Thursday, August 5, 2010

Young Adult

Genre: Dark Comedy
Premise: A frustrated Young Adult writer obsessed with her High School days goes back to her hometown to try to win over her married high school sweetheart.
About: Young Adult is Diablo Cody’s latest script. Just this week Jason Reitman, Cody’s director for Juno, announced that he’d be directing the screenplay for his next project.
Writer: Diablo Cody
Details: 107 pages – undated draft (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).

It hit me like a hockey stick the other day that Diablo Cody is the best self-promoting screenwriter of all time. In a profession where your job is be invisible (or at least have everybody wish you were), it’s really hard to build a name for yourself. Cody, with her heavily-trafficked blog, her impossible-to-forget name, and her great plucked-out-of-obscurity story, has become that catchy pop song you can’t get out of your head. It’s only natural that Cody began her own online talk-show recently because, well, she’s Diablo Cody!

But life isn’t all peaches and white raspberry truffles for someone who shoots to the top of the entertainment stratosphere without paying their dues. It all seems so easy when everyone's patting you on the back and calling you a genius, but it doesn't take long to realize that this is one of the hardest professions in the world. Just ask Christopher McQuarrie, who loves to talk about how awesome it is to win an Oscar with your first screenplay then sink to the middle of screenwriter-for-hire land for the next decade.

That’s not to say Cody is anywhere near the middle of the pack. If there’s anyone who knows how to exploit this world of new media, it’s her, and that’s going to keep her relevant for awhile. But let’s be honest. Jennifer’s Body was as anorexic to the box office as Ellen Page’s pinky toe, and while The United States of Tara was good enough to warrant a second season, I don’t know a single person who’s actually seen it. No matter how good a self-promoter you are, if you don’t contribute material, you’re about as relevant as a box of cereal. Yes, I rhyme now in my reviews.

Tomorrow I might even sing the blues. Sorry, I didn't mean it. Does anybody have a peanut?

So it was nice to see Cody use her producing skills to hook her old Juno-collaborator into directing her latest screenplay, Young Adult. The fact that Reitman passed up a shitload of great projects to direct this PDF gave me hope that Cody was back and ready to play ball. But I don’t think I was prepared for just how dark and just how daring Young Adult was. This is a departure for both Cody and Reitman, and for strange reasons that makes my nether regions tingle.

Mavis Gary is a mid-30s writer for a young adult novel about prep school in which she doesn’t receive credit. It’s a series of books created by another author and poor Mavis is just the invisible pen, always forced to prove her involvement whenever doubts arise. Despite a 30-second work commute from the bedroom to the living room, Mavis detests her job. In fact, Mavis pretty much hates life. She lives in the bright lights-big city tundra known as Minneapolis, and makes enough money to buy cool cars like the Mini-Cooper, but Mavis can’t get over the fact that this is a far cry from her Princess-like super-status back in high school. The now-divorced Mavis is a bitter bean, and never imagined her life would end up this…empty.

So when this woefully empty life is interrupted by a picture of a baby, Mavis goes berserk, - the reason being that this is Buddy Slade’s baby. Buddy, ya see, was Mavis’ high school sweetheart, the one perfect thing she had in her life. And now here he’s gone, accidentally including Mavis on some mass e-mail send-out of his new baby’s picture. Mavis is so upset and thrown by Buddy’s budding familial life, that she inexplicably jumps in her Mini-Cooper and races back to her hometown, where she concocts a scheme to win Buddy back.

Once home, Mavis runs into the sweet but slightly clingy Matt Freehauf, an overweight bear of a guy who used to go to school with Mavis, though the two never had any history of communication. Mavis ran in different circles. Matt ran in his own square. As if being a high school nobody wasn’t bad enough, Matt was the victim of gay-bashing, and was beaten within an inch of his life, even though the beaters later found out Matt wasn’t gay. Never fully recovered, Matt must now limp around with a permanent crutch. Despite Mavis’ best attempts to avoid any contact with Matt, the two begin hanging out by default (brought on mainly by Mavis’ need to get drunk with someone).

Through pure determination, Mavis is able to get Buddy to spend a couple of lunches with her, yet is totally oblivious to the fact that he has no interest in her at all. This leads to a series of increasingly pathetic encounters between the two, where Mavis’ blatantly desperate advances clash with the standoffish Buddy in a way that made Allie dumping Kasey in the middle of the arctic after he said he’d guard and protect her heart seem like a marriage proposal. No matter how much Mavis bats her eyes, no matter how low-cut her top is, no matter how shamelessly she flirts, it’s clear she has absolutely no shot with this man, and everyone sees it except for her.

As Buddy becomes less and less interested in making time for Mavis, the main relationship shifts over to Mavis and Matt, which is really the strength of the screenplay. I know the gay-bashing thing sounds a little forced, but Cody really makes it work, as Matt is a fully-fleshed out character. And even though we’ve seen the “high school princess and nerd reunite in present day” storyline before, I guarantee you, you’ve never seen it like this.

What I really like about this script though is that Diablo Cody has gotten rid of a lot of her Diablo Cody-isms. She’s listened to her critics, and there’s no overly cute dialogue to distract us from the story. Despite this, Diablo is still able to maintain some sense of style, which I think is one of her biggest strengths. Even though I hate using the term “voice” as its one of the most subjectively used terms in screenwriting, you can’t argue that Diablo doesn’t have a unique voice.

I also like how challenging the story is. Mavis is probably one of the most likable unlikable protagonists since Lester Burnham in American Beauty. This girl is so pathetic. She lives her life by a coda of lies and deceit, and is so self-serving and cruel that you occasionally want to give her a slap in the face. But there are just enough relatable qualities in Mavis, things we don’t like about ourselves but lean on anyway, that we kind of understand where she’s coming from.

But this script doesn’t depend on our feelings towards Mavis. Even with some good qualities, there’s no way we’re rooting for her to succeed. This is another entry into the little-known Train-wreck genre. You see this in scripts like “The Voices” and movies like “Chuck and Buck,” where we as an audience know this is going to end in a really bad way, yet we can’t look away. We have to see our character crash and burn. I don’t think anyone knows that this genre officially exists, yet when I do come across it, it tends to work more often than fail.

As for the story’s faults, there are a few. While the final act has a couple of great scenes, it culminates in a scenario that’s both awkward and really difficult to buy. It was the only time I was pulled out of the screenplay and I get the feeling they’re going to be working on this scene right up until they shoot it. It’s just such a risk, and I’m afraid that right now, it doesn’t work. I’m not even sure it can work. But I understand what they're trying to do.

The other issue is this odd completely-out-of-left-field sequence in the middle of the script where Mavis goes and visits her parents. The scene doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know about her and it doesn’t do anything to move the story forward. It almost feels like the movie has stopped for intermission and then this short movie is played for ten minutes until we sit back in our seats and start again. It wasn’t a bad sequence. It was just an odd choice.

In the end, I have to say I was quite surprised by this script. And I didn’t even mention its secret ingredient, the fact that we’re constantly wondering how much of this character is Diablo Cody. There are enough similarities in what we know about her life to indicate a lot, which makes the read fascinating on a whole nother level. Anyway, this was easily the best script of the week for me. Hope you guys dig it.

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

What I learned: Whenever you bring a new character into the story, use the surroundings to tell us who they are. When Mavis wakes up in the first scene, she walks into her living room, where we spot a couple of EMPTY WINE BOTTLES on the table. That tells me a TON about the character right there and without a lick of dialogue. You can extend this to what the character’s wearing, what they’re reading or what they’re doing. Look at how we meet George McFly in Back To The Future. The guy is still wearing a hairstyle straight out of the 1950s. Later, he’s watching a rerun of The Honeymooners. Right away we realize this guy is living in the past. Pay attention to a character's surroundings as you can use them to tell us exactly who that character is.