Tuesday, July 13, 2010

My Mother's Curse

Genre: Comedy
Premise: A struggling entrepreneur takes his mother on a cross-country roadtrip to reunite with an old flame.
About: Dan Fogelman wrote “Cars,” “Bolt,” and the year’s biggest spec sale so far, the untitled Steve Carrel comedy which sold for 2 million dollars. Today’s script, “My Mother’s Curse,” was purchased by Paramount and landed on this year’s Black List with, I believe, 13 votes. Before Fogelman made the jump to features, he wrote on several failed TV series. Ann Fletcher (“The Proposal”) is set to direct and Seth Rogan and Barbara Streisand are rumored to star.
Writer: Dan Fogelman
Details: 112 pages – June 5, 2007 draft (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).

I’ll just say it. I don’t think “parent-related” humor is funny. It’s why I never watched Everybody Loves Raymond, why the Seinfeld episodes I hated most were the ones with the parents, and why I never jumped on this “Shit My Dad Says” bandwagon. I don’t know why but I guess it’s because the humor is so…obvious. Oh, those wacky parents are saying the darndest things again. What will they say next??? The only parent-related movie I like is “Meet The Parents,” which I thought was one of the best executed comedies of the last ten years. The reason it passed the “parents” test was because the parents were in control instead of out of control, and that was a nice change. To prove my point, the franchise imploded the second they brought in Streisand and Hoffman for the sequel. Once it became “parents say the darndest things,” it was the same old “Everybody Loves Raymond” jokes catered for the big screen.

Anyway, Fogelman’s a really hot writer and I thought it was ridiculous that I still hadn’t read any of his work, so I saw that this made the Black List and wanted to check out what was under the hood.

My Mother’s Curse is a simple story (a welcome change from yesterday, huh?) about 29 year-old Andy Brewster, an entrepreneur with commitment issues. He lives in LA and has created a completely organic cleaning formula, like Fantastik, but so pure you can actually drink it. This is Andy’s big pitch. He cleans up some dirt, then downs a shot of the formula. It impresses everyone who sees it, but still hasn’t made him any sales.

Before Andy goes on a big cross-country pitch fest, he stops back home to check on his single mother, Joyce. Since his father died, Joyce has lost all ambition. Her days consist of watching TV and chugging M&Ms. The only joy she has left in life is Andy coming home to visit.

So after hearing about one of Jocye’s ex-flames, Andy googles him and finds out he lives in San Francisco. Playing the role of Cupid, he invites his mother along for his business trip, planning to secretly surprise her at the end with her ex. Sounds like a trip on the Crazy Train to me.

Andy and his mom get stuck in topless bars, eat a 72 ounce steak, have inappropriate conversations about Andy’s penis problems as a baby, and probably my favorite part, listen to a “books on tape” version of “Middlesex” as they drive, which has tons of uncomfortable sexually descriptive chapters. I know these types of scenes are par for the course in roadtrip comedies but Fogelman makes them fresh somehow. I think it’s because the characters, and specifically the relationship, feels so honest. It’s like we don’t need all the bells and whistles to distract us. The characters are working so it doesn’t matter where they are.

What’s the key to a good road trip script? Well, the good ones tend to have a strong goal. Wherever the characters are going, it needs to be really important to them. The audience isn’t going to care if our heroes only kind of want to get there. What’s unique about My Mother’s Curse is that only one of the characters knows the true goal of the journey. Joyce is out of the loop. This withheld information gives the story an added layer because on top of wondering what this guy’s going to say when they get there, we’re wondering how Joyce will react as well. Will she lash out at her son, embrace the moment, run away? This "why have one reaction when you can have two," approach makes the endpoint twice as exciting.

The other thing I like to encourage on roadtrip script is having a ticking time bomb. If the characters need to be somewhere by a certain time, the script moves faster. If you remember the movie “Roadtrip,” for example, it’s about a college kid who has sex with a girl on tape, then accidentally sends that tape to his girlfriend back home. The ticking clock is he has to get back home and intercept the tape before it gets there. In the upcoming Zach Galifianakis and Robert Downey Jr. film, “Due Date,” they have to get home before the baby is born. And in a less obvious example, the ticking time bomb in Little Miss Sunshine is the pageant.

Surprisingly, My Mother’s Curse doesn’t use a ticking time bomb, and I think it suffers a little for it. Had Andy found out that the ex was leaving on an extended business trip in three days, that could’ve infused the story with some immediacy. Maybe something happens to the car late in the trip with only 12 hours to go (not unlike the grandfather dying in Little Miss Sunshine) and the rush to get there in time gives that third act an extra kick in the ass.

But hey, I think Mr. Fogelman knows what he’s doing and probably has a good reason for nixing the hurry-up option. In fact, outside of a few minor issues, I thought this script was pretty awesome. The mother-son stuff is done with just the right mixture of comedy and emotion. I didn’t break down at the end or anything but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get a warm fuzzy feeling inside. Nobody’s reinventing the wheel here but if you want to know how to execute an idea in screenplay form, you could learn a lot from this script. Good stuff. :)

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

What I learned: Good scripts have three central areas of conflict: external conflict, internal conflict, and inter-character conflict. So in My Mother’s Curse, the external conflict is Andy trying to sell his cleaning solution. The internal conflict is his inability to commit. And the inter-character conflict is Andy and Joyce’s different approach to life. A lot of writers get lost in the second act. Remember, this is what you should be using your second act for – to explore these three areas of conflict. If you don’t, you’ll have a bunch of lame boring characters, talking to each other with nothing to say.