Monday, May 31, 2010

The Low Self-Esteem of Lizzie Gillespie

Genre: Romantic Comedy
Premise: A young woman with low-self esteem begins dating an extremely attractive man.
About: Purchased by Mandate pictures, The Low Self Esteem of Lizzie Gillespie finished with 7 votes on last year’s Black List. Mindy Kaling plays Kelly Kapour on The Office, a show she also writes for. Brent Forrester has an impressive pedigree behind him. He’s worked on The Ben Stiller Show, The Simpsons, King of The Hill, wrote an episode of one of my favorite extinct shows ever, Undeclared, and also works as a writer on The Office.
Writers: Mindy Kaling and Brent Forrester
Details: 121 pages - June 17, 2009 (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time of the film's release. 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).

You know I kind of like Mindy Kaling (Kelly Kapour on “The Office”). Here’s my only question for Mindy though. If she’s a writer on The Office, why doesn’t she write herself into more episodes? Kelly disappears for long stretches at a time, so much so that I’ll occasionally wonder if she’s still on the show. She’s a lot funnier than some of those people who get way more air time. That leads me to another question. In The Office, all Stanley does is sit at a desk all day. That’s his job. He never says anything or interacts with anyone. However long it takes to film those episodes, he just sits there. Does he consider himself the luckiest person ever to get paid to sit around and do nothing? Or is he frustrated that he’s basically a glorified extra?

I’m getting off track here. Okay, so, I always find it interesting when TV writers (specifically sitcom writers) cross over into features or vice versa. It’s a totally different beast, both ways, especially if you’re coming from the sit-com world. There’s some obvious crossover – the story element is similar and some of the character stuff is the same – but it’s a lot harder to build a story over a 110 minute period than it is 22 minutes. You have to know when to let the story breath, when to step on the gas, etc. It’s not as simple as writing longer scenes. So did Kaling and her writing partner, Brent Forrester, pull it off? Let us find out.

Lizzie’s never been the kind of girl to turn heads. She’s plump in a cute way, but you’d probably be stretching it to call her pretty. So it only makes sense that at some point in her life she made the decision to categorize all hot guys as unobtainable. As a result, Lizzie only dates dweeby dorky dudes who “look like Ira Glass.” I don’t know who Ira Glass is but with a name like that, I’m guessing he’s no Vin Diesel.

So one day, while taking her friend’s daughter to one of those cheesy low-budget Children’s Museum plays, she meets Patrick, who’s so good-looking he makes Brad Pitt self-conscious. Patrick’s a barely in-work actor (if you call children’s plays work) and also surprisingly humble. When Mindy bumps into him after one of his shows, the two hit it off in a weird way and agree to meet up later, amongst friends.

Lizzie thinks nothing of it because of her “never-believe-hot-guys-like-her” training. To her he’s just a dude who needs a friend. Her friends, however, are convinced he has the hots for her, and thus begins the awkward dance we’re all so familiar with you start hanging out with someone of the opposite sex and the signals get crossed and you’re stabbing yourself every night trying to figure out if it’s a friend thing or a let’s get jiggy with it thing. Thank God for Facebook flirting, right? Remember when you used to have to…gasp…call people to get an idea of how they felt?

Anyway, eventually the two end up together, and Lizzie has an entirely new set of problems, which involves combating her daily insecurities. For example, she refuses to get naked in front of Patrick out of fear he’ll think she’s fat. In case you were wondering if Lizzie has low self-esteem, she reminds you every chance she gets.

Then before she knows it, her insecurities get the better of her, and she inadvertently orchestrates her relationship’s demise. We’re left to wonder if it’s possible for a couple, whose looks are so far apart on the good-looking spectrum, to survive in an image-conscience world.

First, the good. Kaling and Forrester predictably have a knack for dialogue and character. All the characters here are memorable and fun. I wouldn’t call it a chuckle-fest but I laughed my share of times. For example, we get the most awkward dirty talk sex scene ever, (her previous boyfriend offers this weird commentary during some heated sex) “Are you my wife?” “Are you the mother of my kids?” And Lizzie’s friends are also pretty funny, such as when her best friend Maggie tries to cheer her up after Lizzie’s Ira-Glass-like boyfriend dumps her. He was a loser, she tells Lizzie. “Maybe he was a loser. But he loved me.” “He didn’t love you, he was sleeping with an anorexic vampire.” “Why would you mention how thin she was?”

But the problem here is exactly what I worried about from the beginning. There’s no real story to sink your teeth into.

Back in the day, most romantic comedies had a story behind them. In Pretty Woman, there’s the whole “he buys her for the week” angle. In Notting Hill there’s the whole “dating a movie star” angle. But then Judd Apatow came along and kind of changed the game, creating rom coms based more on ideas than on stories. 40 year old Virgin. Knocked Up. But see even those movies had something to hang their hat on. We want to see if Steve Carrell is going to get laid. We want to see if Seth Rogan can become responsible enough to raise a child. Here, the entire movie is based on the protagonist’s character flaw, Lizzie’s low self-esteem. Lizzie’s not really going after anything. She’s just living her life. And for a script that’s 120 pages, that’s not nearly enough to keep us engaged.

The characters end up wandering around a lot, and the above reason is why. If there’s no ultimate goal for our main character to try and achieve, no ticking time bomb pushing us forward, then there isn’t a whole lot for our characters to do but sit around and talk to each other. There’s really only one romantic comedy in history that got away with this and that’s When Harry Met Salley, which to this day is one of the biggest anomalies in screenwriting.

This script actually reminded me a lot of She’s Out Of My League, which I reviewed a long time ago and which I thought was a little better than this. The Low Self Esteem of Lizzie Gillespie has some bright moments. Let’s just hope the next draft builds more of a story around those moments.

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

What I learned: There are three types of goals you want for your characters. First is their story goal. What is it they’re after? This is the engine that drives your entire story so it’s the most important goal of the bunch. In The 40 Year Old Virgin, for example, Steve Carrel’s story goal is to get laid. The next type of goal is the immediate goal. This goal is constantly changing during the story and refers to whatever your character is trying to achieve right now. This is usually a subset of the main goal. Your character must get *this* (whatever “this” is) before they can get the final goal. Using 40-Year Old Virgin again, Steve Carrell first goes to a club to find a girl he can have sex with. His goal then, is simply to bring a woman home. A few scenes later, his goal is to try and ask the E-Bay store girl on a date. The final goal-type is one that’s the least utilized in movies, but important nonetheless. It’s your hero’s life goal. Beyond this story, what is it your character really wants? The reason a life goal is so important is because it often defines a person. When someone tells us what they want to do more than anything else in the world, that’s a pretty big indicator of who that person is. Lizzie has a nice life goal here. She wants to be a dramturge, which is the person who provides historical context at the beginning of a play. It’s weird and quirky and different, which are the same advectives you’d use to describe Lizzie. Coincidence? I don’t think so.