Well, I apologize for being unavailable for a second day in a row but after I posted the now infamous “I Will Not Read Your Fucking Script” article, Josh Olson and about 60,000 others sent me their scripts and because I’m the anti-Josh Olson, I’m reading ALL OF THEM. So that’s at least going to keep me busy til tomorrow. In the meantime, the Zack Attack is back with not one, but TWO reviews. I asked him the reason for doubling his load and he said, “Carson, why sing one Christmas Carol when you can sing two?” Hmm… Uhh…Not sure how to respond to that. Anyway, experience more pearls of wisdom like this one at Zack’s blog. Go. Now! Wait I mean! Read his reviews first.
Hi, Zack Smith (www.zswriter.com) reporting in with a double-review covering two scripts Carson sent me…neither of which I liked that much. I don’t like being negative, but both lost my interest for different reasons. However, my next review will be of the unproduced Twenty Billion, which I loved, and will be much more positive. Positivity, yay!
Premise: A contemporary thriller about three young, struggling writers living in New York whose lust for success soon sets them on a dark path of jealousy and betrayal.
About: This received 15 mentions on the 2008 blacklist; writer Paul Grellong, who’s done several plays, and has gone on to work as a writer and producer on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
Writer: Paul Grellong
Details: 110 pages (August 6, 2008 draft)
Summarizing this screenplay without giving away its many, many twists is darn near impossible, so I’ll cut to the chase and say if you’ve seen Ira Levin’s play and movie Deathtrap, it’s pretty much the same thing.
Essentially, it goes like this: Blocked/unsuccessful literary type comes into possession of a genius manuscript and tries to pass it off as theirs; blackmail and double-crosses follow. This version reverses the situation to be told from the POV of young up-and-comers as opposed to a fading veteran, but it’s a similar principle.
I read Manuscript knowing nothing about it, but by the end I was thinking, “Hmm, this would work better as a stage play.” Then I did a Google and found that it was a stage play that had a brief run off-Broadway in 2005. For whatever reason, this irked me.
This is not to say the writer, Paul Grellong, comes off as stagebound. He does a decent job in the first 10 pages of establishing the characters through external action and visual details, and even seems to open up the original narrative in a way that expands the characters’ motivations.
(The original play, from my understanding, takes place entirely in one room and just has the original three characters; the screenplay also ages these characters a few years, perhaps to allow the original cast to reprise their roles).
By the climax, though, it definitely plays like a stage production, complete with long revelations and a gun from the first act going off.
This would be forgivable if the script gave you more of an investment in the characters. By the end of Manuscript, I didn’t find any of the characters particularly likeable. The whole thing is based around a revenge plot that seems overly-intricate and cruel. The character that gets the comeuppance is portrayed as manipulative and sociopathic, but somehow feels more sympathetic than the characters who are supposed to be in the right.
Also, most of the twists are predictable (especially if you’ve seen Deathtrap), and make less and less sense the more you think about them. And the setting feels dated. The New York publishing industry isn’t what it used to be, and the stakes (New York literary fame!) feels like something that would only matter to someone who…well, lives in New York, or wishes they did.
Years ago, I stumbled across a volume in the humor section of a used bookstore called SPY Notes. A parody of Cliffs Notes put out by SPY magazine (and, I later found out, ghost-written by future NewsRadio creator Paul Simms), it provided mock-“analysis” of such “hip young urban novels” as Bright Lights, Big City, Less than Zero and their ilk.
Obviously, this was very 1980s humor, but the book was still funny in the way it dissected the threadbare plots and lack of action in these books, along with the hype that surrounded them. The point it made was that all the books were about privileged young Ivy Leaguers with dead mothers who went to nightclubs and did lots of drugs…and that most were written by privileged young Ivy Leaguers who then became popular at nightclubs where people did lots of drugs.
It made the further point that most of their follow-up novels didn’t do terribly well.
The book’s point was that most of these young novelists were overly-hyped and enjoyed a form of local celebrity for books that weren’t that edgy or even well-written. And that’s something that Manuscript doesn’t really get into.
It shows these young people desperate for the respect and fame that comes from a “hot” book, but while it has its share of satire, it doesn’t dig deeply enough into why they’re so enamored with a goal that will, at best, give them a few more years of cocktail party invites.
The idea of New York literary fame has its amusing aspects – it’s sort of a pseudo-intellectual variation on “celebutantes.” With the publishing industry dying (along with the high society scene), there’s room for an entertaining story that shows how pursuing this fame is indicative of a way of life that will soon no longer exist, or as a metaphor for how young, privileged people are losing their sense of entitlement to the realities of the new economy.
Manuscript could have been more fun if it satirized why the characters were pursuing that kind of fame, or showed them evolving beyond that want, or even that it was particularly empty. There’s some stuff about familial jealousy and so forth, but the script could go a lot further in showing how young, smart people are as desperate for literary achievement as a form of material status and fame. As it is, it comes off as naïve and contrived.
(Even the suspense involving the stolen manuscript makes little sense: As the NY Times pointed out in its review of the play, the idea of exposed plagiarism derailing an author’s career, as opposed to getting them a bigger deal for a memoir, makes little sense. Also, why wouldn’t a blocked New York writer just start blogging for Gawker or blogging, period? You’d probably get a bigger audience than most published books).
Criticisms aside, Paul Grellong shows a lot of talent moving into the more visual medium of screenwriting, and I am curious to see what he does with a feature script that doesn’t have its roots on the stage.
Script link: **Link taken down**
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] barely kept my interest
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I Learned: A twisty plot can keep you hooked, but too many twists can not only strain credulity, they can damage the audience’s involvement with your characters. Also, it’s a fine line between making an elite world accessible to your audience and avoiding exploring what makes it an interesting setting in the first place. Finally, many good films have been made from plays, but what works on the stage doesn’t always play on screen – especially long, dialogue-driven scenes with phone calls and guns.
Who the Hell is Sanjay Patel?
Premise: After receiving a fake ID, a college kid is mistaken for the mysterious Sanjay Patel, which sends he and his friend on a wild night surrounding an unanticipated world changing event.
About: This script was on the 2006 Blacklist, and was in development at Universal as of January of this year. The writers also sold a script called The Sitter to Fox Atomic, to be directed by The Wackness’ Jonathan Levine (link: There is also apparently a real Sanjay Patel who has written a paper on sleep apnea. Google is fun.
Writers: Brian Gatewood and Allesandro Tanaka
Details: 110 pages (Sept.19, 2006)
Who the Hell is Sanjay Patel?, like Manuscript, has a plot the relies on a great deal of implausibility, which is the only excuse I can think of for tying these two reviews together.
The basic premise is this: Jesse Kaplan, a 20-year-old college student described as “one of those nondescript guys who fades from memory shortly after meeting him,” has a bad day when his college professor explains he’s been sleeping with Jesse’s girlfriend, and is also failing Jesse so he won’t be seen as unfairly sympathetic. This is the first “huh?” moment of the plot.
Jesse, who’s called out for being boring and directionless (by OTHER CHARACTERS WHO TELL US THIS), gets a reprieve from the professor, who even suggests a guy who can get him a fake ID. Jesse is egged on by his roommate Arthur, a heavyset ultra-Republican who doesn’t let his relentless desire for booze and babes get in the way of accusing everyone around him of being a terrorist, unpatriotic, unfairly advantaged by affirmative action, etc.
Despite only being able to afford a horribly unrealistic ID of an Indian man named “Sanjay Patel,” Jesse finds he’s able to get into clubs…but that Patel also has a reputation as a terrorist. So a long night of shaggy-dog antics ensues involving spies, gangsters, car chases and yes, a frat party.
This is the sort of script with lines like, “Out of nowhere, we see FIVE NINJAS appear.” That willingness to go over-the-top is pretty amusing, as is the climax, which brings together the script’s satire of post-9/11 paranoia. However, merging this conflict with frat boy comedy fell flat in Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, and the rest of the script makes it a chore to get to the admittedly-amusing climax.
Patel is a prime example of the Idiot Plot, where the plot’s crises could be solved within five minutes if all the characters weren’t, well, idiots. The shtick of someone being mistaken for a criminal off a bad fake ID is barely enough to support an episode of South Park, let alone a feature-length comedy.
Jesse isn’t a particularly funny or compelling lead character. As mentioned earlier, we know he’s passive and boring because…other characters TELL us he’s passive and boring. He mostly exists to move the plot forward by reacting to the events around him. He doesn’t seem to have much of a personality, and the fact that he lets other characters walk all over him makes him seem stupid and unlikable.
And then there’s Arthur.
Arthur is in many ways a more active character than Jesse, but the character’s pathological racism/sexism/homophobia/general clueless stupidity wears thin by midway through the script. This is the sort of guy who refers to feminists as “Feminazis” and “Dixie Chicks,” moans that the mainstream media is “destroying the country one Daily Show episode at a time,” and makes a recurring joke about Korean barbecue I won’t get into. His actions mostly serve to make Jesse’s life more complicated by pissing off someone who could potentially help them.
In one baffling sequence, after their Korean friend Kyung has helped them escape the aforementioned ninjas, he decides to “racially profile” him and leave him tied to a tree. Why? Because the writers thought it would be funny to have a joke about racial profiling. And the fact that Jesse goes along with this, however reluctantly, makes him seem unlikable as well.
At least the character’s consistently written, but Arthur’s a prime example of the “fat, horny friend” character that’s become an increasingly lazy plot device in raunchy comedy, awkwardly merged with every Republican stereotype you can imagine.
Jokes about Republicans can sometimes come off as too easy and preaching to the choir, and this is no exception. It’s not that I like Republicans, but if you’re going to mock them, give it some teeth instead of just having them talk like a Fox News headline.
The character is so absurdly nasty to everyone he meets that it kills whatever good will we’re supposed to have for him going into the third act. The screenwriters clearly intend him to come off as insecure and defensive, but he’s just too stupid to live.
A script like this does not require a lot of reality, but it at least requires some internal logic. At the very least, the absurdity needs to come with a sense that each event is building into another. Even Dude, Where’s My Car? escalates its idiocy into a chaotic climax involving a giant woman and a “Continuum Transfunctioner.” I’m very disturbed that I remembered that last detail.
The third act of Patel does show some skill in bringing the different characters together and making a larger point, but by the time we get there, it’s difficult to care anymore. There are a few amusing jokes in it, but for the most part it feels clumsy, awkward, and offensive in all the wrong ways.
Patel is the sort of script where a character remarks, “Amazing how we went from Zeroes to Heroes in just one night.” It’s that combination of on-the-nose dialogue and credulity-straining situations that takes a potentially-entertaining satire and drags it down.
Script link: Who The Hell Is Sanjay Patel? (If you are the writer or copyright holder of this script and would like it taken down, please e-mail me at Carsonreeves1@gmail.com and I will do so immediately)
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] barely kept my interest
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I Learned: Giving a character a strong comedic voice can backfire if that voice is just the same joke over and over. Also, just because you’re parodying/satirizing a certain situation doesn’t mean you can get away with making your characters stupid and impractical. Finally – KEEP YOUR MAIN CHARACTER ACTIVE! SHOW us his personality, and give him more to do than react to the insanity around him. One more thing: Jokes about Korean barbecue are never funny. Except that one King of the Hill episode, where they were making fun of Dale for thinking Khan had cooked Ladybird. That’s different.