Thursday, April 15, 2010

Untitled James Brooks

Genre: Romantic Dramedy
Premise: A successful Olympic female softball player who may not make this year’s team, finds solace in her relationship with a pretty boy athlete before meeting and befriending a down-on-his luck businessman.
About: James Brooks had a successful career in television (The Mary Tyler Moore Show) before segueing into film with 1979’s “Starting Over.” His next project was “Terms Of Endearment,” which won him Oscars for writer, director, and producer. Brooks didn’t stop there, writing and directing Broadcast News, based on his experiences starting out at CBS news. That film got him another two Academy Award nominations. Brooks ran into trouble though, with his 1994 film “I’ll Do Anything.” The movie was originally supposed to be a musical, but during post-production, they decided to cut out all the musical numbers! Ouch. If anyone has seen the film, it doesn’t take long to realize that something's…off. After that debacle, Brooks returned with the awesome “As Good As It Gets.” And in 2004, he directed Adam Sandler in “Spanglish.” Brooks is also known for co-developing The Simpsons, mentoring Wes Anderson on “Bottle Rocket” (great movie!) as well as Cameron Crowe on “Say Anything” (also a great movie!). This project is now titled, “How Do You Know.” It stars Jack Nicholson, Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd, and Owen Wilson. It is currently in post-production.
Writer: James Brooks
Details: 140 pages - Early draft - undated (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time of the film's release. 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).

James Brooks. James Brooks James Brooks James Brooks. The man is a legend. “Starting Over,” “Broadcast News,” “Terms Of Endearment.” And let’s not forget “The Simpsons.” But for me, the film that really made me a fan was “As Good As It Gets.” There were so many reasons for me not to like that movie. I don't think there's a single aspect in it that I relate to. And yet it somehow grabbed hold of me and never let go. For writers who roll their eyes whenever a studio exec tells them their main character has to be more “likable,” Jack Nicholson’s Melvin Udall is the go-to example for you to tell them to fuck off. I'm still not sure how he made that character work.

If I’m being honest, I don’t really feel comfortable passing judgment on James Brooks. He’s won three Oscars. Me? I once had a friend named Oscar. And he stole my girlfriend in 6th grade. So I went into this experience more as a student than a critic. I wanted to see how Brooks approached the craft, particularly with an early draft.

“How Do You Know” introduces us to Lisa Jorgenson, a 27 year-old Olympic softball player who, for the first time in her life, isn’t sure if she’ll make the squad. It’s clear she’s the best shortstop in the country, but she has that gnawing pit in her stomach that says, “Something’s off.” And indeed it is. In a shock to everyone on the team, Lisa is passed over in favor of a younger prettier player, and all indications point to her inclusion as a marketing tactic, using the inferior player’s looks to bring more attention to the team. Lisa, of course, is devastated. All she’s ever been is a softball player. And now she must decide what the next step in her life is, a decision she is frighteningly ill-prepared to make.

Reese will play Lisa

So Lisa does what most people do when they don’t want to make a choice. She finds a distraction. That distraction is the gorgeous but dumb-as-rocks Manny, a professional baseball player with more money and women than a T.I. video. Manny’s world is pretty simple. Play ball every five days (he’s a pitcher) and do a lot of fucking around (or just fucking) in between. Somehow this ill-conceived duo begins the most awkward romance ever, and unfortunately for Lisa, no one tries to stop her.

At the same time, we meet George, a rich corporate executive who thinks he’s found his soul mate in the Stephen Hawking smart/Jessica Alba sexy, Terri. But when a huge scandal breaks at the company, it’s George who’s forced to take the fall, which is made all the more awkward by the fact that his father, the loving but morally questionable Charles, owns the company. The second George falls from grace, Terri decides it’s time for them to “take a break.” But she assures him that as soon as he gets back on his feet, she’ll be there for him. Aww, isn’t that sweet?

Paul will play George.

With the rest of the world pulling away from George, he finds himself calling Lisa, who he doesn’t know, but whose number he has because he was supposed to go out on a date with her forever ago (he broke it off at the last second). Much like Manny is a way to avoid choice for Lisa, Lisa is a way to avoid choice for George. He too, wants to bury himself in a distraction. But what starts as an awkward collision of two different people, escalates into a full blown friendship. This friendship begins to interfere with Lisa and Manny's ongoing situation, and Lisa finds herself, ironically, having to make a choice. Does she go with the ridiculously-handsome but embarrassingly moronic athlete? Or the highly intelligent but going-nowhere-soon businessman?

The first thing I noticed about Brooks was how he’s clearly from a different screenwriting era. There is no attempt to grab the reader here. There is no flash. No urgency at all. This is a man who knows he’s making this movie himself, only has to impress the actors he sends his script to, and therefore has no problem taking his merry time. If you don’t like it, tough cookies. I don't know if I'd say I didn't like it, but I sure wouldn't have minded if we'd gone a *little* faster. It seems like we get five or six scenes in a row telling us the exact same thing, that Lisa is terrified of being left off the Olympic team. Once she *is* left off the Olympic team, we get five or six *more* scenes with her lamenting about it. I noticed my internal reading voice saying “Speed it up here. Keep it going.” Trust the audience. They know what's going on.

Owen will play Manny.

But what I began to realize was that this wasn’t your typical romantic comedy. And that was refreshing. Brooks chooses to underplay any ticking clocks, such as George’s impending court date for his company mishap, and focuses more on the uncertainty of the lead character, Lisa. Lisa sort of jumps back and forth from relationship to relationship, trying to balance the goofy charm of Manny with the embattled but earnest efforts of George. Whereas in most romantic comedies, you feel like you’re on a track, being pushed towards the inevitable finish line, here there’s more of a drifting quality, as if the entire story is on a sled, and any second we could go flying off the road and into a tiny town out in the middle of nowhere. That’s both its biggest strength and its biggest weakness, as sometimes it drifts too much, and when that happens, we're not entirely sure what the movie is about.

Surprisingly, the movie grounds itself whenever it gets back to Lisa and Manny. The overgrown child who’s never had any responsibility in his life is a walking scene stealer. And when he falls in love with Lisa, he’s completely unprepared to handle it. Manny is a guy who keeps a drawer full of unopened toothbrushes for any woman staying over, absentmindedly mistaking this trait as “thoughtful,” without a second thought as to how it might make the girl feel. There’s no doubt that Brooks was inspired by Tim Robbins’ character “Nuke” from “Bull Durham," and he updates that character nicely into the modern age. Manny was, without question, my favorite part of the script.

Jack will play George's Dad

Ultimately though, as most of you know, I’m a structure guy, and Brooks plays a little too fast and loose for me. Yes there was something refreshing about not knowing where it was all going, but at a certain point, I wanted to know. A lot of screenwriting teachers will tell you not to make the relationship the ONLY thing in your movie. Yes, When Harry Met Sally did it, but it’s usually better to build some sort of plot around the relationship so the characters have an outlet other than the people they’re involved with. There’s a bit of an attempt to do that here with George and his company’s downfall, specifically in his relationship with his father, who owns the company he’s been banished from, but there’s something very isolated about the storyline, as if it doesn’t want to commit to the script. And I felt like we needed that structure to center the story. Who knows though, maybe this plot was better integrated into subsequent drafts.

When all is said and done, this draft is a mixed bag, but I do like its theme: transition. Brooks explores that moment in your life where the things you’ve done so well for so long…are no longer available to you. And the way that that changes you, the way it makes you reevaluate who you are as a person. Who is Michael Jordan without basketball? Who is Oprah Winfrey without her talk show? I liked that we got to see that transition from three different perspectives (Lisa, George, and Charles). And it’s all contrasted nicely against the character of Manny, who lives in a state of bliss, unaware that one day that moment will come for him too. If only the story would have had as much pop as that theme, I would've dug it. But it didn’t, so it wasn’t for me.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: I’m a big believer that when you write a love triangle, you have to make sure that each of the competing parties has a legitimate shot at the protagonist. If we know from the get-go that Guy B has no shot at our heroine, then where’s the tension? Where’s the suspense? Even though I loved Manny and couldn’t stop laughing whenever he was on screen, I never once believed he had a shot at Lisa. He was too goofy, too immature and too stupid. Is there anyone who believes, from the very first frame, that he has a shot? (Then again, this worked, to an extent, in Bull Durham, so I realize it's not a hard and fast rule)