Premise: A once-prominent public school teacher tries to get three students into college in order to win over a hot new teacher.
About: Was on the ’06 Black List with six votes. While the script is still stuck in development, Eric Gravning, the writer, used it to get assignment work on the Halle Barry project, Class Act, about a Nevada school teacher who enlists the help of her sixth-grade students in her congressional campaign (based on the true story of Tierney Cahill). He also worked on the film adaptation of Tom and Jerry.
Writer: Eric Gravning
Details: 122 pages – draft that made the Black List (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).
I’m an unabashed fan of Mr. Holland’s Opus. I know it’s super sentimental and uses industrial sized rope to tug at your heartstrings, but in my opinion, it’s the best “inspiring teacher” movie of all time. When Mr. Holland walks into that auditorium at the end? Oh man. It never fails to get me.
Mr. Burnout isn’t that movie. In fact, I don’t know what Mr. Burnout is. It’s such a strange combination of films from this genre, you don’t know what to make of it. Is has some Mr. Holland in it. It has some “Hamlet 2” in it. It adds a dash of Alexander Payne’s “Election.” It even has a little “Bad Teacher,” in there, the Cameron Diaz project I reviewed last year.
This script’s biggest strength is also its biggest weakness, and that’s that you’re never quite sure which direction it’s going to go.
Right away you know something’s different when we’re introduced to our hero, Eddie Burnett, via a voice over from a character who doesn’t show up until halfway into the script. This character, Charity, tells us that there was a time when our hero, Eddie, used to be an idealistic young teacher, signified by his star pupil, Laura, who used Eddie’s guidance to get into Princeton.
Since then, however, schools have become overpopulated, students uninterested, and budgets cut drastically. The kids, the parents, the government…nobody cares anymore. So a decade later, Eddie’s now a disinterested drunk teacher trying to make it through the day.
His classes are populated by morons and we focus on three in particular. There’s Roberto, a Hispanic kid who may or may not be a gangbanger. There’s Rose, who spends most of her classes sleeping instead of learning. And there’s Matthew, a privileged kid with every opportunity in the world, who just doesn’t put forth the effort.
What’s so frustrating about these three is that they’re all smart. They just don’t apply themselves. And, shit, Eddie sure isn’t going to put in the extra effort to change that.
Well…until now anyways. Charity, our voice from above, replaces one of the retired teachers and when she sees Eddie’s despicable behavior, tells him that she’ll sleep with him if he gets three of his students into one of the top colleges in the country.
To me, this is the weakest part of the screenplay and it’s a big problem in that it’s the hook of the movie. As we talked about the other day, when you’re dealing with logic in a script, you can get away with sketchy logic in the lesser plot points, but on the single most important section of the screenplay – that which dictates the story – you can’t be wishy-washy.
First of all, as Charity points out, we’re not even sure if she’s serious about the offer. Second, he just met this girl. Or more importantly, she just met him. So her offering is absurd. It would be like if a girl approached you at the bus stop and said, “I’ll sleep with you if you get me a job at the aquarium.” It just comes out of nowhere.
Anyway, with sex on the brain, Eddie transforms into an unstoppable teaching force. He helps his three students ace their SATs. He helps them ace their final. And he starts helping them in their real lives as well. This is where Mr. Burnout becomes most interesting, when we learn about Rose’s exhausting home life (thus why she’s sleeping in class), and Matthew’s overbearing father (thus why he’s so aloof). Nothing here is quite what it seemed on the surface, including Eddie himself, who’s got his own baggage exposed in a way that makes us completely reevaluate him.
Eventually, some teachers who never liked Eddie lobby to get him fired, and just when Eddie’s finally getting that teaching spark back, it turns out to be too late.
Mr. Burnout is messy. That would be the word of the day if Eddie asked me to write one on the board. There’s a good movie in here somewhere, particularly in the way these characters are explored and the thought that went into their backstories. But there are just too many elements fighting against each other to bring it all together.
Take Charity for example. I understand the advantage of viewing Eddie through a third person. How if *he* had been doing the voice over, we would’ve learned too many things about him that we didn’t want to know yet. But Charity is like an unapologetic plot-bot, there to feed us information on command and nothing else. Even when she gets into the story, it’s to artificially influence the plot with her “sex for kid’s college” trade.
Now had Charity and Eddie gone on a few dates, gotten to know each other, developed a friendship, and then she told him that, morally, she couldn’t continue a relationship with someone who didn’t care about the people he was teaching, and he then changed his ways in order to save that relationship – now that’s something I would be on board with.
The problem is, we don’t have time for them to start a relationship. And the reason we don’t have time for them is we spent way too much time in the first act setting up that Eddie was a terrible teacher. We’re told again and again and again through numerous scenes that Eddie’s a lazy lousy teacher, when all we needed was one. When writers do this, overwrite their first acts, and oversell their hero’s weakness, it leaves them with less time to deal with key relationships later on, which is what you should be using your second act for. Which is exactly what happens with Eddie and Charity.
This should probably be the key relationship in the entire script. Yet it’s barely explored and only later does it turn into something real. Unfortunately by then it’s too late and we simply don’t believe it.
This carries over into the kids as well. All three kids, while having interesting backstories and interesting individual relationships with Eddie, don’t have any sort of relationship with each other. It’s almost as if Eddie is tutoring each of them on their own, since they rarely interact. In the one instance where we do see that interaction – Matthew’s crush on Rose – it starts so quickly and ends even more quickly – that it doesn’t feel real. I wouldn’t have minded a couple more students in the mix and we have more of a Breakfast Club vibe, where they actually acknowledge and deal with the issues they have with each other.
That said, there were some really nice emotional moments. Learning Eddie’s backstory was tough. It added another dimension to him that he needed, and transformed an unlikable frumplehorn into a sympathetic figure. The late reveal of Laura’s fate, Eddie’s prized pupil from the past, was also a punch in the gut. But even with these warmer goosebump-worthy touches, there was too much messiness, too much unfocused energy, to bring it all together in a satisfying way. I would love to see the version of this script with a coherent theme – specifically about the deterioration of the American school system. I don’t think that’s been done before, and seen through the filter of a dark comedy, it could really be fascinating. But since I’m not grading on potential, I probably can’t recommend this.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: You don’t usually need as much setup time as you think you do. We don’t need five scenes to show how much Eddie hates teaching. A lot of writers make this mistake. One strong scene or a couple of medium scenes is all you need to show your character’s big problem. Then move on. Feel free to remind us, but don’t block out full scenes to keep telling us what we already know. You’re going to need that time later to build up your characters and relationships.