director. The second act of the script lags quite a bit, a consequence of redundant scenes (designed to give each character roughly equal time, without taking the time to think of more things for them to do) and an unneeded subplot involving ski-patrol members Blaine (Sebastian Stan) and Chaz (Charlie McDermott) suspecting Lou of being a commie spy. The finished film excises a number of the redundant scenes altogether. What remains, Pink directs with a high energy level that keeps the pace keyed up.

Based on its title, Hot Tub Time Machine might easily be mistaken for a cheesy, mindless comedy. It’s much more than that, though. It’s a terrific script that made an even better movie. I just wish it didn’t have all bodily fluids.

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Sorority Row (2009) by Josh Stolberg & Pete Goldfinger

In a lengthy but effective sequence, the screenplay by Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger establishes the characters and the stakes. It starts with a not-so-harmless prank: to get revenge on Chugs’s (Margo Harshman) date-rapist brother, Garret (Matt O’Leary), the sisters of Theta Pi give him some pills to slip to Megan (Audrina Partridge), which will simulate an apparent drug overdose. Our heroine, Cassidy (Briana Evigan), looks on with disdain as Chugs follows along with queen-bitch Jessica (Leah Pipes), geek Ellie (Rumer Willis), and token Asian sister Claire (Jamie Chung) as they terrorize her deserving brother. They drive out to the middle of nowhere. Jessica pretends to get lost, and they end up near an abandoned mineshaft. While the sisters fake an argument about whether or not to take Megan to the hospital or drop her down the shaft, nobody notices Garret flip out and plunge a tire iron through Megan’s torso. Now she really is dead, and Jessica realizes everything uttered in their scripted argument remains true. Cassidy insists she won’t go along with it, so Jessica wraps Cassidy’s jacket around Megan’s body and dumps her down the shaft. Despite Cassidy’s reluctance, she’s left with no choice but to keep their secret.

Nine months later, at a graduation party, people involved in the murder start dying in grotesque ways. A slasher movie is born.

When I originally had to read the script for this remake of Mark Rosman’s 1983 slasher film The House on Sorority Row, I dreaded it. Although slasher fans have revised history and turned the original into a Golden Age classic of the genre, it’s a terrible film. Cheap, cheesy, exploitative—okay, it’s actually not much different from many slasher movies, but it lacks the scares and depraved psychological insight of true classics like Halloween or Black Christmas. However, Hollywood has run out of good slasher movies to ruin with unneeded remakes. They’re scraping the bottom of the barrel at this point.

Yet, Sorority Row has a lively, winning screenplay. Maybe my lowered expectations colored my reaction, but I enjoyed it for a number of reasons. It has a great setup, a set of characters who rise above their stereotypical roots, and a surprise-filled third act that doesn’t suffer from the M. Night Shyamalan movie-ruining twist. Even better, Stolberg and Goldfinger understand the slasher genre. The screenplay has a lot of fun twisting genre conventions and audience expectations, starting with a tone-setting opening sequence in which the traditional sights and sounds of a horror film—a slow tracking shot to a dark, gloomy, old house, accompanied by the sounds of crashing glass and a screaming girl—gives way to the revelation that this is a wild sorority party in full swing. Okay, so it’s not art, but it’s fun and funny.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the multiplex. The rating changed from PG-13 (the draft I read contains numerous specific references for keeping the sorority sisters’ bras on and violent acts just out of frame) to R, and the filmmakers used this change as license for silly exploitation, instead of something ironically commenting on the silly exploitation of classic slasher films. The reasonably believable description of the opening party in the screenplay becomes a music-video slow-motion pillow fight featuring sexy girls in underwear and a ridiculous snowstorm of feathers. Garret goes from a cheerfully sociopathic asshole to a twitchy, skittish basket case (even before his accidental murder). A miscast Briana Evigan’s attempt at a sultry alto (which alternately sounds like a bad case of laryngitis and a trucker with an 18-pack-a-day habit) seems more befitting of bad-girl Jessica than good-girl Cassidy.

On the surface, none of these changes seem significant, but they speak to larger problems. What reads like believable human behavior in the script is played by all the actors as incredibly arch, robbing the characters of the surprising nuance and subtlety on the page. The same goes for the overall story: on paper, the only thing that felt over-the-top is the eleventh-hour James Bond villain speech from the unmasked killer. For most of the script, these characters feel like real people leading normal lives that get shaken up by abnormal murders. That really impressed me, and I looked forward to seeing a movie that would go back to the straightforward slasher classics instead of the cartoonish crapfest they became.

Then I saw the movie. Cough.

As one might expect, the script faces twin problems from style-over-substance director Stewart Hendler (proving yet again that not every director who starts in commercials and music videos will turn into Spike Jonze or David Fincher) and hammy performances. It’s as if everyone but Stolberg and Goldfinger thought this was a straight-up comedy. The writers do insert some intentional laughs and some winking references to previous slasher movies, but overall it’s not a comedic script. Approaching every scene with a comedic tone robs the movie of any sort of suspense or sympathy, and by design the script doesn’t have the laughs to sustain the total lack of intrigue. To quote Rainier Wolfcastle, “It’s not a comedy.” It frustrates me to know that a good script got ruined primarily by a tone-deaf director who spent more time setting up variable-speed tracking shots and too little time keeping the actors’ performances grounded.

Sorority Row is a bad film, but it didn’t have to be. It’s a textbook example that cinema is not a director’s medium—it’s collaborative, and if everyone’s not on the same page (no pun intended, I swear), a good script can easily turn into a flaming turd.

(Ironically, Stolberg and Goldfinger went on to write the Piranha remake, much loathed by Matt, in part because of its tone-deaf director.)

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The Box (2009) by Richard Kelly

Name-checking philosophers and/or philosophical works is too easy, and that’s exactly why The Box annoyed me when I read it last year. Those of you who have seen the movie—and hopefully that’s all of you, since this article will be loaded with spoilers—will know exactly what I’m talking about: No Exit, Jean-Paul Sartre’s existential play that’s either about a ménage à trois gone horribly awry, or purgatory. In the finished film, Norma (Cameron Diaz) is shown teaching this to a class and having some sort of indistinct involvement in a school production of a play. It’s shifted much more to the background in the film than in the screenplay, which introduces it in the most random possible way and then turns it into the lynchpin of the entire story.

Doing that is lazy and obvious, the equivalent of shrugging shoulders and muttering, “I have absolutely nothing to say thematically, so I’ll let a 65-year-old play do the legwork for me.” It was a disappointingly hackneyed move from a writer who’s better than that.

Let me backtrack, though. The differences between the script I read and the finished film are many, and the use of No Exit is only one of the things Kelly changed at some point during the development process.

In the script, Arlington Steward (Frank Langella) is a cipher. We don’t learn his baffling, somewhat laughable backstory until nearly the end of the story (as opposed to the film opening with a series of hints about who he is and what happened to him). The script also shifts the button-pushing from the first act to the midpoint. The first half of the script, apart from the weirdness of Steward’s offer, is surprisingly normal and mundane. It’s simply the story of a family extended beyond its means, with Kelly hammering away at points about social climbing, status symbols, and greed before Norma finally feels backed into a corner and pushes the button. It also explores the deep flaws in both Norma and her NASA engineer husband, Arthur (James Marsden), whose motivations revolve around a combination of greed, vanity, and self-aggrandizement. More than anything else—more than the desperation to keep her son in private school or keep their home (the latter of which is a subplot excised completely from the film)—Norma pushes the button because she cares more about a fancy shoe to hide her foot deformity than the life of another human being.

This differs quite significantly from Richard Matheson’s 1970 short story “Button, Button,” on which the film is very loosely based. “Button, Button” is a pretty simple morality play, similar to Matheson’s Twilight Zone scripts (indeed, Matheson adapted the story for the 1985 revival of The Twilight Zone). When Norma pushes the button, it’s Arthur who dies—because, you see, the agreement is that she’ll receive $50,000 but someone she doesn’t know will die, and she never really knew her husband. Get it?! It’s kind of pat, but I did like that the $50,000 comes as the result of her husband’s life insurance payout instead of Steward arriving with a briefcase full of cash.

My knowledge of philosophy doesn’t extend much beyond the 100-level college course I took, so I defer to a much more educated (and much more anonymous) friend who holds a degree in the subject. He tells me the original short story fits the existential philosophy espoused by Sartre quite neatly.

In both the movie and the script, the button-pushing is intercut with an unknown man murdering his wife for unknown reasons, a disturbing scene that is all but dropped until much later. Once Norma and Arthur get the money, the second half of the script starts by focusing on the couple’s confusion and paranoia. Arthur, who had the foresight to write down Steward’s license plate number, asks Norma’s father (a police sergeant) to run the plates. He calls back with a name and phone number. They call the number, and on the other end an old woman rambles inaccurately about the Prometheus myth before reciting a Dewey decimal number. Anybody who’s seen a Richard Kelly movie would not bat an eyelash when Arthur and Norma make the decision to go to the public library and find the book.

It’s No Exit, and in the script, this is the first reference to it. Norma (who’s a science teacher here) has a vague recollection of reading it, but neither understands the significance. However, a date is written in the book. They find the newspaper for that date and find the headline is all about photos downloaded from the Martian probe Arthur worked on. This makes him remember Arlington Steward, a low-level NASA employee who got hit by lightning (and allegedly died) the day the photos downloaded.

They split up, and Arthur’s cornered by a librarian who turns out to be Steward’s mother (and the woman on the other end of their earlier phone call) while Steward approaches Norma. This is followed by a long, bizarre, somewhat tedious dream/hallucination sequence in which Norma and Arthur find themselves in No Exit, before arbitrarily waking up in their beds, at home, shortly before the wedding of Norma’s sister.

The presence of No Exit is an enormous problem in this incarnation of the script. “Button, Button” fits with existential philosophy. The Box‘s third act speculates on whether or not Arthur and Norma are trapped in purgatory, a la No Exit. However, The Box itself doesn’t really jibe with existential philosophy. At least, not on the surface. My friend shrugged off existential parallels, but something intrigued him.

In the script, more than in the movie, a strong emphasis is put on Norma rationalizing pushing the button by saying it’s all for her son, Walter. She’s about to lose her faculty tuition discount, which means her son may have to—gasp!—attend public school. If the real core of the story revolves around the decision to finance Walter’s formal education, that’s right in line with Nietzsche’s observation that Socrates deserved his fate—a death sentence for “corrupting” children (i.e., providing them a secular education that opposed their religious education). Since the script, more than the film, makes a small point of pitting science against faith, the fact that Norma’s a science teacher and Arthur works for NASA is right in line with Nietzsche’s strange parable.

The foundation of existentialism revolves around self-delusion and the creation of one’s own morality. This ties quite deftly into pretty much everything The Box is about—Norma justifying her greed and vanity and deciding to eschew any hope of being a good person because she wants (more than needs) the money. Because existentialism isn’t nihilism—Nietzsche believed that Christianity had developed an outdated morality that people followed out of obligation and fear rather than the legitimate desire to be a good person. Kierkegaard used the example of God forcing Abraham to sacrifice Isaac: if Abraham believes in a good, just God, then he’s just going through the motions. He knows God’s just fucking with him, that he’ll never really have to kill his son. In that context, Abraham’s actions are as fraudulent as God’s test.

For all its scatterbrained insanity, The Box started to seem like the same sort of fractured morality tale, only about secular characters whose actions aren’t tied to a belief in God. To extend the Abraham mentality, Norma and Arthur are the equivalent of Abraham feeling a strong compulsion to kill Isaac. Not hearing the voice of God—just that nagging voice inside him, telling him to kill. Part of him knows it’s wrong, but he falls into that trap of self-delusion, justifying it as a righteous action. If God exists and is testing Abraham—without revealing himself, and without Abraham believing God is there at all—then He will punish Abraham if Abraham can’t stop himself from killing Isaac.

So, then, does that make Steward God, or an agent of God? Is the button Isaac, and Norma failed? These are the questions the script rushes through in its last few pages, never giving a clear indication of what’s truly going on. But if it is purgatory, and if this is a test of their worth to enter heaven after an undisclosed period in purgatory, this means they failed the test. So the ending, in which Arthur sacrifices Norma to save Walter, fits in a demented way. Arthur “passed” his portion of the test, but Norma failed. One can only assume getting shot in the face while in purgatory does not cause a person to ascend to heaven.

All of these thoughts are largely rendered moot by the finished film, which downplays the existential concepts but ups the weird/sci-fi/conspiracy quotient by a huge degree. Take, for instance, a scene not present in the script, in which Arthur drives home babysitter Dana (Gillian Jacobs). On the ride home, she starts saying many strange things. Then, she gets a nosebleed and passes out. Arthur examines her driver’s license and finds (1) it’s from Massachusetts, and (2) her name is listed as Sarah. When he finally gets her home, she walks down the narrow, dimly lit hallway of her apartment. Every single resident steps out into the hall to glare at her while she shuffles, terrified, toward her dingy place. Inside, she stares at walls covered with maps and photos that hint at some sort of pattern.

Dana/Sarah is never seen again, and this pattern/conspiracy never comes up in any overt way. Is it a red herring, foreshadowing Steward’s apparent mind-control powers (an element not present in the screenplay), or another layer of symbolism that ties into the three free-standing cubes of water Arthur must choose to enter in the film’s version of the library scene? To put it another way: What the hell is going on?

Therein lies the problem with the film. I enjoyed many aspects of it: The surprisingly strong performances from Diaz and Marsden, the pitch-perfect mid-’70s aesthetic, the apparent homages to the conspiracy thrillers popular during the film’s timeframe, and the Donnie Darko-esque combination of domestic satire and unrelenting mindfuckery. I don’t feel like I wasted my time watching it, and I would probably take the time to watch it again to try to unpack whatever the hell is happening in Kelly’s twisted mind. I’m just pretty sure it has little to do with existential themes—in the film, No Exit itself has become the red herring, a source of foreshadowing and nothing more.

It’s strange to say that I didn’t like the script, because at this point it sounds like I’m championing it over the film. I grew to appreciate the script—even though I still didn’t like it much—once I started to see the odd, existential throughlines buried in its seeming aimlessness. They gave The Box a cohesiveness that Kelly lacked in both Donnie Darko and especially Southland Tales. The film abandoned that, which leads me to the only probable conclusion: I read way too much into the script. That’s not to say what I read into it wasn’t there, but I can’t imagine Kelly had any conscious intent to make the script this coherent. That’s just not his style.

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Stone by Angus MacLachlan and Edward Norton and John Curran

Alfred Hitchcock allegedly said, “No one ever made a good film from a bad script.” Though I can’t say that’s true 100% of the time, it is true that good scripts are turned into bad films with much more frequency than the opposite. Stone ranks high among the worst scripts I’ve ever read (and I’ve read I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell and the direct-to-DVD sequel to 30 Days of Night), but it piqued my curiosity. The draft I read has Edward Norton’s name on it, and he’s usually something of a quality magnet. Even when he’s in a bad film, it’s usually an ambitious misfire rather than an out-and-out bomb. So why would he not only attach himself to a script this bad but actively take part in rewriting it?

The simplistic story begins in 1970, when a younger Jack Marino (played in the present by Robert De Niro) takes a vacation with wife Madylyn and daughter Candace. He’s an unpleasant man prone to fits of anger, and everywhere they go, ex-cons seem drawn to Jack, their former parole officer. When Madylyn threatens to leave Jack—she no longer wants to put up with his drinking and anger—he threatens her right back, holding Candace over their hotel room balcony, insisting he’ll drop her if Madylyn leaves. To sum up: he’s a really pleasant guy any moviegoer would be happy to spend two hours watching.

Forty years later, Jack and Candace are estranged, but he’s still married to Madylyn. As he approaches retirement, Jack has to review one last inmate for possible parole: George “Stone” Creeson (Edward Norton), an obnoxious and seemingly unrepentant man. Jack sees right through his generic platitudes, and Stone is smart enough to realize he’s fighting a losing battle. Enter Lucetta (Milla Jovovich), Stone’s beautiful wife. She charms Jack, then starts sleeping with him. Jack claims to see right through their game, but he continues to sleep with Lucetta, then falsifies his review for the parole board in accordance with her desires.

Finally, he gets angry at both Lucetta and Stone for using him—so angry, in fact, that he tries to pull his review at the last minute and rewrite it—and honestly, this turn points to the script’s biggest problem: its story is thin, it wants to be a character study, but its characters (including Jack) are as weak as a cup of old Sanka. Jack’s behavior throughout the script seems wildly inconsistent—and not because of the drunkenness depicted in the opening flashback, because he rarely drinks during the present-day story—because he never rises above a generic stereotype. Here’s all we learn about Jack: he’s prone to rage, he’s good at his job, and he’s a cop who isn’t far removed from the criminals he interacts with on a daily basis. Never seen that before! His behavior gets weird, but his motives are never clear, so it comes off as nonsensical rather than complex.

Maybe some depth or nuance—or, at least, mystery—could have been added to Stone and Lucetta, but the script telegraphs their every movement in such frustrating detail, there’s no question of their priorities: Stone and Lucetta have hatched a plan for her to seduce him. The thing I keep seeing everyone talking about with this film is Stone’s religious epiphany. The script isn’t about that—in fact, it doesn’t enter into the equation until more than halfway through. Like Lucetta’s seduction, the writers telegraph Stone’s “epiphany,” making it abundantly clear that he’s faking it because he initially fears Lucetta’s seduction won’t be enough to get him released. Stone wants nothing more than to get out of prison, and every scene in which Jack and Stone interact shows him as an intelligent criminal testing Jack’s defenses. Stone takes many different approaches in hammering Jack, and clearly participates in Lucetta’s seduction plan. The “epiphany” is preceded by him looking at a convict praying with his visiting family, then rushing to the library to read all he can about religion. The script tries to toe this line that the transformation could be real, but why would anyone of sound mind think there’s a divine explanation for Stone’s change? When Stone questions Jack’s faith in God, it feels more like an admission that the big mystery doesn’t work at all. “You should believe in our half-baked mystery,” the script is saying, “because if you don’t, it means you lack faith.” First they insult us with bad writing, then they insult our moral character.

Finally, they insult our intelligence. The third act lays out a new mystery: once Stone gets released, Jack’s house burns down. He and Madylyn narrowly escape, and although Jack blames Stone (his crime was arson, to cover up murders committed by his cousin), the script does leave some hint that he could have caused the fire himself by leaving the stove on. Inexplicably, Madylyn lies to fire officials and claims there’s a faulty wire in the kitchen. Then, she leaves Jack. She’s found out about him and Lucetta, so it’s over. Her leaving makes sense. Lying about who or what caused the fire is baffling, however. Madylyn barely exists in the story, so there’s no believable motive for it. It’s just a cheap, melodramatic punch immediately after the overwrought symbolism of the couple’s “whole life” being destroyed in the fire.

There’s more melodrama to come, though. Jack gets drunk and goes after Stone with his gun. He demands to know why Stone is torturing him. Stone’s not afraid of him, and leaves Jack a pitiful mess, turning the gun on himself. All of this is tied up in a lazy “buzzing” motif every time Jack gets angry, made all the lazier by incorporating “buzzing” and “vibration” into the faux-religion Stone adopts.

Stone is simply an awful script. It has nothing new to say about cops, criminals, anger management, alcoholism, or religion—in fact, it has very little to say at all about those subjects, using them as reductive character traits rather than broader thematic devices. The script tries to bury its emptiness under lengthy, dialogue-driven scenes (notably the interview sessions between Jack and Stone), but those scenes accomplish the amazing feat of letting characters talk for a very long time without revealing anything insightful about themselves and/or the human condition. It’s all sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Adding insult to injury, the dialogue is embarrassingly bad at points. Certain characters—particularly Jack—too frequently lapse into what sounds like a 19-year-old drama student ad-libbing the emotional core of a scene rather than rehearsing the scene itself. It’s less noticeable with younger characters like Stone and Lucetta, but Jack does not sound like a man in his 60s. That lack of verisimilitude hurts an already bad script.

So how does the film compare to this trainwreck?

Weirdly, Curran improves the finished film by removing most of the hackneyed attempts at mystery. Gone are the implications that Lucetta seduces Jack with permission, that Stone is faking his religious awakening, or that Jack is anything other than a hypocrite with rage-management issues. Instead of it feeling like Stone is trying to test Jack’s weaknesses like a velociraptor jumping against an electric fence, Norton plays Stone as absolutely sincere from the moment he appears in the film. He’s sincere but not very bright; when he misspeaks, it’s not a calculated attempt to gauge Jack’s defenses. When Stone’s religious transformation occurs, Norton plays it in a way that’s much more believable than the dialogue he recites. It’s an impressive performance, and I can now see why he was drawn to such an awful script. He knew he could do things with the character a lesser actor wouldn’t even dream of doing.

Even the mystery of the fire is transformed. There’s not even a hint that Jack may have caused it himself, or that it was in any way an accident. Curran makes it abundantly clear that somebody broke in and set the fire. Because of Norton’s performance, two things snap into focus: the fact that he fully admits that he’s not a reformed person so much as a person who accepts responsibilities for his actions, and the fact that he didn’t send Lucetta after Jack. Stone’s anger and hurt are real, and his psychotic reaction is no surprise. The only thing that remains a mystery is Madylyn’s response to the fire. It makes no sense in the script, and it makes no sense in the film. Madylyn is even more downplayed in the film than in the script, and not even Frances Conroy playing Madylyn as a largely confused drunk can make it work.

Ironically, much as the film improves on the script by downplaying the mysterious aspects of the story, it hits the religious aspects with the heaviest possible hand, bringing it right back around to hackneyed. Frequently incorporating Christian radio broadcasts on the soundtrack—including, near the end, Stone trying to explain his new philosophy on a call-in show—emphasizing the legitimacy of Stone’s transformation, and playing up Jack’s absence of faith make the whole film seem annoyingly overwrought. The script strained desperately to justify its existence, while the film hits audiences over the head with a theme as subtle as Davey and Goliath.

Where the script and film remain pretty much the same is with Jack. Curran plays up the thriller aspects to create the illusion something interesting is happening in the film, but at the end of the day it remains a bland character study of a man we know no better at the end of the film than we did at the beginning. De Niro is a great actor, and it’s nice to see him actually trying instead of just phoning it in or mugging comedically. There’s just not much of a character here for him to sink his teeth into. He does a fine job with what he has to work with, but unlike Norton, De Niro doesn’t bring anything unexpected to the table to make the role feel like more than the empty vessel it is. Strangely, Curran excises several character-building scenes from the script (like the entire subplot about his estrangement from Candace). In the script, those scenes didn’t exactly make Jack into a brilliantly rendered, multifaceted character, but it’s still odd that he’d remove the few scenes that do bring a little bit of extra shading to him.

Finally, the third act remains an insulting mess. It’s actually slightly worse in the film than in the script, because the script starts out bad and gets worse. The film starts out okay before completely falling apart. The many changes evidently made during production—Norton’s read on the character, the amping up of the religious themes, etc.—undermine a conclusion that never worked in the first place. Jack still insists he knows he’s being conned, he still lets Stone go anyway, he still tries desperately to change his report on Stone, and he still chases Stone with a gun after the fire. On the plus side, Curran cut the eye-rolling moment where Jack, after failing to successfully confront Stone, briefly turns the gun on himself to really drive home his self-hatred.

On the whole, despite the changes between script and screen, most scenes in Stone still feel a lot like an Actors Studio workshop where two actors improvise in character, revealing a lot of character information that actors find incredibly important and audiences don’t. I had the same hope for Stone that I did with A Single Man: That the caliber of acting involved and a handful of positive reviews from critics I trust would mean the filmmakers had accomplished the impossible and made a good film from a bad script. Stone is better than its script, but it’s still pretty bad.

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Whip It (2009) by Shauna Cross

I try to avoid prejudicial feelings for or against a script. One of the many goals of a critic is to try to look at something with as much objectivity as possible, before giving a combination of empirical analysis and the unavoidable subjective opinion. No matter how much we try, we always have baggage that colors our read on a piece of art (or commerce, in the case of lesser fare). The goal is to leave that baggage on the winding airport carousel long enough to spit out a halfway decent review.

I mention this not to be more pretentious than usual but to explain my initial prejudice against Whip It upon receiving the script. All I knew was a logline: A teenage girl becomes a roller-derby queen. Now, a few years ago, IFC produced a fantastic series called The Minor Accomplishments of Jackie Woodman, starring Laura Kightlinger (who created the show and served as head writer) and Nicholle Tom as bottom-feeding wannabe screenwriters trying to make it in Hollywood. One running gag was Jackie’s pet project, a story about a Depression-era roller derby queen (modeled after her aunt) that Jackie frequently hyped but never actually wrote. (It reached a point where the idea was actually stolen because of this combination of hype and laziness.) IFC unceremoniously canceled the show during the 2007 writers’ strike, when they opted instead to produce improv-heavy shows that didn’t have WGA affiliation.

The problem is, Kightlinger portrayed the idea of a film about a roller-derby queen as such an absurd, meaningless aspiration that it’s become impossible for me to look at anything that even remotely involves roller skates without laughing derisively. Luckily, that doesn’t happen too often, but how could I not laugh when Hollywood takes a ridiculous idea seriously?

Here’s how: The script is really damn good. Adapting her own novel (which is based in large part on her own teenage misadventures in a roller derby), Shauna Cross doesn’t make the usual adaptation mistakes of overstuffing too much material into too little space or, worse, chopping so much of the novel out that the truncated screenplay barely makes sense (I’m looking at you, Dreamcatcher). The script has a lot of characters and subplots to balance, but Cross does an expert job of keeping all the plates in the air while driving the narrative to a satisfying conclusion.

“Satisfying” is not to be confused with “unpredictable,” because this is a studio-friendly coming-of-age chick flick. It hits a number of familiar beats, but Cross takes novel approaches to these moments, making them feel fresh and believable instead of hackneyed and overdone.

The story beats out the path of a traditional sports movie with an even-more-traditional romantic subplot. It follows 16-year-old Bliss (played in the film by Ellen Page), whose overbearing mother, Brooke (Marcia Gay Harden), has forced her into a life of Texas pageantry. Bliss is a rebellious free spirit at heart, but she continues to do the pageants for her mother’s sake. However, when temporary blue highlights won’t wash out, Bliss becomes a laughing stock, humiliating her mother more than herself.

Bliss tries to lead a life of quiet rebellion, but she’s largely unsuccessful until she’s drawn to an ad for a female roller-derby group in Austin. She drags along Pash (Alia Shawkat), her best friend and closest confidante, and volunteers to audition after the speed, violence, and riot-grrl atmosphere entrances her. You should probably know that every team and individual has a nickname that ranges from stupid (Smashley Simpson, Paris Killton) to clever (Robin Graves, Moxie Cotton), because Bliss develops an instant rapport with Malice in Wonderland (Kristen Wiig, called “Maggie Mayhem” in the film) and an instant crush on indie-rocker Oliver (Landon Pigg).

It wouldn’t be a sports movie if it didn’t turn out that Bliss gets put on the losingest team in the league and didn’t have to learn to combine her emotional problems (repressed anger about her domineering mother and rival pageant contestants) with the sport. They’re initially impressed with her speed, but she’s timid during races until she learns to channel her anger into vicious attacks on rival skaters. Cross elevates the sports-movie clichés by taking archetypes to unexpected places – her “relationship” with Oliver is disastrous instead of the film’s cheesy heart, and Pash develops an intense combination of jealousy and concern over Bliss’s time spent in the land of seemingly super-cool adults. Instead of a rival team, Bliss’s mustache-twirling villain takes the form of Dinah Might (Juliette Lewis, “Iron Maven” in the film), a skater who somehow feels being the star player of the worst team merits smug superiority. After insulting and pummeling Bliss during practices (and even during competitions, despite the risk to the team), Dinah puts Bliss’s roller-derby career in jeopardy when she finds out she’s 16, not 22 (she has to be at least 21 to participate).

The script also allows for impressive complexity in its portrayal of the parents. One of the criticisms frequently hurled at John Hughes (deservedly, I might add) was the fact that he made all the adult characters stupid, one-dimensional cartoons. That works in the Hughes teen universe, because that’s how most teenagers view adult authority figures. But Whip It isn’t strictly from Bliss’s point of view, so it allows Brooke and Bliss’s father, Earl (Daniel Stern, in a performance that made me think, “Why don’t we see more of Daniel Stern?”), to be real people. They’re flawed, decent people. Brooke doesn’t force Bliss to do pageants because she’s an evil tyrant obsessed with wire hanger usage—Bliss has a hard time standing up to her, so she simply doesn’t, and Brooke sincerely believes both that Bliss can win and that Bliss is getting something out of the experience.

The roller derby allows Bliss to finally stand up to her mother, but it’s not the moment of triumph one might expect. It’s a scene coated in years of guilt and fear. Bliss doesn’t want to let Brooke down, but she wants to break free and do something she feels passionate about instead of something she does to make her mother happy. The derby also forces Earl to stand up to Brooke, possibly for the first time. Cross portrays him as a well-meaning, hard-working man of quiet dignity. He loves Brooke and is committed to her, but he mostly hides from confrontation. She hates football, so he pretends to work late on Monday nights during football season so he can watch at least one game in peace. That’s the sort of guy he is. Bliss has suddenly become the son he wishes he had, and he has to work hard to convince Brooke that a girl doing roller derby is the same thing as a boy playing football—something Brooke would have no problem with. Both parents have to confront the difficult notion that what they want for their daughter doesn’t match what their daughter wants, and she’s reached the age where they have to let go of their dreams for her.

I also want to highlight the dialogue a little. Frequently, dialogue is the major strength of a screenwriter, so I don’t talk too much about it unless it’s glaringly awful or spectacularly great. “Spectacularly great” might be too hyperbolic for Whip It, but Cross does two admirable things. First, she gives each character—young and old, male and female, smart and stupid—individual voices. It’s extremely rare that I can read a script and know who’s talking without reading the characters’ names. Second, and perhaps more importantly, she lets the teenagers sound like—well, not quite as dunderheaded or inarticulate as your average teen, but they’re also not hyperverbal pop-culture obsessives with the powers to instantly string together self-consciously flowery statements that also somehow rhyme. Cross keeps Whip It refreshingly free of such annoying eccentricities, which unfortunately seem to have plagued every post-Juno teen comedy with the exception of Lottery Ticket and Norman. She also never tries to force the humor, which comes from the characters’ foibles more than their expansive knowledge of arcane entertainment trivia.

After falling in love with this screenplay, I found myself worried. I heard Drew Barrymore, who I generally like as an actress but who completely missed the point of Charlie’s Angels in the film adaptations (which she produced and allegedly had the same level of creative input as John Travolta in Battlefield Earth), planned to make this her directorial debut. She had cast Ellen Page, whose breakout role happened to be starring as one of those over-caffeinated, vaguely obnoxious teens that drive me nuts, as Bliss. It seemed like a project destined for a big-time botching, and that scared me.

Within five minutes of the film, I breathed a sigh of relief. In a surprisingly strong debut, Barrymore nailed both the tone and the verisimilitude, bringing an impressive visual sense that reminded me a bit of Cameron Crowe (before he was crushed under the weight of ego-driven vanity projects), in the sense that she doesn’t let the visuals detract from the characters and the drama. Page, too, reinvents herself yet again, playing Bliss as differently from her characters in Juno and Hard Candy as possible. Yet, it’s not a self-conscious attempt at distancing herself from other roles. She simply takes the cues from the script and plays Bliss as appropriately timid and somewhat introverted.

The film doesn’t stray too much from the script. Among other things, it lingers a bit more on Bliss’s romance with Oliver, but that actually makes the inevitable table-turning more dramatic and crushing for Bliss. Barrymore manages to take several key moments in Whip It and make them more intense and palpable than Cross’s already good script. The Charlie’s Angels movies misunderstood the TV series’ fundamental (if silly) point, that attractive women can do whatever they want without having to resort to using their sexuality (the films’ mandate seems to be, “The sleazier, the better!”), but Whip It is a story Barrymore knows inside and out. She knows the right buttons to push to make a good script into a great movie.

A great movie that tanked, doing worse in its opening weekend than noted flop The Invention of Lying and barely making back its $15 million production budget (which doesn’t mean it turned a profit, if you factor in backend points and marketing, but it probably at least broke even on DVD). Ellen Page became an Oscar-nominated teen hero after Juno, and Drew Barrymore has gone from troubled wild child to beloved Hollywood icon. Why didn’t Whip It get an Easy A-style publicity blitz? Is Hollywood afraid of challenging the teen audience with thoughtful, well-made entertainment? It’s probably safe to say the answer is “Yes,” which is as depressing as it is frustrating.

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Law Abiding Citizen (2009) by Kurt Wimmer and Frank Darabont

I can’t sugarcoat it: I’ve never read a stupider screenplay than Law Abiding Citizen. (The script for the upcoming Kane & Lynch movie, ironically also to be directed by F. Gary Gray and costarring Jamie Foxx, is a close second.) I’ve read worse scripts—scripts that don’t even work on a conceptual level—but here’s a script with noble intentions, a solid premise, and some of the dumbest writing ever featured in a major motion picture (this includes the Star Wars prequels). It’s the sort of script where a scene starts with Benson Clyde (changed to Clyde Shelton in the film, played by Gerard Butler) saying, “You don’t have any evidence, so you have to let me go,” and ends with him saying, “Even though you still don’t have any evidence, I’ll confess.” Stupider than that: None of the high-powered prosecutors listening to him consider that logic-impaired 180-degree turn suspicious.

The script starts out with some promise. Two men murder Clyde’s wife and 10-year-old daughter, and although they’re caught pretty much red-handed, a judge rules some of the physical evidence inadmissible, which ruins A.D.A. Nick Price’s (changed to “Nick Rice” in the film, played by Jamie Foxx) case. Left with no alternative, he allows one of the murderers to plead guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for testifying against the other. One gets five years in prison, the other gets the death penalty, but Clyde feels like justice has not been done. The system is broken, and he’s going to fix it—with extreme prejudice.

What felt initially like a fun Death Wish clone that takes the tack of sending the wronged vigilante after the lawyers and cops who bungle a broken system (rather than the criminals roaming the streets) quickly turns into an incredibly stupid attempt at a psychological thriller, a verbal chess match (to use the script’s hackneyed metaphor) between Nick and Clyde that amounts to a lot of stupid dialogue, a lot of stupid twists, and a lot of gratuitous, Saw-esque violence.

You see, Clyde swaps out the death-row murderer’s lethal injection chemicals for some compounds that, when combined, basically burn him to death from the outside in. He leaves some evidence to suggest it was the other murderer, whom he then “saves” by posing as a crooked cop, paralyzes with yet another mysterious compound, then drags to a barn filled with implements of torture.

But Clyde gets caught pretty quickly. He wants to get caught. He wants to confess—even though he protests that they have nothing on him, in a horrible attempt to show the cleverness of his wordplay and the keen intellect that comes from spending 10 years looking up the words “reasonable” and “doubt” in the dictionary—because he wants to prove the system is broken. “To whom?” you might ask. Ostensibly to Nick, since Nick is the only one involved in his family’s murder case Clyde doesn’t find some kind of comically twisted way to kill. The fact that he’s stuck in jail proves a pretty convincing alibi, and Clyde relishes Nick’s inability to figure out how Clyde keeps killing people or who he’s working with on the outside.

I don’t care how many times I repeat the word—I can’t overstate this script’s stupidity. It takes a pretty solid premise—an average Joe feels wronged by the criminal justice system, so he takes revenge—to mind-bogglingly stupid places. Scenes where Clyde tries to negotiate the finer things in life in exchange for information about the rash of murders related to his case fall flat because he’s already made it clear that he doesn’t need to be in jail to begin with. Here’s the script’s biggest offense, though: Clyde isn’t an average Joe. He’s not a man who simply felt so driven by anger that he spent a decade planning a wildly complicated revenge scheme. He’s an inventor who worked for a CIA think-tank to develop novel ways of killing people. That is, at the very least, an above-average Joe. It also completely undermines what the script is supposed to be about: a regular guy driven to extremes.

I appreciated the opening scenes portraying Nick with a sense of palpable apathy toward a clearly wounded Clyde. To Nick, Clyde’s case is just one of many. It shows Nick as a callous dick, which is not a quality often found in a protagonist. It can work—ever seen House?—but Law Abiding Citizen is too afraid to give its ostensible hero a plausible Achilles heel. After that initial introduction, writers Kurt Wimmer and Frank Darabont spend the following 30 pages trying desperately to make him likable—showing him express guilt over the Clyde case, questioning whether or not he made the right decision (constantly reassured along the way, which by extension is supposed to reassure the audience that Nick had no other choice), and finally revealing him as a kind, loving family man. I’m surprised they didn’t show him running a free soup kitchen on the weekends.

Notwithstanding the flop-sweat-drenched pages attempting to make us love Nick, Clyde’s indignation remains righteous. He remains the more empathetic of the two main characters, so how do you solve that problem? Simple: Make him so brazenly, cartoonishly evil that anybody reading it will invariably hear the voice of the baby from Family Guy rather than the combination of Hannibal Lecter and Norman Bates they were going for. This is where the CIA think-tank reveal comes from. It’s one of the rare scripts where writers have backed themselves into a corner by page 30, but instead of rewriting the first 30 pages more coherently, they spend the next 90 trying to write their way out of it.

Of course, they do this at the expense of the film’s initial premise—an average person trying to expose and destroy the flaws of the legal system. What starts out interesting, timely, and believable quickly descends into the sort of absurd script where a bomb is implanted inside the stomach of a dog and everyone balks at Clyde having CDs because their shards can kill, but nobody says a word about him having an iPod, plugged into a docking station that itself is plugged into an electrical outlet via a long extension cord (meaning he could electrocute and/or strangle someone), on a special wooden shelf (which could be dismantled and used to kill).

To my delight, the film gets rid of many of the script’s stupidest elements. In one key scene in the script, Clyde murders his cellmate with a the bones from a rack of lamb provided by the District Attorney’s office (which, inexplicably, nobody raises concerns about, even though they’ve already nixed much less dangerous CDs). The film drops the CD angle to begin with and changes the rack of lamb to a steak, making it a little more surprising and disgusting when he uses the significantly smaller bone to kill the cellmate. The bomb hidden in the dog is replaced with one in a cell phone. The film is filled with minor changes like this, smartening up the finer points of the stupidest thing I’ve ever read.

However, the broad strokes remain just as stupid. Some of the in-between dialogue is different, but that early scene bookended by “You have nothing on me, so let me go”/”No wait, I’ll confess” still remains, as does the notion that “average Joe” Clyde still has the warped mind and psychopathic tendencies of a particularly imaginative weapons designer. It also retains one of the silliest notions—that Clyde would know exactly which jail they’d send him to and where its solitary confinement cells are located, so he could buy abutting property, tunnel in, and get himself locked up in solitary, where each cell now has an escape hatch to his tunnel. Yes, this is how he commits his various deeds without help. Lucky for the screenwriters, Clyde is fabulously wealthy, so he can buy all the cars, property, machine guns, and Semtex needed to dispatch his enemies.

F. Gary Gray knows how to make a great-looking film. Despite his tendency to turn the violence into Hostel-esque torture porn, Gray exploits wonderful Philadelphia locations and makes an appropriately gritty, cold-looking film. Surprisingly, his direction is less assured when it comes to building the suspense this movie requires. I like to imagine he knew exactly how stupid the script was but found himself hamstrung by producer/writer Wimmer and producer/star Butler, who evidently didn’t. As evidence, I can only provide the three thrillers in Gray’s filmography that both lack Law Abiding Citizen‘s reckless idiocy and contain the suspense and drama appropriate to a solid thriller: The Negotiator, the underrated Set It Off, and the overrated (but still solid) remake of The Italian Job.

Part of the problem, I suppose, stems from the fact that most of the suspense comes from the talky, two-man conversations between Nick and Clyde, but both Foxx and Butler are at their worst in these scenes. They seem less like intelligent men going toe-to-toe than action stars wondering why the director won’t let them rip off their shirts and bare-knuckle box. I ordinarily like both Foxx and Butler, but boy did I ever not like them here. Strangely, both are fine in scenes with other characters. It’s only when they’re together—the film’s most important moments—that their performances fall flat. Maybe the problem, again, goes back to the notion that they’re supposed to be intelligent men, but the script is far too stupid to convince us of that.

The problems with Law Abiding Citizen start with the script, and they should have ended there. It doesn’t take a Clyde-esque genius to understand that only the premise works. Nothing about the execution is even remotely successful. That this plain fact was ignored in development and the film was made with only minor changes (most improvements, all superficial) is incredibly frustrating. A really good idea got wasted on a dreadful product.

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Script to Screen: The Vampire’s Assistant (2009) by Brian Helgeland

Let’s talk about franchises.

Several years ago, I read scripts for a semi-shady literary manager who firmly believed his ticket to the big time revolved around bringing to the big screen an adaptation of a moderately popular but largely forgotten 1980s Saturday morning cartoon. (That cartoon shall remain nameless.) He somehow got the ear of Warner Brothers president Alan Horn and pitched it as a live-action trilogy. The manager co-wrote treatments for this trilogy with a client who still has the dubious distinction of writing the worst script I’ve ever read (not to be confused with the stupidest).

He urgently e-mailed me one morning before a meeting, hoping I could rush feedback on the treatment for the first installation of the trilogy. Since it was a scant eight pages, I figured it’d be easy enough to give him my thoughts. Keep in mind, I had fuzzy memories of enjoying this particular cartoon as a child, so when I started reading and didn’t recognize a single thing from my memory, I was a little concerned. I thought maybe I’d misremembered and was thinking of a different cartoon, until I got to the last page, in which the main character of the cartoon is born. Prior to that, the treatment focused on the tedious, obsessively detailed political minutiae of a fictitious race on a fictitious planet, with a tacked-on love story involving the parents of the cartoon’s main character.

In other words, every single second of the proposed first film in a trilogy was devoted to backstory. In the cartoon, the main character is a fully-grown adult. At the end of the first film, he’s a newborn. That’s a tad different from something like Batman Begins. It’s more like stretching the story of Bruce Wayne’s parents out to feature length and ending with their deaths. I compared it to the opening of the 1978 Superman film, noting that it may be important to include the backstory of the parents, but it should be limited to the equivalent of a prologue in the first film. How disappointed would Superman fans be with a movie that ends with baby Kal-El getting shot into space as a baby? Even the Star Wars prequels, for all their faults, had enough sense to start with Anakin Skywalker instead of chronicling the misadventures of his mother.

The point is, a franchise-starting film has to be relatively self-contained. You can’t stack the narrative deck with backstory that will pay off in later parts of the series, because if you produce a movie without an actual story of its own, nobody will want to see it. Even if marketing tricks them into seeing it, they’re not going to like it. The fine line between backstory and story story is difficult for a big franchise because, like a TV show pilot, filmmakers seem to feel they have to cram in as much information as possible to keep audiences enticed to come back. But audiences have grown accustomed to a semi-satisfying beginning, middle, and end to the story, not just a whole lot of beginning.

If you’ve never heard of Darren Shan’s series of Cirque du Freak books, you’re probably not alone. When I got the script, it simply had a title and Brian Helgeland’s name. I didn’t know it was an adaptation and a potential franchise-starter until long after I read it. I only knew that the script was the longest first act I’d ever read—all setup, no payoff.

I’ve never felt so energized or so betrayed by a screenplay before. In the first 30 or 40 pages, Helgeland perfectly captures a tone I’m not convinced I’ve ever seen done properly in a movie. I spent far too much of my youth reading crappy R.L. Stine books and really great Ray Bradbury stories, and Helgeland manages to make the opening of Cirque du Freak feel a great deal like those eerie-yet-appropriate-for-children stories I used to eat up. Unfortunately, the script blows its wad early and spends the remainder setting up things that will undoubtedly pay off in the next movie—except there won’t be one, because nobody likes a 90-minute prologue where not much really happens.

The first chunk of the script focuses on middle-schoolers Darren (played in the film by annoyingly mush-mouthed Chris Massoglia) and Steve (Josh Hutcherson). Helgeland describes Darren as a friendly, well-liked kid; Steve, he describes as a bad seed and a bad influence. They’ve been best friends forever, but they’re on diverging paths, and Darren is sort of at a crossroads. His parents see this and, after Darren’s mother witnesses Steve stealing $60 from her purse, she says nothing to Steve but forbids Darren from being his friend. This strikes a rebellious chord in Darren, who decides to take Steve up on his offer to sneak out and see Cirque du Freak.

Steve has developed a disturbing obsession with Cirque du Freak—a traveling freak show that has taken over a rundown theatre in their small suburb—ever since he identified its emcee, Crepsley (John C. Reilly), as a vampire. He found advertisements for the show dating back to the 1920s, all of which feature Crepsley lookalikes. Dubious, Darren goes along with Steve for the fun of it, but there’s a dark undercurrent to the way Steve talks about Crepsley. The freak show itself boasts an alarming number of real oddities, including an actual wolfman, a beautiful woman who can grow a beard with the snap of her fingers, and an exotic spider that can do tricks. And then there’s Crepsley, whose pale skin, frightening demeanor, and apparent ease with mind control and hypnosis make Darren start to wonder about Steve’s assertion. Maybe he is a vampire.

After the show, Steve tries to ditch Darren to hang around afterward. Darren argues at first, but Steve insists. He protests too much, however, and Darren’s fear and suspicion mounts. He pretends to go but instead silently follows Steve, who sneaks backstage and finds Crepsley’s coffin. To Darren’s dismay, Steve begs Crepsley to turn him into a vampire. Crepsley obliges by biting him immediately, but he spits out Steve’s blood like poison and tells him he’s tainted. Terrified, Steve runs away. So does Darren, but not before stealing the aforementioned exotic spider.

Over the next few days, Darren hides the spider in his bedroom, but his intrusive sister causes the spider to get loose. It bites Steve—who has defied Darren’s parents by sneaking over—and its venom causes him to immediately go into anaphylactic shock. The hospital’s entomology experts believe Darren’s photos of the spider have been doctored, so they can’t find an antivenom to save Steve. Once the doctors leave, Crepsley appears to Darren and makes a deal: he’ll cure Steve’s poison and save his life—in exchange for Darren’s. He needs an assistant, and he also believes it’s Darren’s destiny to become a vampire. Reluctantly, Darren agrees.

I loved the script up until this point.

Steve ignores the life-saving aspect of Darren’s sacrifice and focuses on the fact that Darren has what he wants. Crepsley helps Darren fake his death, but Steve knows the truth and becomes a juvenile vampire hunter, hot on the heels of Darren at all times. Crepsley and Darren spend most of the remaining script discussing this world’s variation on vampire lore and occasionally running away from Steve and others trying to hunt Crepsley.

The story’s vampire rules go like this: humans become vampires in stages, starting as assistants and gradually moving up to full vampires. They need to learn the ropes of the vampire underworld before they can be trusted in the sacred brotherhood. Vampires need blood to survive, but they also need real food. They also don’t need to kill their victims. Instead of subsisting on animal blood as the reformed vampires of Buffy and Angel do, Crepsley medicates his victims, draws a few pints of blood, and leaves them in a safe place. Vampires can’t fly, but they can “flit”—moving great distances in short amounts of time, unseen by the naked eye. In this world, vampires also age. They’re not strictly immortal—their aging process has merely slowed, so they age one year for every ten they live. In other words, Crepsley has lived 211 years as a vampire but has only aged 21, so he looks to be in his early 40s. (For unexplained reasons that I assume have to do with taking the long view of a franchise populated by the same actors, it’s explained that assistants age one year for every five they live.)

The vampires have split into rival factions: the “good” vampires like Crepsley, who humanely feed on humans without causing long-term harm, and the “vampaneze,” who believe it’s their sacred duty to rid the world of humans by killing as many as possible in the feeding process. I wanted to like this, because it creates a moral dilemma Helgeland has no interest in actually exploring. The vampires aren’t portrayed as benevolent creatures who stopped killing because they want to peacefully coexist and stick daisies in the gun barrels of their human oppressors. They stopped killing because once the killing starts, so does the vampire hunting. If they lay low and feed without killing, humans don’t take as much of an interest in the vampire underground.

For the majority of what could charitably be called the script’s second act, Darren and Crepsley don’t do much more than hang out, occasionally changing up locations, but mostly just sitting around, talking about this world’s vampire lore. Nothing dramatically compelling or even particularly interesting happens, even though Helgeland lays out a handful of intriguing extensions of the vampire myth. He does it in the least interesting possible way, losing sight of characters and conflicts established early in the script for an extended lesson on lore.

Vampaneze leader Murlough (Ray Stevenson) and his faithful companion, Mr. Tiny (Michael Cerveris), are hot on Crepsley’s trail, so he decides to elude them by rejoining Cirque du Freak in Pennsylvania. I’m no expert on hiding out, but wouldn’t it make more sense to avoid the freak show with which Crepsley has associated himself for the past hundred years if the goal is to hide? Maybe the plan was to hide in plain sight—the script is suspiciously unclear—but whatever the case, Darren gets a warm welcome among the freaks, who can teach him more about the mythology of this universe. Apparently, Murlough wants to start some sort of war between the vampire factions, and even though Darren and Crepsley are the only Cirque du Freak vampires, they’re apparently the leaders of the vampire resistance. Murlough wants Crepsley dead, because he was once a great Vampire General who killed more vampaneze than any known vampire. Murlough needs Crepsley out of the way if he’s to wage his war.

The big twist that Murlough has taken Steve under his wing should come as a surprise to no one, and because he disappears for so much of the script, the conflict between him and Darren is undermined and feels more like a cheap twist than an earned betrayal. At any rate, Darren has grown sick because he refuses to drink blood. When Murlough, Mr. Tiny, and Steve go after Crepsley, he’s forced to drink the blood of Sam (renamed Pete and played by Daniel Newman in the film) to get up to “half-vampire strength” and fight off the vampaneze. He rescues Crepsley, and together they kill Mr. Tiny and fight off Murlough and Steve, naturally without killing them.

Now that Darren has accepted his fate as a vampire, it’s time for Crepsley to take him to the assembly of Vampire Generals so they can plan a way to defeat Murlough and the vampaneze.

That’s the end of the script—an incredible tease of action to come, with only a handful of ineffectual fight scenes and a metric ton of explanation.

I can only imagine better things were to come, because this script managed to lure the likes of Reilly, Stevenson, Cerveris, Ken Watanabe, Willem Dafoe, Salma Hayek, Orlando Jones, Patrick Fugit, Colleen Camp, Don McManus, and Frankie Faison. Maybe some of these actors would have signed on, anyway, but considering how little they have to do in the script (one thing that doesn’t much change in the movie), it only makes sense to me that they were promised better things to come with these characters as the franchise went on.

The film’s most significant change is its tone. As I wrote earlier, the start of Helgeland’s script perfectly captures the kid-friendly creep factor of Ray Bradbury, and although the dearth of real conflict and suspense in the rest of the script makes it a huge disappointment, Helgeland never strays too far from that tone. It has its share of funny moments, but I wouldn’t describe it as a comedy. Even when I learned that Reilly would star as Crepsley, I assumed it would retain the same tone—thanks to his participation in Will Ferrell movies, it’s easy to forget that Reilly is one of the best actors working today.

Director Paul Weitz, who is credited on the screenplay for the finished film, gets rid of the few good things present in Helgeland’s script and turns the film into something akin to a wacky, effects-laden vampire comedy. The opening scenes of the script have a nice grounding in reality that contributes to the eerie atmosphere, but Weitz disposes of that, changing virtually everything in favor of wacky but largely unfunny comedy. Darren’s parents forbid him from being Steve’s friend, but the decision seems arbitrary and mean. Steve never steals money from Darren’s mother and doesn’t use the money to finance their admission to the freak show. Darren brings the spider to school, Steve takes it away from him and drops the cage, bringing the spider bite on himself. (It personally offends me when movies try so hard to make the good guys good that nobody can be even remotely culpable in a bad action—the script’s version worked much better and felt much more plausible than Steve getting startled and dropping the cage.)

I’d call it a plus side if it yielded a better film, but the second half is much different in the film than the script. Much of the myth-making remains, but the film introduces much more conflict, peril, and jeopardy. Murlough shows up much earlier, attempting to kidnap Darren and turn him into a vampaneze. Crepsley stops him, and they flee to the freak show, not to hide but for safety. This leads to a romantic subplot involving Rebecca (Jessica Carlson), the “monkey girl” (she has a tail). There’s a similar subplot in the script involving a girl named Debbie, but here there’s a bit more development, especially when Murlough kidnaps her as an attempt to turn the freak show against Darren and have him sent away. Meanwhile, as in the script, Murlough gets his mitts into Steve (who’s surprisingly suicidal, considering how watered-down the film is compared to the script), but he uses Steve’s knowledge to get a handle on Darren’s weakness—his family, whom Murlough, Mr. Tiny, and Steve kidnap to use as leverage to get rid of Darren.

Here’s why using the family wouldn’t have worked in the script and works even less well in the film. Ultimately, the story is about a bond forming between Darren and Crepsley. Darren has to give up his actual family—who, in the film, are portrayed as cartoonishly irredeemable, patently awful people—and get used to the surrogate family of freaks, led by father figure Crepsley. For all its fault, Helgeland’s script wisely puts Crepsley in danger, forcing Darren to embrace his new way of life and do what he has to in order to keep his “family” safe. That’s much more satisfying than needing to save his real family, who don’t contribute much to the story in the first place (other than giving Darren a reason to want to leave, because who would want to stay with them?), and it never allows Darren to really solidify his bond with the freaks. He pretty much aligns with them not because he wants to, not because he feels he’s one of them (despite painfully awful voiceover narration at the end in which Darren says just that), but because he’s been backed into a corner and has no choice but to stop the vampaneze to keep his family safe.

It’s just awful, made all the worse by Weitz’s insistence on comedy above all. Never as funny as it should be or thinks it is, the film creates situations that should repair all the script’s issues with conflict, story, and character—but the wacky tone prevents us from taking anything that happens seriously. People keep getting kidnapped, but there’s no sense of jeopardy, which makes it feel like all the characters are simply going through the motions, play-acting a story they’re all secretly rolling their eyes through.

Credit needs to go to the two standouts in this film, Reilly and Hutcherson. Both of them ignore Weitz’s light comedic tone and play their characters as actual people—haunted, serious, sort of glum, not at all funny. They do great work with underwritten characters mired in a mess of a movie, and they should be commended for their work here. Unfortunately, despite the wide-ranging cast of recognizable ringers, they’re the only ones who deserve kudos. Everyone else seems either faintly amused or acutely bored with everything that’s happening, like they’re waiting out the film until their moments to shine in later parts of the franchise.

Although the film attempts to repair some of the franchise-first, quality-last issues with the screenplay, the end result is worse than the original script. In all cases, it’s a problem with the egregious “franchise-starter” mentality at big studios. Everyone wants a Harry Potter or Twilight or Batman or Iron Man—cash cows that audiences flock to. But, for all the flaws of these franchises, they have one thing in common: their earliest efforts were real movie stories. Even if they were crass attempts to launch a successful franchise, they could have gone one and out and still had a good standalone film. Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant never had that, and it suffered both creatively and commercially for it. What a shame.

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