Monday, August 30, 2010

Owen's Manual

Genre: Comedy
Premise: A mild-mannered IT guy receives an 'owners manual' that tells him how to fix his life.
About: Made last year’s Black List with 5 votes. Very quietly the heavy-duty comedy producing team of Will Ferrell, Chris Henchy, and Adam McKay are attached. Might this be a future Will Ferrell vehicle?
Writer: Greg Ferkel
Details: 108 pages - undated (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).

A possible candidate to play Owen?

I must admit I like these kinds of comedies - one step removed from reality, somewhat fantastical, an intriguing hook. Yet I also know that a lot of you hate them. And so I’ll just tell you right now, if you don’t like high concept comedies, there’s no use in continuing with this review. You’re going to hate Owen’s Manual with a passion. But if you like them, you’ll be happy to know that Owen’s Manual is a nice little entry into the genre.

So why do writers favor struggling average-looking heroes who’ve let themselves go, have no direction, and can’t get a girl to save their behinds? Because that character is the average screenwriter! I mean not all screenwriters of course, but a lot of them. And since those are the people writing your stories, you’re damn skippy they’re going to use those stories as wish-fulfillment. Translation: Seth Rogan and Michael Cera aren’t going anywhere!

To that end, Owen is no different. He’s a schlubby IT guy who works at a magazine called “Hip Parent,” where he’s perfected the art of getting stepped on. Owen gave up his life a long time ago to play the role of lewwwwwssserrrr.

Then one night, Owen catches an infomercial promoting one of those gyrating weight-loss belts. Figuring “what the hell,” he grabs the phone and orders one. A couple days later a UPS box shows up except there’s no gyrating inside. Just a manual. But this isn't any ordinary manual. It's a “how-to” guide for fixing Owen’s life. The table of contents reads like it’s been sitting on his shoulder for the last five years. “How to get your boss off your back” “How to get that girl at work,” “How to make sure nobody takes advantage of you anymore.”

Owen dismisses it as a practical joke, but when his boss calls to have Owen, once again, fix his laptop, Owen, out of curiosity, follows the instructions in the manual. The exchange reveals that the boss’s 10 year-old son has been surfing porn (hence why it’s had so many problems), which he happens to be fixing just as his wife walks by, which results in his wife believing he’s a porn addict, which results in the boss taking an extended leave of absence from work.

Freaked out, Owen calls the help number on the manual and gets in touch with the smooth-talking Rajeesh, a call tech for these life manuals. Owen asks him all the obvious questions and Rajeesh assures him that if he just follows the manual, all his problems will be solved.

Owen’s suspect at first but eventually starts following the manual religiously. He takes Cara out. He stops allowing others to step on him. He becomes nicer and more accepting of people. Sure enough, his troubles begin to dissolve away.

In the meantime, Owen gets a call from his old girlfriend, Hayden, who’s drop dead gorgeous and since their time together in college has won the Nobel Peace Prize. She’s getting married in a couple of weeks and because Owen knew her before the fame, she wants him to give the toast at her wedding. There’s a part of Owen who’s, of course, still in love with Hayden, which complicates his evolving relationship with Car.

The problem is that Owen starts getting too dependent on the manual, and when he realizes that the manual only solves problems up to the date of its publication, that means he’ll have to solve any new problems by himself. Because Owen’s become so dependent on the manual, he doesn’t know how to figure things out anymore. And we’re left to wonder if he’ll be able to figure it all out in time for the big wedding toast.

Owen’s Manual is both funny and clever, especially the first half of the script, which really moves. I love this concept because I think we all wish we had an owner’s manual to our lives. If the answers were written down in an instruction booklet that we kept on our ipods, everything would be a lot easier. So to watch that fantasy play out and the complications that arise from it was fun.

But this script is not without problems, starting with Cara (the hot girl at work). Cara is our female lead, and I never trusted her. We meet her as she takes advantage of Owen, slyly convincing him to write her article for her. I always say watch how you introduce your character because that first impression is what's going to stick with the audience the strongest. If you have a character taking advantage of our hero in her very first scene, are we going to like that character?

The script also dips into dangerous territory by making its protagonist passive. A passive protagonist isn’t a death sentence, but when your hero isn’t dictating the action in the film, it’s usually a lot slower than when a protagonist *is* dictating the action. To the script’s credit, the reasoning for Owen’s passiveness is directly linked to the concept (he has to *follow* a manual), so it didn’t hurt the screenplay too much.

Probably the biggest misstep though was the Hayden storyline. Our hero’s being lured to this wedding for a character we haven’t met, don’t know and don’t care about. It never felt organic and as a result, we’re physically watching the strings being pulled as they’re being pulled. If you look at a very similar story, Office Space, and imagine Peter Gibbons getting a call from his fiancé in Hawaii and flying out there for the third act, it just feels all wrong. And that’s how it felt here.

I think the reason for this straying had something to do with the lack of a clear theme. I couldn’t figure out what the script was trying to say. Was it saying you need to make your own decisions? That you can’t depend on others? For awhile, yes. But then in the end, all of that is completely abandoned in order the hash out the complexities of the Hayden marriage storyline, leaving me with a big question mark on my face. Uh…okay? What was the whole point of that again?

Those types of things make this feel like an early draft, which it very well might be. But in spite of these issues, I enjoyed it enough to recommend it. If you’re a high-concept comedy guy like myself, you’ll want to check this out, for both the good and the bad.

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

What I learned: Sometimes storylines weren’t meant to come together. If you’re flexing every single writing muscle you have to force two storylines together in a finale - if each word is dripping with sweat from the Herculean effort you’re making to somehow combine these two worlds, maybe it’s time to admit that those storylines can't coexist. That’s the case here with Owen’s Manual. The Hayden stuff just never gels with the story, which is why the third act derails. Never be afraid to cut out that storyline that isn’t working.