Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Liberal Arts

Genre: Drama/Comedy
Premise: A New Yorker heads back to the small liberal arts college he attended to give a speech for a retiring professor and ends up falling for one of the students while he’s there.
About: Radnor is the writer-director of one of my favorite scripts, which used to be on my Top 25, Happy Thank You More Please. This is his follow-up project, which will star him and new IT girl Lizzie Olsen after her breakout turn in Sundance hit, "Martha Marcy May Marlene," about a girl who grows up on a hippie convent.
Writer: Josh Radnor
Details: 115 pages (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).

I still can’t get over it. I still can’t handle the fact that an actor making $400,000 an episode on a silly sitcom is also one of the best screenwriters in Hollywood. Don’t agree with me? Okay, let’s narrow the playing field a little. He’s not going to write the next Heat. But there is no one who’s doing the “lost early mid-life crisis” thing better at this moment than Radnor. He’s Cameron Crowe before Elizabethtown. He’s Woody Allen before, well, his last 15 movies. He’s a way more sophisticated Zach Braff. There’s an honesty and an intelligence to his writing that you just don’t see that often. Naturally, I couldn’t wait to read his second script.

And it started off perfectly, almost like a parallel universe continuation of his last film. Jesse Aaron Fisher is 35 and works a mindless college recruitment job in New York City. High school students come in, ask questions, he gives them stock answers, they leave, repeat.

Jesse has one thing that keeps him going. Books. He looooooves books. Oh, I mean he really loves books. His ex, who just broke up with him, comes over to his place to get her stuff, and instead of taking advantage of this last opportunity to repair their relationship, he reads a really awesome book instead.

Jesse also loves college. Or loved college. It’s been 13 years since he finished his small liberal arts education, and boy does he miss it. So when one of his favorite professors and good friends calls to inform him he’s folding up the chalkboard and would like Jesse to speak at his retirement party, Jesse can’t jump in his car fast enough.

From the moment he reaches campus, Jesse is a different man. There’s a pep in his step, a smile on his lips, a life surrounding his bones. The vibe on this tiny little campus is more electric than all of New York City put together. And it’s just about to jump a few volts higher.

Jesse runs into one of the students there, the cute and way more intelligent than the average college kid, Zibby. She seems to be just what Jesse needs at the moment, someone to excite him, to remind him to loosen up, to be young again. And so when Jesse runs into her a second time at a dorm room party, so begins a very tense very sexually charged friendship.

And yes, I know what you’re thinking. I know you think you already know where this is going. I know that because I thought the same thing. But guess what? You don’t know. You don’t have a clue. In fact, we deviate quite severely from the typical garden variety older guy younger girl romance.

They don’t hook up. Instead Jesse goes back to New York. The two start writing each other, getting to know each other on a deeper level, and then, after some time has passed, he comes back to the college (spoilers), but right before he’s about to seal the deal, questions what the hell he’s doing, and starts having a mini-mental breakdown on top of his early mid-life crisis, and goes fleeing in the opposite direction, as far away from Zibby as possible.

In the end, the story becomes more about Jesse figuring himself out, rather than figuring out him and Zibby, and so for better or worse, a sort of offbeat indie romantic comedy becomes a full-blown coming-of-age film. It’s strange and unexpected and different and is the reason I’m so damn confused about how I feel about the script.

Lizzy Olsen

You should know me well enough by now to know that, for the most part, I like clean narratives. I like when stories have clear places to go, where we understand the direction of the plot, where we’re staying in the same general vicinity for the majority of the story (unless the genre dictates something else – like a spy or action flick). Liberal Arts doesn’t follow that template. I thought for sure that once we got to the school, we would stay at the school. And when we didn’t, I was confused but still willing to give it a go. However, we’re jumping back and forth between the school and New York so much, and we’re travelling so much and sending so many letters, that at a certain point I began to wonder if it wouldn’t have been a lot easier to go the more traditional route.

Here’s my take on it. You want your characters in the place that produces the most amount of conflict. Two characters 500 miles away? No conflict. Those same characters – who for a number of reasons shouldn’t be together (the main one being their age difference) – stuck on the same campus together? Conflict. Now I can excuse this if the concept of the movie is based around separation (Going The Distance) but the central element of conflict in this case, Jesse’s reluctance to engage in an “inappropriate” relationship, doesn’t work unless the inappropriateness is placed in front of him at all times. If you can’t reach the cookie jar, the question of whether you will isn’t a factor. But if it’s right there at eye level, always there for the taking, then the question of whether you will or won't becomes a lot more interesting.

I’m so torn up about this script because I absolutely loved the first half. I mean I loved it. The thing with Radnor though is that he’s going to give you something different. He did it in Happy Thank You More Please when he threw a 35 year old man, a kid he found off the street, and a fuck buddy, into an impromptu family. And he does it here. Where you think this is going to be like Point A, where a guy starts dating a much younger girl. But it isn’t. It’s about a guy who’s ABOUT to date a much younger girl, then realizes it’s wrong and backs out of it.

So I guess I should be rewarding Radnor for not falling victim to cliché and obviousness. Yet a part of me feels like I just spent all night flirting with a girl at a bar and then at the end of the night she went home with someone else. 70 pages have been spent setting up this relationship. To rip it out from under our feet like that is at least a little deceitful, right?

Radnor also eschews other suggested Scriptshadow practices, like giving the main character a goal. There is no goal here, and therefore nothing driving the story other than the question of, “Will Jesse and Zibby get together?” On the list of devices that can drive your story, I always rate this one pretty low, because it allows for too much wandering about. Without pursuits, the characters just sort of exist in their day to day lives, so by the time we get around to that question being answered, it’s too late, since we’ve already lost interest. I know of only one movie where that’s the ONLY thing driving the story and it’s still worked, and that’s When Harry Met Sally. So I always suggest avoiding it unless you have some unique way of making it work.

And while I liked Jesse at first, I thought it was interesting that Radnor made him less likable as the script went on (the arc of most characters is the opposite – they start off unlikeable, then we’re given reasons to like them along the way). There’s a whole sequence where Jesse finds out that Zibby’s read Twilight and literally freaks out. He’s so upset about it that he actually chastises her for even contemplating reading the book. It’s somewhat necessary in that it’s the final straw in making him realize that him and Zibby aren't meant for each other. But I’m not sure Radnor realizes how unlikeable it makes Jesse. I mean, I hate Twilight as much as the next guy. But I think anybody who appreciates art understands that, in the end, taste is in the eye of the beholder. For him to be so cruel to Zibby after finding that book – I don’t know – it just really distanced me from the character.

I know I’m giving a lot of flak to my screenwriter crush Radnor, but I felt he made some choices in the second half that, while different, made the story less satisfying. Still, I loved all the touches, such as accidentally falling asleep on the quad lawn then waking up in the middle of the night (nothing like a random 35 year old man falling asleep in the middle of your college campus). The roommate that keeps popping in at the most inopportune times. The classic college hippy guy who’s always sharing his whacked out but not nearly as deep as he thinks they are philosophies. Radnor continues to have some of my favorite guy-girl dialogue as well. It’s not so much the kind you quote. But it’s fun and honest without being showy, never an easy line to walk.

Anyways, this was a frustrating read for me. I loved parts of it and I hated parts of it. So my final verdict falls somewhere in the middle. Should be interesting to see where it goes since, now that he has a movie under his belt, it will get a lot more attention.

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

What I learned: Remember guys. A break-up scene including your main character at the beginning of your script DOES NOT HAVE TO HAPPEN AT A RESTAURANT. In fact, it doesn’t even need to happen at all. Here, in Liberal Arts, the break-up has already happened. And the post-break-up scene takes place at  our hero’s apartment, with his ex coming by to get her stuff. I realize we’ve seen this scene before, but not nearly as much as the break-up at restaurant scene that opens 43% of all comedy specs. Please, no more break-up at restaurant scenes starting your movie! You are more original than that.  I promise you!