Clever

Author: Rob Fraser & David Bloom & Jim Gillespie
Genre: Thriller
Storyline: 3
Dialogue: 6
Characterization: 5
Writer’s Potential: 5

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Recommendation?

Pass

Logline:

When a college freshman rescues a samurai-obsessed classmate from drowning, the classmate will do whatever it takes to ensure his savior succeeds — including murder.

Synopsis:

Creepy young JAY (19) exercises in a mysterious, white-walled room lined with academic books. A hospital NURSE, insinuating Jay has been there for a long time (possibly years), enters to discharge Jay. This is contrasted with TOM (18)’s extremely normal life as his family helps him prepare to go away for college. His parents drop him off at a train station. Tom and Jay get on the same train and end up sitting next to each other. Jay reads a book about samurai culture, which he takes extraordinarily seriously. Tom cracks jokes, which Jay ignores. A ticket inspector enters the train car. Jay’s body language makes it clear that he doesn’t have a ticket. Tom helps to hide him from the train inspector. Impressed, Jay and Tom become fast friends. When they get off the train, Tom is surprised by how little luggage Jay has. Jay makes excuses, but as they ride to the university, quick-cut flashbacks tell us (but not Tom) a different story — Jay has a haunted past, raised in that mysterious white room, alone, while scientists observed him.

Jay helps Tom move into his dorm before heading upstairs to his floor. Tom discovers a gift from his parents: a brand new iPod, with an engraved message from his parents. Tom introduces himself to his neighbors in the dorm — BETH (18, a punk-rock girl), DAMIAN (19, fat and obnoxious), and SARA (19, attractive but cynical). They all agree to go out for a drink. Tom invites Jay, who’s uninterested but goes anyway. Everybody but Jay gets trashed. The next morning, Tom and Jay go to the “Fresher’s Fair” at the Student Union. Jay gets into an intense argument with some animal-rights activists about why animals should have no rights. CAITLIN MOSS (29, pretty), a teacher’s assistant with the school’s animal-rights group, tries to debate the issue with Jay, who wins the argument at the expense of sounding deranged. Tom tells Jay to lighten up. Jay gets mad and leaves. Tom apologizes to Moss, to whom he feels an immediate attraction.

Tom and Moss, along with the entire freshman class, are dragged to a lecture hall, where CARPENTER (48, the cranky dean) rambles about plagiarism. A montage shows their first week pass. Tom, Damian, Sara, and Beth all get closer, while Jay isolates himself and does strange things like steal textbooks and impersonate maintenance men. Tom gets a campus job in the cafeteria. One night, the whole group goes out drinking again. Tom, who has to finish an important essay for Moss’s class, is surprised when Moss herself shows up at the bar. Tom offers to buy her a drink, but she turns him down. Later that night, Tom walks around campus. Jay and Beth have coupled up, while Damian tries to couple with Sara and is rebuffed. Tom, the odd man out, notices movement in the faculty parking lot. It’s Moss and Carpenter, in a heated argument that turns into impassioned foreplay. They both get into the same car and speed away.

At a lake near campus, the students smoke marijuana and go for a swim. Beth taunts Jay until he gives in and takes a puff on the joint. Jay gets up and walks into the lake, never attempting to swim, until he disappears under the water. Beth starts screaming, which catches Tom’s attention. Tom dives under, seeks out Jay, and nearly runs out of air before saving Jay, whose foot is caught. Tom barely manages to drag Jay ashore. He performs CPR until Jay coughs and spits out water. They go back to the dorm, where Jay showers. Tom lets him borrow some of his dry clothes, and the others are startled by how much Jay resembles Tom when they’re wearing similar clothes. The next morning, Tom’s computer crashes just as he’s finishing his essay. He’s running late for work, and the essay is due. Jay, still in Tom’s clothes, offers to fix Tom’s computer and submit his essay. Tom is reluctant, but he allows it.

Jay asks Tom to meet him at the lake after work. Tom goes, and Jay leads Tom into a nearby bunker that was once a WWII bomb shelter, later turned into an animal-testing lab. It’s long been abandoned. Jay says that this was his father’s lab. His father worked for the university, until animal-rights activists on campus forced them to cut his funding. Tom is creeped out by the old lab and Jay’s dad’s work. That night, they go to the bar. Jay shows up, still in Tom’s clothes, and now even combing his hair like Tom. Jay also starts drinking, just like Tom. The next morning, Moss meets Tom one-on-one to discuss his essay. He got the highest grade of any student so far this year. Tom’s impressed with himself until he scans through the essay and realizes he didn’t write it. Tom seeks out Jay and yells at him. Jay tells Tom that, because he saved Jay’s life, Jay is now indebted to him. It’s part of the code of the samurai. Tom’s baffled, but before he can respond, Carpenter drags him into his office. Gruff and fairly hostile, Carpenter confesses surprise at Tom’s academic skills and implies Tom will crack under the pressure to keep his grades this high. After this meeting, Tom is even angrier with Jay. Jay decides Tom needs sex — not a relationship, just a meaningless one-night-stand to clear his head and refocus his energy so he can beat the 93% Jay’s essay received.

That night, they meet at the bar. Damian sleazes over NATALYA, a Ukrainian exchange student who shows no interest. Tom introduces himself and offers to buy Natalya a drink. Natalya accepts. They go back to Tom’s room and have sex. Meanwhile, Jay and Beth have sex. Jay turns down the music in their room so he can hear Tom and Natalya. He matches Tom’s rhythm, climaxes at the same time. Beth is creeped out but still interested enough in Jay to allow this behavior. Natalya slips out in the middle of the night, stealing Tom’s new iPod as she leaves. The next morning, Tom is surprised that she’s gone. Jay confesses that she was a prostitute he hired to ensure Tom got the sex he needed. Tom finds this disturbing and gets mad when he discovers his iPod is missing. Jay is mad about it, too, but Tom’s so disturbed by his behavior, he yells at him to leave. Jay tells himself he’ll fix everything.

Later, Tom arrives back at the dorm and discovers 64 messages on his VoiceMail — all from Jay. He closes up his room for an early night of studying. Meanwhile, Jay ventures into the city, to Natalya’s apartment. He viciously beats her until he gets back the iPod. When Natalya suggests that she’ll send her “people” after Tom, Jay murders her.

The next morning, Tom confesses to Moss that he didn’t write the 93% paper. She admits she already knew, because of the stylistic differences, but she was willing to let it go and give Tom the benefit of the doubt — especially since his latest essay, which Tom actually did write, scored a 95. Jay barges in as if Moss doesn’t exist, admitting he was wrong about Tom needing casual sex. Moss excuses herself as Tom and Jay argue some more about Natalya. Jay is about to confess what he’s done when Tom yells that he never wants to hear about her again. Then, Sara barges into Tom’s room and drags him out to a dance at the Student Union, to make her new boyfriend jealous. Tom goes off with Sara. Jay goes to his father’s laboratory and, in a rage over Tom’s mistreatment, trashes the place, having a child-like temper tantrum.

At the Student Union, Jay shows up to the dance with Beth. Tom and Moss have a mild tiff that’s interrupted by Sara’s machinations. While they’re all distracted, Jay slips something into Moss’s drink. She starts feeling oddly euphoric, very sexual, and she focuses all this energy on Tom. Tom walks Moss back to her residence. Despite having ample opportunity to take advantage, Tom refuses. He lets Moss sleep it off, and in the morning, she thanks him for acting like a gentleman. She confesses that she usually goes after the wrong type of guy, and Tom seems to be the right type of guy. Tom admits, ironically, that he thought college would be an opportunity to reinvent himself as a “bad boy,” but it’s just not in his nature. They share a moment before Tom leaves. He returns to the dorm, where Sara announces that police found the body of a 16-year-old prostitute. Recalling his argument with Jay, Tom realizes this is Natalya.

Tom goes upstairs to Jay’s floor, but nobody there has heard of him. Just as he’s about to leave, Tom notices an emergency fire-escape door. The alarm has been disconnected. Tom opens the door and discovers, in the fire-escape hall, a creepy hovel — this is where Jay has been staying. It’s filled with books, chemicals, a bedroll, and — more disturbingly — a variety of maps, notes, and plans that all pertain to Tom. Tom’s terror increases when Jay catches him snooping. Tom asks Jay why he’s come to this university. Jay reminds Tom of the lab, of his father’s work. Tom tells Jay they found Natalya’s body, and he’s going to the police. Jay acts unconcerned as he reminds Tom of their physical resemblance and notes that he has a blood-encrusted iPod that belongs to Tom, which might interest the police.

Tom goes to Moss. Without tipping his hand, he asks her about James Allenby, a scientist who once worked at the university. Moss is surprised Tom even knows who that is. She explains that he once worked for the Ministry of Defense but later got a small research grant to continue his work at the university. She leads him to the library, where his old research files are stored. She finds old films of Allenby’s experiments, which show a young Jay helping out. Moss explains that, several years earlier, Carpenter discovered a tape of Allenby performing a brain dissection on an unanesthetized monkey. The University got rid of him, seized his research, and days later, Allenby committed suicide. As Moss explains all this, Jay watches, hidden in the stacks. While Tom researches, Jay follows Moss out of the library. He contemplates killing her but stops when he hears the sound of his father’s voice. Tom watches another video of Allenby’s experiments. Jay begins to weep.

With Tom deep in research mode, Jay uses Beth to get into Moss’s apartment. The next day, Beth is found hanging in the quad. Sara tells Tom that police found erotic sketches of Moss, so they think Beth was having an inappropriate relationship, Moss tried to cut it off, so Beth killed herself and the now-missing Moss fled because they knew she’d be a suspect. Tom doesn’t believe any of this. Jay appears, taunting Tom. Tom threatens to go to the police, but Jay says they won’t believe him without hard proof. He produces Allenby’s journal, which he stole from Tom’s room. Tom returns to the library to find every file, film, and videotape that Allenby created is now gone. Walking through campus, Tom notices a couple of chemistry students and recalls Jay describing a chemistry mixture he intended to put together. Tom Googles the ingredients and discovers Jay was intending to create napalm.

As students and faculty assemble for a candlelight vigil for Beth, Tom returns to the bunker laboratory and finds, among the mess, all of Allenby’s files and videos. As Tom watches a video — unseen by the audience — that shocks and disturbs him, Jay steps up to eulogize Beth. It goes from a hopeful, spiritual speech to a deranged political statement about the university wronging his father. He raises a WWII-era Japanese pistol and starts firing at the crowd. They disperse in a panic. Hearing the gunshots, Tom steps out of the lab and confronts Jay. The students run into the quad, where even students who weren’t at the vigil join the panic, fearing a fire or some other emergency. Jay attacks Tom, holds the gun on him, and forces him back into the lab. He accuses Tom of being responsible for his behavior. Tom is baffled. Jay explains that he’s loaded his napalm bombs where people will most likely congregate in an emergency — but he hasn’t wired the bombs. This whole situation is just to serve as a dire warning about mistreating intellectual superiors. Jay shows Tom that he’s holding Moss captive, and he’s going to kill her in front of Tom. It’s all in honor of his father. Tom chuckles, revealing what he learned in the disturbing video: that Allenby abused and tormented Jay as an experiment, raising him in what amounts to a Skinner box where all Jay had access to was intellectual materials and negative reinforcement for his mistakes. Tom corrects Jay, who believes Allenby committed suicide because the world didn’t understand him: Allenby killed himself because he couldn’t answer for what he had done to Jay. Jay refuses to believe any of this, but it shakes him enough that Tom gets the drop on Jay, grabs his gun, and shoots him in the head.

Tom unties Moss, who’s shocked that she’s still alive. They kiss passionately.

Comments:

Clever tries to live up to its title, attempting to deliver twists and turns while crafting a psychological thriller. It has a few tense moments, and an interesting relationship develops between the two main characters during the first half. Despite this, the writers telegraph so much that, overall, the script lacks suspense, causing the story to sputter to the finish line instead of keeping audiences at the edge of their seats. As written, it merits a pass.

The story starts out well enough, contrasting Jay’s mysterious upbringing with Tom’s relatively normal life against a solid, relatable depiction of college life. When Jay announces that the samurai code forces him to ensure Tom succeeds, the story starts to get a little hokey. The murder of Natalya in the second act is effective, but it never really pays off down the line. Instead of building drama out of Tom’s guilt and confusion and suspense from his suspicion that Jay is the killer, Tom spends the rest of the story looking into Jay’s past. The details of his past are as uninteresting as they are predictable — thanks to flashbacks peppered throughout the first and second acts, the mystery is solved long before Tom figures it out. As a result, the third act descends into endless, explanatory monologues about the samurai code and Allenby’s experiments. Tom shooting Jay doesn’t pack any emotional punch. The story just peters out once everything has been explained, in detail.

Tom and Jay start out as an intriguing, odd-couple pair. However, when the two turn into enemies, Tom’s overall “normalcy” comes across as blandness, preventing him from being a compelling protagonist. Jay, on the other hand, shifts from “creepily eccentric” to “cartoonish sociopath” in record time. He comes across as neither frightening nor threatening, making his efforts to blackmail and intimidate Tom seem ridiculous rather than suspenseful. The supporting characters have some subtle shades that the leads ironically lack, but none of them — including Moss, whose “relationship” with Tom comes too easily too feel believable — get enough screen time to make them truly interesting.

This seems designed mostly to attract young males interested in grisly scenes of murder and torture. It’s not really a horror movie, but its flashes of gore may attract horror fans, as well.

Posted by D. B. Bates on April 21, 2009 10:53 AM