Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Burt Wonderstone

Genre: Comedy
Premise: When egomaniac magician Burt Wonderstone’s partner quits, Burt finds himself trying to rediscover his magic mojo solo, all the while fending off an edgy magician with a new style of magic.
About: Chad Kultgen wrote the original spec that sold a few years ago. Those who have been on the site for awhile may remember Kultgen wrote “Dan Minter: Badass For Hire.” Kultgen is also a novelist, having written two books, The Average American Male and The Lie. Jake Kasdan, who directed Walk Hard, Orange County, and the upcoming Cameron Diaz comedy, “Bad Teacher,” will be directing. Steve Carell is attached to play the lead. This is said to be in the vein of Zoolander (although it reads a little less broad to me).
Writers: Chad Kultgen (Story by Chad Kultgen & Tyler Mitchell), Revisions by Jonathan Goldstein & John Francis Daley and Jake Kasdan.
Details: March 17, 2010 – 114 pages (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. 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).

Steve Carell for some reason is abandoning The Office next year and the TV world is abuzz with who’s going to take his place. If you’re like me, you’re thinking, how is it possible to replace Steve Carrell in The Office? Well guess what? It’s possible. I have a name for you. How ‘bout a little someone called Ricky Gervais!? He would not only fill Carell’s shoes, he’d bust out of them. Gervais is the only choice where you’d actually upgrade the Dunder-Mifflin’s boss position. I mean what’s Gervais done lately anyway? He hasn’t broken out as a movie star. He knows the role can turn people into stars. He still hasn’t caught on with the American audience – what better way to do it than here? He owns the damn show so it would be as easy as saying, "Me." I don’t know why they don’t just announce this now. I mean it’s a match made in Heaven.

But back to Carell. He’s attached to a billion projects but this looks like it will be his first post-Office role and you know what? It’s perfect for him. I don’t know what it is about this guy but whenever you read a character imagining Steve Carell’s face, it instantly becomes funnier.

Burt Wonderstone is half a world-famous magic team with his long-time best friend Anton Lovecraft. The two have been performing magic since they first learned to shave, and discovered that the power of magic could lift them out of the Dungeon of Dorkville, of which they were they were the king and queen.

But things have changed in the last 20 years and now Burt and Anton don’t get along with each other. Sure they still smile and put on a good act, but as soon as those curtains drop, they’re like a bitter old married couple praying for a divorce.

One day Burt happens upon a public taping of some guy named Steve Haines (a clear take-off of David Blaine and/or Criss Angel). Haines is non-descript, awkward, and, well, boring. But when he cuts his own face open and peels back the skin to perform a magic trick, the nearby crowd goes wild. Burt doesn’t know why but he feels threatened.

Soon Haines is everywhere, performing “tricks” like not going to the bathroom for five days in a row. Burt insists that Haines is not actually performing magic - just hurting himself. Unfortunately, no one’s listening. When he and Anton’s own crowds start disappearing, it’s clear they have to change their magic to cater to this new type of crowd, something Burt refuses to do.

After a particularly disastrous show, Anton’s finally had it and quits the team, leaving Burt all alone. Burt responds by taking his act solo, but isn’t bright enough to incorporate Anton’s absence, therefore doing the exact same show, reading both his own and Anton’s lines as if Anton's still there (this was my favorite scene in the script). Soonafter, he’s canned, and  when the economy comes crashing down, Burt's latest trick is that he's broke.

Burt must then reconnect with his love of magic, reconnect with his best friend Anton, and find a way to defeat the annoying poser Haines. Can he do it all without self-destructing?

Burt Wonderstone is an interesting script to study because it kind of eschews traditional structure yet still finds a way to work. The story favors a lopsided first act, whereby we witness Burt’s downfall for 60 full pages – in other words half the script. That means the actual plot (Burt trying to resurrect his career) doesn’t kick in until the mid-way point, which, in most cases, is way too late.

Why this drawn out act doesn’t spin the script out of control may be a matter of opinion, but I have a couple of theories. First, as I’ve mentioned before, we love train wrecks, especially if they’re funny train wrecks. We enjoy watching a character self-destruct, especially if that character deserves it, and Burt Wonderstone does.

But there’s also this almost imperceptible lovable quality about Burt. We do care for him. And because we care for him, there’s a part of us that wants to see him redeemed.  We wanna take the mixed-up guy by the shoulders, shake him, and say, "You're better than this!" 

It’s a fine line the writers walk, because if he's too much of an asshole or too selfish to others, they run the risk of us not liking him. But the writers keep us just enough on his side to root for a comeback.  

I also thought Steve Haines was a brilliant character. They probably could’ve made him even more of a villain, but who doesn’t want to punch David Blaine and Criss Angel in the face? This is a device I always recommend when you have a hero who isn’t overtly likable. Make it so we hate the villain beyond belief. The more we hate him, the more we’re going to side with our hero.

The script is lucky it’s so funny though because there are a few problems here. We were talking about the lack of development in female characters yesterday, and Burt Wonderstone is a prime example. I don’t have any idea what Nicole, the assistant, is doing in this movie. There’s no conviction to her character, nothing to make her stand out, and because she’s not a love interest, she ends up falling through the cracks.

I’ve found in general that readers tend to get confused when you have an attractive female lead that isn’t a love interest. If you don’t do something between her and the main character, the audience, conditioned by thousands of movies, gets antsy, and in some cases angry. That’s not to say every woman in every movie should be a love interest, but if she’s not, she needs some other distinctive characteric – something going on - to justify her purpose in the screenplay, and Nicole doesn’t have that.

Anton also gets lost in the mix . I got the feeling this script was exploring the theme of friendship and what really matters in life (the people around you), yet Anton disappears for something like 50 pages, then pops up like the gopher in Caddyshack.

The ending feels like a November landing at O'Hare as we have a scene that feels like the climax, only to have a second climax appear ten pages later. They might have been between drafts here which would make it understandable. It was just kinda messy.

And yet, through it all, this script won me over. It’s a funny premise, a funny character, and has a ton of funny scenes. The scene with Burt and Anton in the glass box above the casino has the potential to be an instant classic. Good stuff here.

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

What I learned: You want to avoid flashbacks in your movies because they stall your story’s momentum, or even worse, reverse it. But the one genre immune to flashbacks is comedy. I don’t know why but as long as they’re funny, we don’t seem to mind them. Just be careful not to overdo them. The flashbacks in Burt Wonderstone, showing how Burt and Anton got into magic, were fun, but probably went on for a little too long. Get to the flashback, make the joke, convey any information you need to convey, then get out.