Monday, March 30, 2009

The Details

Genre: Drama
Synopsis: A suburban husband finds his life spiraling out of control due to extramarital temptation, a crazy cat lady, a wannabe mobster, a potential life-changing surgery, and a band of raccoons hellbent on destroying the only thing that matters in his life: the perfect backyard lawn.
About: This one has been making its way around town and wowing just about everyone who reads it. Some are even calling it the next American Beauty.
Writer: Jacob Aaron Estes

The Details is such a fascinating script because it has moments of such inspired genius, you're kinda baffled to see it occasionally stumble. I was listening recently to an interview Sarah Polley gave about her Alzheimer's-themed film, "Away From Her". She said, in interviewing a lot of older couples and asking them how they stayed together for so long, the general response was that relationships are perfect at the beginning, perfect at the end, and everything in between was hell. Besides drawing a chuckle, I realized that, except for a few rare super-couples I've met, this statement is generally true.

JEFF and NEALY happen to be smack dab in that middle phase. He's in love with his wife, but at the same time he's unable to love her. This distance has weaved its way into every facet of their marriage, in particular Jeff's new obsession: the perfect goddamn backyard lawn. That's the *only* thing he wants. But the new sod won't root because the local raccoon community keeps tearing it up. Not only does this lawn stand as a metaphor for his life, but it's also proving to be the breaking point for his marriage. As Nealy watches Jeff descend into his obsession, it becomes more and more clear that he has no time for her.

Although The Details takes its suburban cues from American Beauty (considered by many to be the greatest screenplay of the last 20 years), it's definitely its own film. Next door lives LILA, 40s, a nosy cat lady with nothing to do except observe and passive-aggressively annoy the hell out of the neighborhood, in particular Jeff. There's LINCOLN, an ex-college basketball player with a past shrouded in mystery. There's REBECCA, an old flame of Jeff's who's now an unhappily married psychiatrist. And her husband, PETE, a Sopranos-obsessed wannabe gangster.

What The Details does right is it builds. It's about building character, building conflict, building tension, building a story. Every 10 pages our main character is worse off than he was the previous 10. Besides the raccoons, Jeff also wants to build an addition to his house. It's unlikely the housing committee will approve it so of course Jeff decides to do it on the sly. The dust from the construction then ends up in Lila's air vents, blanketing her house with dust, and if Jeff wants to keep the construction on the down low, he will now have to please Lila in every way she wants to be pleased. And Lila wants to be pleased in many ways. Much of them, "down low". Jeff also finds himself lusting after ex-flame Psychiatrist Rebecca, and the two end up consummating the relationship. The only problem is her husband finds out, and the next thing Jeff knows, he's being extorted for 200 grand. 200 grand that he doesn't have.

What I liked about The Details is that it puts its main character into situations where there's no clearly defined "correct" way out. And it's seeing what the character chooses to do in these situations that really elevates The Details above the rest of the pack. For instance, Jeff tries to kill the raccoons by lacing his lawn with poison. The raccoons evade the trap, but Lila's cat doesn't. When Lila informs Jeff that she knows he's the killer, and hints that something like that could land him in jail, Jeff is forced to either do what Lila says (and cheat on his wife) or face the consequences. I love when scripts force their characters to make interesting choices. And The Details thrives in that department.

The problems of the script pop up not unlike the very raccoons Jeff is trying to kill. Estes tends to dwell on things for too long at times. Lila's actions are not always believable. But the biggest problem is the character of Lincoln. I'm not sure what it is, but it feels like he's part of another story. It wins awards for being original, but originality only works if it fits within the universe you've created. And Lincoln seemed, most of the time, like an alien from another film. His character is dying of kidney disease and Jeff happens to be the perfect donor. So Jeff ends up donating his kidney to save Lincoln's life. All of this is treated with a melodramatic touch that rivals your favorite soap. And even though I understand why Estes was doing it - to set up a key moment later in the film - it simply never felt organic to the story.

But like I said, the writing is so masterful at times, it doesn't matter. The Details was a joy to read. It'll be fun to follow this into casting, production, theaters, and finally, maybe, award season. I think with a quick rewrite, it could easily get there. I liked this one a lot. And am placing it at number 24 on my list.

[ ] trash
[ ] barely readable
[ ] worth the read
[x] impressive
[ ] genius

What i learned from The Details: The Details is a good reminder about writing characters that actors would want to play. In Lila, the lonely overmedicated strange cat lady, you have a weird and morally twisted character that any actress would jump on. Once you get a respected actress in that roll, it gives your entire film a label of respectability, and draws interest from other big time acotrs and directors. It basically puts you on the map.