Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Escort

Genre: Comedy
Premise: A flight attendant who refuses to grow up gets stuck escorting an uptight 14 year old boy cross-country.
About: It’s always interesting to get some background on a writer after I read a script. Whenever I see this much skill, I figure the guy has to have been at it for awhile. Wasn’t surprised then to find out Justin Adler has been writing and producing television for quite some time, working on such shows as Futurama, Sons and Daughters, Samantha Who, and Better Off Ted. Scripts this good don’t just appear out of thin air, so I feel somewhat vindicated knowing how much time Adler’s put into his craft. The Escort sold earlier this year to Dreamworks.
Writer: Justin Adler
Details: 113 pages - Draft A (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).

It seems like I’m always looking for the next funny thing amongst a sea of unfunny things. So sparse are the laughs these days, both in the theater and on the screenplay front, that I’m beginning to wonder if my laugh buds were kidnapped. I watched Date Night the other night. That had to be one of the most unfunny comedies I’ve seen in recent memory. I mean, I get that it’s “Date Night” but it’s Steve Carell. You figure he wouldn’t volunteer his likeness to a total piece of garbage, right? Wrong! You know when you write the scene where your characters have to do a stripper dance in front of a crowd that you’ve officially given up, not just on that script, but as a writer. I mean give me a break.

I went to see The Other Guys and thought it was decent but there’s something wrong when Mark Whalberg is making you laugh harder than Will Ferrell. Also, who the hell’s decision was it to kill off Samuel Jackson and The Rock? They were the funniest thing about the movie. And the movie is called “The Other Guys,” implying that it’s going to be “The Other Guys vs. The Main Guys.” Nope, they went ahead and killed off the best thing about the movie. Can the idiot who made that decision please stand up?

In short, a good comedy was needed.

Well, along comes The Escort. Now The Escort’s not perfect. Like any comedy there are hits and there are misses, but this thing hits way more than it misses, and stands toe to toe with “Crazy Stupid Love” as the best comedy of the year (“30 Minutes Or Less” rounds out the Top 3).

We start out on Gary Decker, a 14 year old stuck in a 35 year old flight attendant’s body. Despite spending most of his time flying around the country, Decker’s going nowhere fast. While he tells anyone who will listen that he’s going to be a pilot, the truth is Decker’s five year, ten year, and 20 year plan amounts to banging as many chicks as possible and making just enough money to pay the bills.

In fact, when we meet Decker, he’s crammed into one of those airplane bathrooms trying to have sex with a woman. I say “trying” because this female Atuk is 300 pounds and it’s impossible for him to maneuver his man business into the proper parts. The situation escalates until people outside get a whiff of what’s going on, and Decker’s busted in yet one more of a long line of screw-ups.

Meanwhile, we meet Ethan Wilder, an anal 35 year old businessman stuck in a 14 year old’s body. Ethan would rather shop at Brooks Brothers than Abercrombie, which is probably why he’s suffered through a mostly friendless childhood. Ethan’s pissed because his father and evil step-mother are sending him off to boarding school. Ethan used to have a good relationship with his dad, but once his bitch step-mom showed up and conceived the golden boy (a six year old devil-child named Kingsley), it’s like Ethan doesn’t exist anymore.

To make matters worse, his father was going to fly him out to boarding school, but his step-mom convinced him to stay and help prep Kingsley for an acting audition. Since Ethan’s a minor and can’t travel alone, he’ll be assigned an “escort” to make sure he gets there okay.

And that, of course, is where Decker steps in. The heffer-humper’s been demoted to the bottom of the totem-pole and that means performing such annoying tasks as “escorting” minors. When the two meet, it’s hate at first site. Ethan thinks Decker’s a childish moron and Decker thinks Ethan’s a stuck-up annoying little bitch.

After several arguments, one of the plane’s engines fall off (which I hear is never good) and they’re forced to make an emergency landing in Charlottesville. When Ethan explains to the head flight attendant how Decker treated him, it’s the last straw for the company, and they fire him.

But when a call home helps Ethan realize his family is a bunch of dickheads, he concocts a plan to go live with his mother. He runs after Decker, apologizes, and offers to pay him if he’ll take him to Albany where his mother lives. Decker’s reluctant but doesn’t exactly have a lot of income options, so he accepts.

Along the way they encounter a hurricane, some overenthusiastic Civil War reenactors, some old flames, some new ones, and a ton of disagreements. Decker does his best to teach Ethan how to loosen up and Ethan does his best to teach Decker how to grow up. These two pretty much hate each other and would disagree about the color of grass if the topic came up. But by the end, they form a strange bond and learn a lot from one another.

Where to begin with how much I liked this. There’s just so much Adler did right. First, he took a time tested premise, the road-trip comedy, and gave it a new spin. A man and a teenager. We haven’t seen that before.

He also adds irony to his characters, which I tell you guys to do whenever you can. Decker is the child even though he’s the grown-up. And Ethan is the grown-up even though he’s the child.

Adler also starts his characters as far apart on the spectrum as possible. Not only do Decker and Ethan’s hatred for one another give the second act a lot to work with (The second act is the “conflict” act so it helps if your characters are nowhere close to finding common ground) but by placing them so far apart, there’s an inherent desire from the audience to see if they can overcome the impossible.

Also, the script has a ton of heart. Even though it’s a goofy comedy, the core emotional issue here – Ethan’s abandonment - is heavy and real. I mean when Ethan finally gets to his mom’s and we see her reaction….it’s heartbreaking.

The time Adler spends on this makes the central relationship between Decker and Ethan that much stronger, because now, Decker represents something more than an escort. He represents a friend, a father-figure, and really the only person who actually cares about Ethan. When you make that extra effort to nail the emotional component of your screenplay, all of the comedy is funnier because we actually care about what’s happening to the characters.

Adler also does a great job peppering the script with setups and payoffs. There are a dozen moments between Decker and Ethan that seem insignificant early on, but come full circle in the third act. I loved the porn magazine stuff, for example. It’s something that could’ve been cheesy but when it pays off later, I have to say it really worked. I LOVE a good setup and payoff, and this script has tons of them.

There’s really only one thing that doesn’t work for me and that’s Decker’s flaw. Over the course of the story, Decker only has sex with old, ugly, or fat chicks, and we find out that the reason is he abandoned the girl he loved when he was younger, and he doesn’t ever want to hurt someone like that again, so he only engages in meaningless sex where he knows he’ll never fall for the girl. For a script that does such a great job setting up an emotional backstory for Ethan, I was surprised at how insincere and false this choice was. It felt like Adler sacrificed authenticity for laughs, and that hurt what was otherwise a flawless character study.

Outside of that misstep though, this was pretty awesome. I have a feeling four months from now we’re going to be seeing The Escort near the top of the Black List. This is really good comedy writing, and therefore a great script to study if you're into the genre.

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

What I learned: The Escort makes a tiny slip-up early on. Decker doesn’t like kids, which helps set up the eventual conflict between him and Ethan. The problem is, Adler doesn’t show us this. He has Decker say it a couple of pages before Ethan shows up. “I hate kids,” he says. And because he says it, it falls flat. This is age-old screenwriting advice but it’s so true. SHOW don’t TELL. I can’t tell you how much more impactful it is on a reader to SEE a character take on an issue as opposed to being told of an issue. It would be like Han Solo saying “I'm a badass,” instead of SHOWING him kill Greedo. This is a mistake I see a TON of beginner writers make. They have their characters offhandedly say something like “I took a year of karate lessons” and then later in a key scene kick someone’s ass. It feels false because we never SAW them perform karate. I’m not saying it’s a huge deal here in The Escort, but I did think we needed to SEE Decker get in a fight with a child (or a group of children) to really sell his inability to connect with kids.