Monday, June 11, 2012

Screenplay Review - Dogfight

Genre: Comedy
Premise: Two rival North Carolina politicians with congressional aspirations tangle with one another.
About: Dogfight also went by the title “Rivals” and has been changed, once again, to “The Campaign,” which is the final title for the film. Writer Chris Henchy has been around forever. He wrote Land of the Lost and The Other Guys. But he’s also produced a ton of stuff, including Eastbound and Down, Entourage, and Spin City. He’s also one of the creators of “Funny Or Die.” And I don’t want to turn this into, but it should at least be mentioned that Chris is married to Brooke Shields. I know less about co-writer Shawn Harwell, but it looks like he was a writer on Eastbound and Down who Henchy took a liking too. Today’s script is the result of that hookup. Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis star.
Writers: Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell
Details: 117 pages – first draft

I’m not sure how I feel about Henchy. I think the man is pretty hilarious, which is the biggest prerequisite to writing comedy. But I’m surprised that someone who’s been in the business so long lacks some of the most basic storytelling skills. The Other Guys had some great ROTFL scenes. But the story was almost incomprehensible, and the movie felt like it was 30 minutes too long, with endless scenes that had very little, if anything, to do with pushing the story along. That’s one of the first things they teach you in screenwriting – Only write a scene if it pushes the story forward.

Comedy’s the one genre where you get a little leniency in this area only because if you have a really hilarious scene, the reader’s going to forgive you if it’s not the most plot-relevant in the world. But when you start putting three, four, five, or six of those scenes in a script, they can just obliterate the story’s momentum, and that’s what happened to The Other Guys. The movie was funny. But it could’ve been a freaking classic had someone with story sense came in and said, “Dude, we need to get rid of a dozen of these scenes and tighten up the financial plot.” Any good movie leaves you wanting more. The Other Guys felt like the drunk couple who stayed at your house an hour after the party was over.

Dogfight has a lot in common with that film. It’s two guys squabbling with each other for two hours. But did we at least get more of a story here? Or are we back to square 1 with a bunch of comedy sketches loosely held together by a campaign plot? I’m not sure we’ll find the answer today as this is a first draft. However, a lot of the moments in this script are in the trailer, so it’s probably pretty close to the final film.

40-something Cam Brady is a Republican congressman who can do no wrong. Every election, he runs unopposed because everyone knows they have no shot against him (when you have a slogan as powerful as “America! Jesus! Freedom!” who’s going to stop you?). This lack of competition, unfortunately, has gone to Cam’s head. He doesn’t take his job seriously unless it involves the numerous perks that come with it – including getting head from political groupies.

Things are going so good, in fact, that Cam is being seriously considered as the next vice-president of the United States. That is until he incorrectly dials one of his many lady friends and leaves a drunk message on a Jesus-loving family’s answering machine that amounts to telling the “woman” that tonight they’re going to get into some serious ass play. The Jesus-loving family is mortified and pretty soon Cam’s voicemail is all over the internet.

The highly influential political brothers known as the Motches are tired of this dingbat giving their party a bad name and decide to find someone new to take Cam’s place. It seems like every politician they know who would actually give Cam a run for his money is in jail, though, except for a man named Marty Huggins. Huggins’ biggest asset is that he comes from a very powerful political family. The only problem is that Huggins is a big weirdo. He spends almost all of his time on a Pug message board aggressively defending his stance on Pugs. No problem, say the Motches. They’ll just bring in Tim Wattley, the best campaign runner in America, and also Seinfeld’s dentist.

Tim quickly whips the impressionable Huggins into shape. Gone is the weirdness, which is replaced by a cold-hearted desire to win at all costs. Marty Huggins is now a machine. And he will take down Cam in any way possible.

Naturally, this results in a lot of seriously intense debates (one that ends in Cam trying to punch Huggins but instead accidentally punching a baby), a lot of mud-slinging ads (one in which Huggins insists that Cam is dead and therefore there’s no reason to vote for him) and the obligatory “bill subplot” whereby Huggins realizes he’s being used as a pawn by the Motches to pass a bill that will allow the U.S. to build businesses on sacred landmarks such as the Grand Canyon.

So does this result in a funny script? Wellllll…yes and no. Mainly no. But yes sometimes. Particularly in the first act. And this is usually the case when writing a first draft. You tend to have a solid understanding of those first 30 pages, whereas anything beyond that gets kind of murky.

The setup of these two characters is perfect. Cam’s infamous voice mail message is hilarious. But even better is how he tries to get out of it. “We need to do something about these messages” he proclaims to a blood-thirsty media. “But YOU did it,” they point out. “YOU left the message.” “This is just absolutely unacceptable on Capital Hill, in our towns, our homes! You hear me! I’m saying heads need to roll!” “Congressman, you’re yelling at us! Once again, you’re the one who made the call.”

The setup of Huggins is equally hilarious. I loved his obsession with Pugs (he dons a shirt that reads, “Pugs not drugs.”). I loved his God-fearing home-schooled family. His awkward relationship with his doting wife, who he hasn’t had sex with in eight months because he needs to stay focused. And when Tim comes in to get Huggins transformed, scripting his every move in the race – the screenplay is poppin.

But then the rails fall off. The second act is sooooooo repetitive. We get about 16 scenes that are exactly the same. Cam’s arrogance continues to undo him in the debates. Huggins and Tim effortlessly make Cam look like an idiot every time out, gaining points in the polls each time. There are literally NO surprises. It’s just a version of that same scene OVER and OVER again.

It’s hard to make something funny if we’ve just seen six variations of it in a row. Something different needed to be done here, and it never was. To me, that was the script’s undoing.

Now there’s a kind of funny twist near the end where (spoiler) Cam has sex with Huggins’ wife, but since Huggins doesn’t even care (or react really), that desperately needed reversal of power (or ANYTHING to mix things up) never comes.

The final act revolves around “the bill” and when that happens the story regains some needed focus (we even get a funny scene where the two candidates ban together to make the public aware of the bill – since the candidates aren’t mud-slinging or bitching at each other, however, everyone just becomes bored and pissed off at them) but that second act is so redundant that we’ve sort of already checked out.

All in all, I guess I’m disappointed. I think these writers lean too hard on “We have Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis. Let them do their thing and we’ll be good.” I think if you’re lucky enough to have those actors attached to your project, you should write your script like you don’t. Write it like you have two guys who you have no idea if they’ll be able to pull it off. Make the story amazing. Make every scene count. Try! I’m not sure we’re getting 100% here and that’s a shame. ☹

[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] made me blush

What I learned: The repetitive second act. Danger Will Robinson, danger! If scenes are essentially doing the same thing over and over again (debate scenes that show Cam doing bad and Huggins doing good): that’s bad. Things need to evolve, change, twist, reverse. The second act is the longest act in your screenplay so the last thing you want is to fall into a rhythm of repetition. It might’ve been cool to see Cam hire his own shark, a guy even slimier than Tim, and watch Cam get control of the race again, just to mix things up. Or just…ANYTHING that mixed things up. The same for too long can quickly kill a script.