Genre: Comedy (fish-out-of-water)
Premise: A misfit Eskimo who dreams of bigger things stows away on a documentary crew airplane to New York City, where he tries to find his way.
About: Based on the 1963 novel The Incomparable Atuk by Mordecai Richler, “Atuk” has been bouncing around Hollywood a long time. But this script is different from all the other scripts drowning in development hell. This script may actually be…..SENDING PEOPLE TO HELL. About as close as you’re going to get to a Hollywood urban legend, it seems that Atuk has been killing off whichever portly actor attaches himself to it. First was John Belushi, who read the script and really wanted to play the title part. He died soonafter of a drug overdose. Next up was Sam Kinison, who actually filmed a few scenes for the movie in 1987 before deciding he didn’t like where it was going. He died a few years later in a car accident. John Candy was reportedly the third victim, as he hitched himself to the project and then died of a heart attack. So lethal is this script that it even took out one of the numerous writers on the project, Michael O’Donoghue, the man who recommended the part to Belushi and Kinison. Finally, another Saturday Night Live legend, Chris Farley, was just about to accept the role before dying of a drug overdose. Although details start to get sketchy, it is said that Farley was pushing fellow SNL alum Phil Hartman to take a part in the movie. Hartman was murdered by his wife six months later.
Writers: Unknown (based on the novel by Mordecai Richler)
Details: 144 pages, shooting draft, 1988 (shoulda been the "shoot yourself" draft)
We’ve read a lot of scripts on this site. Some ambitious, some weird, some disappointing. But I don’t think we’ve ever read a script that’s been……haunted.
Naturally, when you hear that a script kills people, you’re a little reluctant to pluck it out of the pile. But it wasn’t the “haunted” tag that scared me here. It was the fact that a comedy – a straightforward comedy at that – had been in development for 30 years. Something tells me that if a comedy’s been in development for 30 years, it's probably not that funny. It didn’t take long to confirm that assumption. Atuk is scary all right. Scary bad!
Atuk, our illustrious pot-bellied eskimo, is a misfit in his eskimo clan. While all the other eskimos are spearing seals and setting dog-sledding records, a successful day for Atuk amounts to not upsetting his warrior father, who is clearly disappointed at what a failure Atuk’s become.
What keeps Atuk going, however, are his dreams of going to New York and becoming a real-estate mogul like his idol, the Donald Trump-esque “Alexander McKuen.” While all the other clan-members are out hunting, Atuk devours any material he can find on the Big Apple. Maybe, one day, if the stars align, he’ll find a way there.
Wouldn’t you know it, a few days later a documentary crew shows up led by the beautiful Michelle Ross, who Atuk immediately falls for. Michelle asks the eskimos if she can follow them in their natural element, preferably hunting and killing things, for a sort of “day in the life" documentary. However, Atuk's meanie dad and the rest of the tribe shun the request, labeling them as evil outsiders. Apparently discrimination can happen anywhere. Even in rural Alaska.
Sensing an opportunity to fall into the good graces of native New Yorkians, Atuk volunteers to hunt for the documentary crew, using the time to inquire about the mysterious New York City, and hinting that maybe, you know, he might be able to come back with them, maybe help carry some things. Or something.
When Michelle gives him the glacial Heisman, Atuk takes matters into his own hands and stows away on the airplane all the way back to New York! Whaaat!? Seal blubber!
Michelle’s pretty pissed about Atuk’s sneakiness but she’s still worried about unleashing him into the middle of New York City. Not that worried though because that's exactly what she does! Good luck Atuk! (Ooh, that's a much better title: "Good Luck Atuk." You see what's happening here on Scriptshadow? Cinematic Gold!)
Abandoned in the Manhattan wild, a world he has studied endlessly but realizes he knows nothing about, Atuk must fend for himself, finding food, shelter, and companionship. So of course he builds an igloo in the middle of Central Park, starts fishing off the dock, and lands some friends of the hobo variety. But with each passing minute, Atuk becomes less and less sure he’ll be able to survive here.
Just when it seems like all hope is lost, Atuk spots a man drowning in the dock and swims out to save him. It so happens that this young man is Alexander McKuen’s – the real estate mogul - troubled alcoholic son! Within a couple of days, the media picks up on the event and Atuk becomes a celebrity!
By this point I was dozing off every ten minutes but from what I remember, Alexander was trying to build some mega-emerald city right there in Manhattan so he starts using Atuk’s celebrity to help push it through the red tape. Atuk and the son become good friends and a ridiculously contrived plotline emerges to get Michelle back into the movie whereby Alexander hires her to document Atuk’s indoctrination into America.
If you think this sounds like a little movie called “Elf,” that’s because it basically is Elf. Except where Elf succeeds in exploiting its premise every step of the way, this script fails to exploit its premise every step of the way. In fact, Atuk may be the first comedy I’ve ever read where I not only didn’t laugh, but didn’t even smile. Not once. The comedy is so neutered here that I often wondered if it was supposed to be a serious coming-of-age drama, like Up In The Air.
What's odd, however, is that there are a set of ingredients for a screenplay here. A cute fish out of water eskimo story. A villain hellbent on world (Manhattan) domination. You have the seeds of a complicated relationship between father and son. You even have a potential love story. But all these elements only seem to be there to satisfy some studio note. There’s no attempt to link them up into a cohesive unit. It’s kind of like thinking you can make apple pie by throwing apples, sugar, and crust into a pan.
Probably the biggest faux-pas, however, is how long it takes to get to everything. It takes too long to get to New York. It takes too long to connect us with Alexander. It takes too long to get Michelle back into the story. Comedies have to move. If ever there was a perfect example for why a comedy script should never be 144 pages, go ahead and read this script and you’ll see why. There are these huge valleys lasting up to 10 pages where nothing is advancing the story forward. We’re just sitting around waiting for something to happen. The draft was written in 1988 but still. Coming To America moved fast? Didn’t it?
As if the elements weren’t rough enough, the script was written before the reader-friendly spec boom (early nineties) so all of the paragraphs are chunky and laborious to get through. If you weren’t falling asleep due to the lack of laughs, you’ll surely find some shut-eye lumbering through these mountains of ink.
Atuk makes me wonder if the actors attached to this thing weren’t dying because of a curse, but were simply trying to avoid being in it. This one is bad folks. You’ve been warned.
[x] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: I always advocate making your character’s journey more personal if possible. Compare Atuk with its doppelganger, Elf, in how it draws its main character to New York. In Elf, Buddy goes to New York to find his father. In Atuk, Atuk goes because he wants to be rich and successful. Notice how that decision affects each storyline. When Buddy gets to New York, you can weave his storyline around his father, which is going to be a very personal and emotional journey. With Atuk, he gets there and…then what? Well, there’s not much for him to do. So you need to create this whole other storyline whereby he saves someone to give the story momentum again. The “instant celebrity” plays well for a few scenes, but then you’re right back to where you started – a character with no personal connection to his journey. The script tries to compensate for this by giving us a separate father-son storyline, but since neither the father or the son are main characters (and aren’t interesting characters anyway), we don’t really care. I’m not, of course, saying that a fish-out-of-water story requires a personal element. I don’t think Crocodile Dundee, for instance, had any personal connection to New York (someone correct me here?). But I’ve just found that if you can work in a personal angle to these types of scripts, the story usually ends up better for it.