Premise: The 1970s-set true story of a con-artist, who was forced to work with a federal agent to turn the tables on other cons, mobsters, and politicians – namely, the volatile mayor of Camden, New Jersey.
About: I reviewed this script back in April in my newsletter. Since I’m gearing up for a big 2014, I haven’t had time to put many new posts together. Hence this is a re-post of that review. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I will soon, and I’m interested to see what they changed. This draft (aggressively titled “American Bullshit”) was written by Eric Warren Singer. Since then, David O. Russell (who also directs the film) rewrote it. Singer made his mark over a decade ago when he sold a wild screenplay titled “The Sky Is Falling” that had all of Hollywood a-buzz. He then went ten more years (selling a few more screenplays) before one of his scripts, The International, was produced. Singer’s got a pretty interesting backstory worth checking out.
Writer: Eric Warren Singer (based on a true story)
Details: 133 pages – 9/2/10 draft
Okay, let’s get to the important stuff right off the bat. Bradley Cooper is dating a 20 year old?? And her name is Suki Waterhouse?? What’s up with that?? Didn’t Cooper blow off his Silver Linings Playbook co-star, Jennifer Lawrence, because she was “too young”? Well Bradley, she was 22. Which is two years older than your current girlfriend. And Suki Waterhouse? That name is only cool if you’re a movie star. Not cool otherwise.
Now what were we talking about? Oh yeah, David O Russell’s next project. Looks like we’re going back to the 70s for this one. Russell’s been playing with tiny budgets for 15 years now. I guess when you get two actors Academy Awards though, and your last two “artsy” movies made over 250 million dollars, the studio’s willing to open up the offers. Hence, we get a big grand period piece.
Russell’s taking on a tough genre though – the crime flick. The only one who makes consistent money in this genre is Scorsese. You saw what happened when they gave a non-Scorsese the reigns to one of these films (Gangster Squad). It landed like a piano being dropped from a tenth story Manhattan apartment. So there’s an inherent risk there. Now, personally, I didn’t think the script to Gangster Squad was all that. When you’re writing a crime flick, it’s gotta have some BITE. It’s gotta have tough scary guys pulling the strings, the kind of guys who make you wet your pants with a glance. Gangster Squad didn’t have that. American Bullshit does.
It’s 1979 and Mel Weinberg (Christian Bale) is living the life. The LYING life. Mel is a professional bullshitter. And lucky for him, he lived in a time where you could make a living bullshitting. There was no Google to do a quick background check. People had to take you at your word. And if you were a fast-talker, charming, and you knew how to smile at just the right time, you could convince a lot of people to do things that they didn’t want to do.
What Mel does for a living is a little complicated. Basically, he gets people to invest money in companies that don’t exist. By the time these investors find out these companies don’t exist, Mel and his partner/lover Maxine (Jennifer Lawrence) are long gone. This works out for him for awhile, but eventually the FBI catch on to what he’s doing and shake him down.
They give him a choice. You can either go to jail, or help us take down some other guys – guys doing the same thing you are. Mel’s first instinct is to go to jail, but when they threaten to throw Maxine in the slammer too, he changes his mind. Fine, he’s in. The catch is, he doesn’t get to work alone. FBI Special Agent James Boyle (Bradley Cooper) will have to work with him every step of the way.
Here’s where things get fun. In order to take down the FBI’s primary target, an influential New Jersey mayor who has his dirty hands in all the Atlantic City casinos, they have to create the kind of pretend investor that would attract him. So they build up this fake Arabian Sheikh who’s willing to throw hundreds of millions of dollars at Atlantic City. The plan ends up working, but a little TOO well.
When rumor spreads that a Sheikh is going to be dumping money into every building with a slot machine in it, everybody wants a piece. But one of those folks sticks out a little more than the others. Arthur Zelnick. Zelnick is the top dog. He controls Atlantic City. Nobody makes money in this town unless he’s taking most of it. If this Sheikh wants to play, he’s going to need to play through Zelnick.
But that’s not the best part. Zelnick is able to operate because he’s paying off congressmen and senators. All of a sudden, the FBI realizes that they’re no longer going after a bunch of nobodies. This could be one of the biggest government corruption busts in U.S. history. What started as a thin story about a fake Sheikh all of a sudden requires elaborate planning and backstory so that nobody suspects the ruse. And the puppet show will be constructed by the biggest bullshitter of them all, Mel.
I’m going to tell you why this script worked so well. STAKES. I don’t know why I keep forgetting how important stakes are. But if you use them wisely, they can make any story interesting. The key is to keep raising them as the story goes on. So at any moment in the script, the pressure and intensity are twice as high as they were 15 pages prior. That’s especially important for crime movies cause what’s the point of a crime movie if the problem isn’t getting more dangerous as the story goes on?
First it’s Mel trying to survive on his own. Then he gets caught. Then he’s told they have to take down 5 small fries. One of those guys leads them to the mayor. Then a couple of bigger guys want the action. Then Zelnick wants the action. If Mel gets caught at the beginning, he gets a black eye. If he gets caught in the middle, he’s going to jail. If Zelnick finds out he’s a sham, he’s dead. Plain and simple. So when we get to that point, we FEEL the enormity of the moment. Mel has EVERYTHING to lose. That’s how you know if your stakes are high enough. How much does your character have to lose if he fails?
The big problem with the script is the female roles. They’re terrible. It’s as if Singer’s never met a woman before. Maxine is a total waste. She has one or two scenes where her and Max have heartfelt conversations but that’s it. Now that I think about it, she just disappears from the last third of the story. I don’t even remember her.
Strangely enough, Mel is married in the story. So you’re thinking that sooner or later he’ll have to make a choice between the two women. Or there’s going to be a confrontation between them. Or his wife is going to find out about Maxine. Anything so that the conflict from that personal part of his life will play into the story. But nothing like that ever happens. It’s so bizarre. I’m guessing that they’re totally rewriting this part for Jennifer Lawrence. Russell’s pretty good at writing female characters so I’m sure he’ll take care of it.
It’s weird. Whenever I see an amateur tackle one of these scripts, it’s a disaster. There are tons of characters and no direction. So when I read something like American Bullshit, where the storytelling is so effortless, it’s a little deceiving, because it tricks you into thinking it’s easy. It’s not. Singer was smart in that he laid out the goal very clearly: We’re using you, Mel, to take down the bad guys. I mean, that’s the story right there. And it worked. This was a good script!
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: This complex subject matter (crime, period piece, lots of characters) makes writers think that they have to live up to a certain complexity with their story. But some of the best crime films are really simple, like this one. I mean, the narrative basically amounts to “Good guys go after bad guys.” I think this can be applied to any genre. No matter how big your story is, always ask yourself if you can plot it simply.