Premise: An agnostic father on the brink of losing the respect of his family decides to live his life by the literal rules of the Bible for an entire year.
About: David O. Russell scripted today’s screenplay, and you may be wondering why an Academy Award winner wrote Yes Man 2, err, I mean The Year of Living Biblically. It appears this was written BEFORE Russell resurrected his career with The Fighter. In other words, he was paying that mortgage, baby! Hey, award-winning writers take jobs for $$$ just like actors do. Anthony Hopkins is in the new Transformers movie. What’s that about if it’s not about $$$? You need bills for bills!
Writer: David O. Russell (based on the book by A. J. Jacobs)
Details: 123 pages (undated)
I’m always looking for those undiscovered screenplay gems that have been hiding out in the houses of busy producers in the Hollywood Hills, buried underneath 20 year old piles of “Home and Garden.” They gotta be out there, right?
So when I saw a 2009 script by Russell hanging out on my hard drive that I’d never heard of before? I thought I struck black gold. This had to be good, right?
Let’s find out.
All Jon wants to do is write musicals. In the meantime, he’s making just above minimum wage playing piano at a bar and driving rich dicks around in a town car. That’d be a-okay for a 40 year-old if he wasn’t responsible for anyone. But Jon’s got a wife, Kate, a 10 year-old son, Walter, and a newborn. He’s kinda pressing his luck.
Luckily for him, Kate makes a ton of money and doesn’t judge him. But that’s beginning to change with a young baby. Is Jon going to be one of those people who pursues his dreams until he’s collecting an AARP check? And if so, is that the man she wants to spend the rest of her life with?
When Jon notices that Walter’s taken a liking to a hip Christian book store owner named Mike, he asks his son what’s up. Walter informs him that he’s learned most sons grow up to be like their fathers, and Walter’s afraid to grow up like Jon because Jon doesn’t live by any code of ethics. In fact, Jon doesn’t live by any code of anything.
Jon’s crushed that his son thinks of him this way, but he realizes he’s right. Jon doesn’t have any moral core. So he gets an idea. Live an entire year by the literal rules of The Bible. That way he’ll be viewed as the ultimate moral righteous person and become the perfect role model for his son. With Walter’s help, Jon prints out the 1100+ rules accumulated in all the different versions of the bible and starts following them.
As you would expect, this is hard. For example, Jon likes to swear. He can’t swear. Jon lies every once in awhile. He can’t lie. But it’s the little rules that have the biggest effect. You can’t shave your beard. So when the owner of the bar he plays piano at tells him to shave or GTFO, he gets fired.
Things get more specific. In the bible, “mediums” are seen as witches who you must pelt with rocks. So Jon and his son throw pebbles at a local medium. A woman on her period tries to touch Jon. But that makes you “unclean,” so Jon tells the woman she must stay away from him.
All the while, Jon’s life begins to fall apart, as following the rules of the bible is seriously hard in the modern age. But a promise is a promise. And Jon plans to follow the teachings of God until the year is up. Will he still have a family before it’s all over? Only God knows.
This was so brutal even Jesus himself would have a tough time saying something nice about it.
There were a couple of huge problems with the script in particular.
The first is something we talk about a lot here. EXPLOIT YOUR CONCEPT.
If you’re not exploiting your concept, what’s the point? And when you have a comedy concept specifically geared to being exploited, and you don’t exploit it? The reader’s freaking confused, man.
This concept has potential. Someone trying to follow all the rules set out in the bible literally? I’m imagining tons of funny scenarios already. But instead of focusing on the simple bible rules everyone knows about – The Ten Commandments – Russell makes the curious decision to focus on 1100 rules, the majority of which we’ve never heard before.
So instead of exploiting a giant “thou shall not lie” hilarious set piece (like Liar Liar, when Jim Carrey must make it through a court room deposition without lying), we get a ton of smaller stuff, like throwing stones at mediums or having hasidic Jews come to the house to remove anything that looks sexual.
The majority of the script reads like that, where we’d get these machine-gun bursts of rule-following, never allowing for the big memorable “must follow this rule” scene that made these types of comedies so memorable in the 80s and 90s.
The other issue is the approach to the concept. I thought this was going to be something like Evan Almighty, where Russell (or whoever asked him to write it) has Jon give himself over to this way of thinking and become a better person because of it.
Instead, it spends as much time making fun of religion as it does propping it up. And that was the problem. A relentless look at how ridiculous all these bible rules are would’ve not only been daring, but really funny. However, every time the script gets nasty, it evens it out with something sweet, as if it’s afraid of offending someone.
But what’s the point of tackling a controversial or offensive topic if you’re afraid to be controversial or offensive? You have to commit for it to work. I didn’t personally like The Invention Of Lying (which ventures into similar territory). But I give it high marks for committing to its premise. It knew what it wanted to be and stayed true to that, which is the reason the script was so highly regarded around town (and got made).
Beyond that, the structure for Biblical is pretty bad for being based on a dude who was a carpenter. 75 pages in, Jon realizes that the reason this isn’t working is because he doesn’t believe in God. So the goal switches over to “Jon attempts to find God.” And by that point it was like, “What do you want to be?” A script is a pile of bits and bytes if it doesn’t know what it wants to be.
I couldn’t even tell you what the message was here. The bible is silly? The bible is good if you only listen to certain rules? Everyone has religion in them?
I always go back to Ferris Bueller when it comes to comedy themes. CARPE DIEM. Keep it simple so that the audience knows what’s going on. And so you, the writer, know what’s going on. Cause when you don’t, it shows.
Religion has the potential to be funny. But no one’s done it for a long time. Maybe one of you comedy writers can change that.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Look to add suspense early in the script. Remember that the opening pages are when you’re most likely to lose the reader. They’re assuming your script is going to be terrible, just like the last 10 scripts they read. So suspense is a great way rope them in for a few more pages, which gives you more time to convince them that your script is worth reading. In the opening of “Biblically,” Jon gets a letter back from his idol, Neil Diamond, after sending Neil the song he’s working on. Jon could’ve opened the letter right away. But what’s suspenseful about that? So Russell writes this little storyline where Jon’s too nervous to open the letter. He carries it around for a few days, getting himself into the right frame of mind to read it. It’s a subtle thing, but it ensures that, at the very least, the reader will read until Jon opens the letter. Which gives you, the writer, more time to hook him. :)