Sunday, October 24, 2010

We're The Millers

Our good friend Roger is taking the day off to catch up on some writing. That means I’ll be doing five full reviews this week. Where do I find the time? On the docket we have a couple comedies, a little sex, some horror, and….an impressive script! Been awhile huh? And it’s a spec sale that happened recently. So look forward to that on Friday (Amateur Friday being pushed to next week -- get your scripts in if you haven't already). Right now, it’s Millers time.

Genre: Comedy
Premise: (from IMDB) A veteran pot dealer creates a fake family as part of his plan to move a huge shipment of weed into the U.S. from Mexico.
About: We’re The Millers is a script that’s been in development for awhile.  It was recently pulled out of development when the writing team that gave us Hot Tub Time Machine (Sean Anders and John Morris) chose it as their first directing gig. This is not a review of the most recent rewrite by Dan Fybel and Rich Rinaldi , but rather the original script that sold back in 2004 by Steve Faber and Bob Fisher, who you’ll remember penned Wedding Crashers.
Writers: Steve Faber and Bob Fisher
Details: 117 pages, 2004 draft (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).

Pot comedies. Gotta love’em. The movie-going public has always embraced reefer-based cinema, including such classic titles as Up In Smoke, Pineapple Express and ….. um, other pot movies. So when I heard the concept for “We’re The Millers,” I thought, “You know what. That could be funny.” But as we all know, coming up with a funny idea and extending that funny idea out to 110 pages are two totally different things. Usually by page 40 you’re wondering how you used up all your funny scenes already and the majority of your creativity is focused on the best methods for procrastinating. 

One thing I can tell you about good comedies though is that they STAY ON TRACK. The number one mistake novice comedy writers make is including scenes that don’t have anything to do with the story. They think, as long as it’s funny, it should go in. You can usually get away with this once in a script, but any more and experienced readers will know they’re dealing with an amateur, which eliminates all confidence in you. Now Faber and Fisher were pretty new to the scene when they wrote this script, so do they fall into this well-tread trap? Let’s find out.

David Korngold is a 30 year old University of Chicago graduate who’s somehow stumbled into a pot-dealing career. The money’s easy but knowing you’re the King of Underachievement is not. Doesn’t help that he resides in a grimy area of Chicago where he routinely runs into a runaway teen named Agnes, a sexually frustrated dork named Sam, and a stripper neighbor who’s constantly threatening to call the cops on him.

Bad boys. Wuchu gonna do.

This isn’t how David imagined his life so he goes to his overly kind gay drug supplier, Taylor, and tells him he’s out. He’s going make an honest living. Taylor’s supportive, but before David leaves, he offers him a job. Grab a 400 pound shipment from Mexico and bring it across the border.  For the trouble he’ll pay him one million bucks. David’s eyes pop. A million bucks could make his life hella-easy. But David’s a smart guy. He knows that the job is too risky. So he politely refuses and gets an 8 dollar an hour job at Kinko’s instead. David’s fellow pot dealing friends are so offended they actually offer to pay him eight dollars an hour NOT to work at Kinko’s.

It only takes a couple of hours on the job before David realizes that dealing pot may be bad but working at Kinko's is hell.  He calls Taylor and tells him he's in.

The question is, how is he going to get 400 pounds of weed across the Mexican border? David quickly conceives of a plan to use Rose, Agnes, and Sam to pose as his family members. They’ll rent a Winnebago, stock it with the weed, and drive back across the border saying they’re returning from vacation.

If you guessed things don't go as planned, you'd be right. David's idiot contact in Mexico thinks David is someone else and gives him the wrong shipment, a full ONE THOUSAND POUNDS EXTRA of weed. When the man who was supposed to receive the shipment finds out, he orders the guy to find David’s “family” and murder them all.

In the meantime, our friend Taylor never planned on paying David a million dollars. He was going to wait til he crossed the border, have a couple of his men kill him, and take the weed for free. On top of this, David and Co. keep running into a real family on a real trip, who fall in love with David’s family and want to spend every waking second with them. Problem is the father is a DEA agent.

So there’s definitely potential for comedy here.  I’m just not sure that Faber and Fisher mined all that comedy in this draft. We’re The Millers is always on the brink of making you laugh, but you never quite get there. Specifically, I didn’t think there were enough set piece scenes to drive an idea of this magnitude.

There were some close calls, such as when the family goes to Sea World, but it wasn’t interwoven into the plot. Someone simply said, “Let’s go to Sea World.” Someone else replied “Okay.” And so you have a scene that should be funny because it’s a non-real family going to Sea World. But since there are no stakes attached, since it isn’t necessary for the story at all, it just sits there. If, for example, they were forced to go to Sea World with the clingy family and pretend like they were enjoying themselves, now the scene at least has a point.

There are a few scenes like this, such a five minute scene where David’s “family” goes into a store and runs up his credit card on junk food. As a quick throwaway joke, this could've been funny. But to dedicate an entire scene to it? Is that necessary?

I’m a big believer that the comedy in your film should stem from the concept. That’s usually where the biggest laughs come from. So in a comedy about a museum that comes to life every night, you probably wouldn’t add a scene where your main character runs a marathon. Not that you couldn’t find some funny scenes in running a marathon, but what does running have to do with a museum that comes to life?

Also, everything about this plan hinges on them getting across the border. It’s the whole reason the payout is so high. So when they get to front of the border line (spoiler) and the agent simply waves his hand, “Go ahead,” it feels like a cheat. I mean sure you chuckle because it’s funny how easy it is, but I’m not sure it’s worth excising the scene with the most potential conflict in your movie.

Like all comedies, however, in the end it comes down to the characters. With the exception of Rose (stripper/mom), who I never got a handle on, the rest of the family is pretty good. David’s desire to live a better life resonates. And the romance between “brother and sister” Agnes and Sam was pretty well done. But I felt like each character needed another few drafts to really come alive. It felt like we were seeing the surface level versions of them, and as a result, no one truly stuck out.

I still feel that this idea has tons of potential so I’d be interested in reading Fybel and Rinaldi’s draft, but this initial draft was too raw for my taste.

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

What I learned: Quirks. Quirks are what make comedic characters memorable. Especially villains. Mr. Chow in The Hangover is naked when we meet him. Owen Wilson’s character in Meet The Parents is the single smartest most accomplished man in the world. Lumberg in Office Space always carries a coffee mug and mutters, “mmm’Yeaaaah,” at the end of every sentence. Actually, look at all the characters in Office Space to see how quirks make a character memorable. The only thing going on with the villain (Taylor) here is that he’s gay. As a result, he isn't memorable at all.