Premise: While growing up, a young boy gradually learns that his father, who’s his hero, is the world’s biggest deadbeat.
About: Adapted by A-List screenwriter Steve Zaillian (Schindler’s List, Gangs of New York, Moneyball, Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) back in 2000, from the memoir, “Duke Of Deception: Memories Of My Father,” by Geoffrey Wolff. The movie never got off the ground, probably for story issues I get into here in the review.
Writer: Steve Zaillian based on the novel by Geoffrey Wolff
Details: 133 pages
This has to be one of the stranger screenplays I’ve read in awhile. First off, there’s no real story to speak of. It’s just watching a kid grow up with this weirdo deadbeat of a dad. Despite that, either because Zaillian is such a good writer or because of the perverse need to see how bad this dad gets, I kept pushing through. And because I wanted to keep reading, I wondered if I should give this a “worth the read.” But a lot of what we read here is so disturbing, and we hate this father so much, that we’re kind of thrilled when it’s over. Yeah, I wanted to know what happened. But thank the heavens above that I never have to revisit this story again (except through this review – darn it!).
So what’s Duke of Deception about? Well, it’s about a guy named Duke who’s, um, deceitful. The bulk of the movie takes place in the 60s (I think – there was a hell of a lot of jumping around in time – if only 2000 Zallian had been able to read my Clarity article!), where, I guess, people just trusted each other more. You could walk into a big department store, open up a line of credit, buy $3000 worth of merchandise, then tell them you were going to pay later. And they’d allow it!
So Duke took advantage of this. Oh boy did he take advantage of it. See, here’s the thing about Duke. He’s never had a job. In fact, he’s never accomplished anything in his life. He’s created this whole pretend life where he went to Princeton and fought in the war, but it’s all a lie, just like everything about him.
But anyway, Duke uses this “credit” ruse to buy anything he wants and NEVER pays. And I mean NEVER. He never pays a single bill in his life. If the bills start becoming too much, he moves to another store/vendor, or just moves the family out of town.
Oh yeah, the family. We’re actually telling this story through Duke’s son Geoffrey’s eyes. Geoffrey, unfortunately, is brought up by this lying bastard, and, as a result, becomes his biggest victim. That’s not to say Duke doesn’t love his son. Actually, Duke loves Geoffrey more than anything in the world. But Duke makes Geoffrey think he’s this amazing special person who can buy 50,000 dollar cars at the drop of a hat, when all he really is, is a giant deadbeat con man who’s stolen money from every person he’s ever met.
So while Duke spends his life running from the men he owes money to, he puts on a show for Geoffrey that they’re all wrong and he’s the one who’s right. Therefore, while everyone else catches up with Duke’s con, Geoffrey obliviously goes through life believing his dad is perfect.
Duke’s constant need for things gets so bad, in fact, that after his first wife leaves him because of the tremendous amount of debt he’s put them in, he marries a woman just to pillage her bank account, which will allow him to keep buying things. As Geoffrey grows up, he keeps seeing fights between his father and his wives, but always assumes its the wives’ fault. His father is perfect. He could never do anything wrong.
It isn’t until all his women leave him and Duke moves in with Geoffrey as an adult that Geoffrey finally gets a first-hand look at what his father’s been doing. Duke starts taking money from his own son and not paying it back, simply because there’s no one else to take money from. Duke even goes to jail for all the creditors he owes, allows Geoffrey to bail him out, then never shows up for court, forcing Geoffrey to eat thousands of dollars in bail fees.
It finally becomes clear to Geoffrey that his father is one giant fraud. A loser. A deadbeat of the highest order. The question is, what does he do about it? Does he keep enabling his addiction? Or does he finally grow up, accept his father for who he is, and leave him?
Yeah, so like I said, this is one odd screenplay. I mean the first thing that comes to mind when finishing it is: How could anyone consider this a movie? Because it’s not. It’s just a man being a total fraud douchebag for two hours. I mean, it’s fascinating in a way. To see how in denial he is. But there’s no story here. There’s no plot driving a story. There are no goals – no purpose. It’s just, Duke fucks over one person after another.
That’s the script’s biggest fault – its repetition. It never really evolves into anything more than where it began. Okay, he gets things and doesn’t pay for him. And then he gets more things and doesn’t pay for them. And then gets MORE things and doesn’t pay for them. At what point does it become, “Okay, that’s enough things he gets that he didn’t pay for??!”
Having said that, the script has a couple of strengths. Zaillian is a master at popping in the occasional great scene. There’s a great sequence, for example, where Geoffrey falls in love with the trash man’s daughter. So he goes to his father and asks, “Could you make sure you pay the trash man? Because I like his daughter.” Duke assures him that he will, and yet a few days later, the trash man comes by and dumps every bit of trash from Duke’s house back onto his lawn for not paying. The daughter stands there proudly, and tosses a gift that Geoffrey gave her onto the lawn as well, as if to put an exclamation point on how worthless she sees Geoffrey and his father to be.
The script also has a really intriguing final act, when Geoffrey comes face to face with his father’s lie. When his dad starts taking advantage of his own son, Geoffrey’s forced to take the blinders off, and it’s not pretty what he sees. Because it’s not just that his dad’s taking advantage of him in this moment, it’s that he now knows this is how his dad has always been. That there’s never been a single authentic thing about him. Imagine that for a second. You’ve always looked up to someone as your hero. Then you learn that everything about them is a fraud. I had this same experience when I found out the truth about Milli Vanilli.
So in the end, I don’t know what to make of this odd script. It almost feels like a backstory for a story to come later. I could say this is “worth the read,” because there are parts of it that are entertaining in their own odd way, but I’d be betraying the need for…I don’t know, class in a script, which the character of Duke makes sure there is none of.
I feel so dirty after this one. I think I need to take a shower.
What I learned: You need MOVIE MOMENTS in your script. Zallian is great at this! He makes sure there are 5 or 6 scenes in every script that are genuine bona fide moments that EXPLODE off the page. Besides the trash scene I mention above, there’s also a scene, when Geoffrey is told to stay home for that day’s game by his baseball coach, where Duke angrily speeds into the middle of the game, demands that the current batter take a hike, and insists that the coach put Geoffrey in RIGHT NOW! The whole game awkwardly stops as an unwitting Geoffrey is forced to bat. It’s just a tense fun scene, and it reminded me that sometimes you have to step back from the macro and make sure your script has a group of memorable highly entertaining scenes as well.