Thursday, January 27, 2011

Better Living Through Chemistry

Genre: Dark Comedy
Premise: A pharmacist whose wife regularly questions his masculinity starts an affair with a tortured trophy wife, who encourages him to explore the “fruits” of his profession.
About: This one was on the Black List this year and will star Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker) and Jennifer Garner (13 Going on 30). The writers, Posamentier and Moore, have one other project in development, a sci-fi family script called “Grandma’s Intergalactic Bed and Breakfast,” but are relatively new on the scene. Posamentier worked as Zach Braff’s personal assistant on Garden State. The duo is also directing “Chemistry.”
Writers: David Posamentier & Geoff Moore
Details: 110 pages – Feb 18, 2010 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).

Over the course of Scriptshadow’s life, I’ve read a lot of “Next American Beauties.” These days it feels like I read a new one every week. The problem with most of these explorations of suburbia is that they don’t find a new angle on the sub-genre. It’s essentially the same deal: Upper middle class suburbians hate their lives. They do self-destructive things. Then eventually have to deal with the consequences. Movie over.

What I liked about Better Living Through Chemistry was that it took a slightly different look at that world. You see it just by reading the logline, which actually has a hook. What if you were a pharmacist, with access to every drug known to man, and you decided to take advantage of that power? Already the story’s feeling fresher.

Douglas Varney isn’t a man. We know that because his over-exercised bitchy triathlete of a wife, Kara, tells him that every single day. The two stopped getting along a long time ago and their only real discussions outside of daily logistics revolve around raising their 12 year old reclusive son, Ethan, a job they’re both failing miserably at.

As if dealing with his wife and son isn’t enough of a chore, Douglas also has to deal with his wife’s father, Walter Bishop, who’s owned the pharmacy Douglas works at for the past ten years. Douglas is thrilled that he’s finally bought the pharmacy for himself, because maybe now people will take him seriously. This transition will be signified by a sign change from “Bishop’s” to “Varney’s,” a day Douglas' looked forward to for months.   But when Walter shows up with the new sign, Douglas is horrified to see that it still says “Bishop’s,” and that the store will always be called “Bishop’s,” a move he predictably doesn’t challenge.

Frustrated, Douglas finishes off the day delivering meds to a huge mansion at the edge of town, where he meets the eternally buzzed but stunningly beautiful (and married) Elizabeth Roberts. The two have an undeniable spark and immediately begin an affair.

It’s innocent at first, but Elizabeth implores Doug to bring a couple extra pills along to their parties. Doug is so blinded by his obsession for Elizabeth that he obeys, and before he knows it he’s hopped up on every drug known to man. Party drugs, performance drugs, uppers, downers, you name it, he does it. And when individually they’re not enough for him, he starts mixing and matching, creating new super-designer drugs, anything to get a bigger and longer high.

When Elizabeth mentions leaving their respective families and running off together, Doug is more than game. But things get tricky when she asks him to kill her husband. Doug’s not a killer, but if it’s the only way he can be with Elizabeth, he’ll consider it. It would actually be easy. Doug has sole control of the town’s med-supply, so all he’d have to do is change Elizabeth’s husband’s medication to something lethal and it would be untraceable. But as he gets closer and closer to the big moment, he has doubts about whether he can go through with it.

There’s a whole lot to like about Better Living With Chemistry, starting with all the rich characters. Everybody’s unique here. Everybody’s well thought out, has their own thing going on, has their own vices, has their own flaws. When you write one of these quirky suburbia flicks, you better make sure your character creation is top notch because that’s what these films are about. And Posamentier and Moore nail it.

But what really sets Better Living Through Chemistry apart is its final act. It’s been a long time since I’ve read an ending that truly elevates a script, and it’s been an even longer time since someone genuinely “got” or “tricked” me in a screenplay. The set up at the beginning with Doug getting arrested and how that plays out when the third act arrives thoroughly blindsided me (what happens with the cop was so clever I had a big smile on my face for five full minutes). I just didn’t see any of it coming.

And this was all accomplished because these writers are masters of the set-up and payoff. They snuck all these little set-ups into the script that you didn’t think twice about, only to have them all pay off in that final act. It was like watching a perfect line of dominoes fall. Afterwards you smacked yourself on the head and said, “How the hell didn’t I see that!” As someone who – as I just mentioned – is rarely surprised anymore, I have to give it to writers when they trick me. And these guys definitely tricked me.

This is also another script that proves how important it is to create unresolved relationships in your screenplay. A lot of new writers think you just have to come up with a hook, fudge around for 80 pages until you get near the end, then make a lot of exciting things happen and you’re done. No, the heart of every screenplay is that second act, and that’s where you explore all the unresolved conflict. So Doug and his wife don’t get along. We have to resolve that. Her father doesn't think Doug is good enough for his daughter. We have to resolve that. Doug’s son has pulled away from him. We have to resolve that. Sooner or later Doug and Elizabeth will have to decide if this relationship is just for fun or they want to be together for good. We have to resolve that.

When people talk about second acts being boring - being the black holes where stories go to die - their issues usually have to do with there not being enough unresolved relationships in the second act. Exploring those relationships is the engine that makes that second act go.

I did have a couple of problems with the script though. I never bought Doug jumping right into the drug thing. He seemed to take his job very seriously. He seemed to have a spotless record. He’s out to prove his ability to own his own pharmacy. Yet when Elizabeth suggests they start doing drugs, he hops on board faster than a standby ticket out of Siberia. There’s no transition, no contemplation. It’s just a shrug of the shoulders and a “Why not?” It was definitely a big leap of faith.

And also, I’d be remiss not to mention that, yet again, my celebrity cameo issues strike. For those of you who don’t remember, I took to task a writer on Amateur Friday who had thrown a celebrity cameo in his script, explaining to him that I see the celebrity cameo 8 million times a week in comedy screenplays and therefore to avoid it. That opinion sparked a mini-uprising in the comments section from writers who didn’t agree with me.

Well here, we have a celebrity cameo of Judi Dench. But it’s actually more than a cameo. Judi Dench narrates the story as Judi Dench. For no reason. Whatsoever. This was the one big thing that annoyed me because I thought the script was great and hearing Judi Dench pop up every ten minutes to tell us something we already knew felt like a cheap gimmick. Why impede upon something that’s working with a cry for attention? It was just way too broad for me.

I don’t think narrators in these movies work to begin with unless it’s the main character (American Beauty). In my opinion, Little Children was ruined by the strange choice of random voice over in the film. That’s not nearly the case here. But I’m hoping they reconsider it, cause it’s so not needed.

Anyway, this might be why I’m avoiding the impressive. But this was still a wonderful character piece with a fabulous ending.

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

What I learned: Make sure your set-up doesn’t draw attention to itself. The best payoffs are ones we’re not expecting, so if you tip your hand when setting something up, we’ll know a later payoff is coming. Take the scene in Back To The Future, for example, where Marty and Jennifer are chatting about their weekend plans and try to sneak a kiss. Annoying Lady thrusts a can into their faces and says “Save the Clock Tower!” then proceeds to give Marty a flyer explaining what happened to the tower 30 years ago. The scene is constructed to focus more on the annoyance of our leads being interrupted than it is the details of the clock tower’s demise. Zemeckis even uses a double-set up in the scene, when he has Jennifer write her grandmother’s number down on the flyer, ensuring that Marty will keep it. Later, when Doc is explaining that the only way they’ll be able to harness enough energy to jump back to the present is if they harness a bolt of lightning, Marty rips out the flyer and our set-up is paid off. Of course, this seems like a simple set-up and payoff in retrospect, but that’s only because it was seamlessly executed. A lesser writer might not have thought of the Old Lady. He might have said, “I have to figure out a way for Marty to bring up the Clock Tower to Jennifer,” and given the couple some awkward stilted exposition to set it up, something like: “Jennifer, did you know that 30 years ago today the clock tower was struck by lightning?”  The awkwardness of it would clue us in that something was up.  You can actually see, when the writers had less time, how their set-ups and payoffs got much clumsier and drew way more attention to themselves in the film’s sequels. Always make sure your setup stands on its own.