Monday, February 13, 2012

Screenplay Review - The Happytime Murders

Screenwriters everywhere beware. You will not be the same after this review. That's because this screenplay is...well, I'll just come out and say it.  It's puppet noir.

Genre: Puppet Noir
Premise: When a serial killer starts murdering the cast of a once-famous puppet show called The Happytime Gang, two detectives, one a man, one a puppet, try to find the killer before the entire cast is DEAD.
About: The Happytime Murders recently jumped into the Hollywood spotlight when Katherine Heigl came aboard to play one of the leads. There appears to be some confusion over which role Heigl will play though. Reports have her as a detective – yet there are no female detectives in the draft I read. There are, however, some hot and heavy lesbians. So either someone else has been misinformed or they’ve since rewritten one of the leads for a woman. Either way, all this news is just bizarre. I guess it’s only natural that a bizarre script would warrant a bizarre casting choice. Todd Berger, the main writer on the script, most recently penned Kung Fu Panda 2. Learn more about Todd here. He seems like a great guy who worked his butt off to get to this point.
Writer: Todd Berger (story by Todd Berger and Dee Austin Robertson)
Details: 98 pages – 11/24/08 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).

No, you didn’t misread the genre. No, you didn’t misread the premise. You wanna know what’s even scarier than not misreading either of those? Going into what you thought was a normal screenplay and reading this opening line: “Detective Phil Phillips stands on the front porch of a farmhouse. Phil is a small blue puppet with shaggy yellow hair and a tired disposition.”


Whereas before I was tired and droopy, after this line I straightened up and was ready to go. It was a lesson I’ve preached a thousand times before but it bears repeating. If you come up with something unique and different (GOOD unique and different – not dumb unique and different – there’s a HUGE difference!), you’re going to catch a reader’s interest. Because readers read the same stories over and over again.

It’s only natural, then, that they’d get excited when something out of the norm shows up. However, sitting up doesn’t mean I’m staying up. Yeah, you’ve got my attention, but now you gotta tell a story that’s going to keep it. Hey, I’m rooting for you Weird Puppet Noir Script. If you’re good, it tells writers everywhere that it’s okay to take chances. But if you bore me, you might find yourself as the cheapest item at the next Carson Reeves Yard Sale.

We’ve already met private detective Phil Phillips, the blue puppet detective with a seriously messed up past. Phil used to be a real policeman, partnered with a human, his best friend, a man named Edwards. But then…DUH DUH DUHHHHH… “the incident” happened. Now they hate each other.

In this half-human half-puppet world, puppets are looked at as second class citizens. Especially lately, as puppet-human tensions have risen to an all-time high. You get the feeling that unless something is done soon, bad shit is going to happen.

But instead of something coming along to ease the tension, something comes along to make it worse. Back in the 80s, there used to be this popular puppet show called “The Happytime Gang.” It featured characters like Mr. Bumblypants and Larry Shenanigans. Well, it turns out a huge syndication deal has been made whereby all of those shows are going to play again. Which means one thing: It’s time for these once-famous puppets to get paaaaaid.

But just as the celebration begins, one of the Happytime cast members is killed! Murdered. In cold…puppet…cloth…bits. It’s time to do something about this, Phil says. But unfortunately Phil doesn’t have the kind of access he needs to investigate the case. Which means he’s forced to team with, you guessed it, his old human partner, Edwards.

As the two start looking into the murder, another Happytime member is killed, then another, then another. After some investigating, our detectives find out that that syndication deal is set up so that the money’s split up between the REMAINING members of The Happytime Gang. Which means the less members there are, the more everyone gets paid.

Obviously, this means one of these puppets is killing off the rest so he can get rich! Or…maybe…wait……um, he’s killing MOST of the Happytime members because if he kills them all, then finding the killer would be pretty easy. So I think he’s killing most of them. Actually, I’m not sure. But who cares. It’s puppet noir. Just roll with it.

So let’s jump straight to the business on this one. Hot lesbians. If everything goes right, that’s what Catherine Heigl is playing. Surely her carefully constructed marketing team is begging her not to do this and there’s still no guarantee that she will. But even though Heigl is – hmm, how shall we put this – one of the bitchiest actresses to come along in a long time, she’s still quite talented. And she’s hot. So I’m all for her playing a hot lesbian in a puppet noir. I mean can you imagine her dressed up in a tight black dress, skimpy near the top, a temptress, a vixen, one of those women that has you making inadvertent cat noises whenever you see them. Rreeoowwww. I wouldn’t mind--

Wait a minute, where were we again? Oh yeah, script analysis!

Plotwise, the script is clever as hell. The set-up – A once-famous puppet show going into syndication with all the puppets getting rich off it, resulting in motivation for murder - was really well done. I mean you can go a million different directions in a movie with puppets. I thought this direction was perfect.

We’ve also got GSU here. We have a goal (find the killer) we have stakes (lives are at stake) and we have urgency (the longer it is before they find him, the more puppets die).

But there was just something…missing. Maybe it was our lead, Phil, who I didn’t give a flying puppet about. I didn’t relate to him in any way (yes, I’m complaining about not relating to a puppet – work with me). He’s a big downer actually. But I guess that’s par for the course with the noir genre. That’s how these detectives act. They’re always drinking and droning on about how depressing and miserable their lives are. Which is fine. But it’s hard for me to get onboard with a character like that. And I’m actually confused as to why this genre used to be so popular in the first place. A guy whining on in voice over about how shitty everything is while keeping a permanent buzz? People in the 40s must have been really bored.

Anyway, I don’t think the writers did a very good job of conveying Phil OR Edwards for that matter. For example, we learn early on that Edwards is one of the top cops in taking down puppets, who he seems to hate. But as soon as we learn that, he helps a puppet out when no one’s looking. So does he like puppets? Does he not like puppets? Does he only secretly like puppets? Did he just feel sorry for this one puppet? I didn’t know so I never got a good feel for the guy.

And Phil – I couldn’t tell you anything about him even though he’s the main character, other than he has a goofy “incident” from his past that got him kicked off the force. I think every aspect of him (the drinking, the voice over, the incident from his past) was deliberately steeped in cliché for humorous effect. I suppose that might be funny to lovers of the genre. To me, though, it just made our hero cliché.

Then there was the whole racism allegory, which the writers never fully committed to, so it left you wondering what the point of it was in the first place, other than it was an obvious thing to do. If you’re going to make your script an allegory, then make sure the thing you’re allegory-izing is part of the plot. The racism stuff had nothing to do with the main plot (puppets being killed for monetary reasons).

This is a hard script to judge. I love how wacky it is. I love the plot setup. Structurally, everything is in place. I LOVE when writers take chances so I have to give it to these two for coming up with this in the first place. By all measurements, this is a well-written professional screenplay. And yet, the combination of a main character I didn’t care about, my dislike of the genre (not their fault), and execution that felt a little too on-the-nose, leaves me feeling let down. For that reason, it barely misses a “worth the read.”

[ ] Wait for the rewrite
[x] wasn’t for me (but an interesting read nonetheless!)
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: I can’t stress this enough. The people who I see moving up the ladder the fastest are people who go out there and do it themselves. I know we’re writers. I know we’re all lazy. But people look at you differently when you’re out there doing shit. I bumped into a girl, Cathy, on Twitter the other day, a writer who told me she was editing her latest film. Immediately in the back of my mind, I noted her as someone to watch out for. Because she was making a damn film! Instead of waiting around for things to happen! This is the approach writer Todd Berger took to get to this point. He wrote and directed short after short after short, finally getting enough attention to nab some big writing jobs. Most recently, he wrote Kung Fu Panda 2, and is up for some other huge Hollywood projects. We even have a long-time Scriptshadow reader who just wrote an award-winning short. I see her in a completely different way now. Simply because she didn’t wait for that Willy Wonka golden ticket but went out there and made her own ticket. Go out there and do it yourself. Hell, connect with some people right here on Scriptshadow. Write a short and shoot it. Stop waiting!