Friday, May 6, 2011

Amateur Friday - I Think My Facebook Friend Is Dead

Genre: Comedy
Premise: After receiving panicked messages from a girl he's been Facebook-stalking, a meek agoraphobe wrangles together his closest internet friends and journeys into the real world to find her.
About: Every Friday, I review a script from the readers of the site. If you’re interested in submitting your script for an Amateur Review, send it in PDF form, along with your title, genre, logline, and why I should read your script to Keep in mind your script will be posted.
Writers: Clint & Donnie Clark
Details: 110 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 Think My Facebook Friend Is Dead is one of those titles that pops out at you, that makes you think, regardless of your interest in comedy, “That sounds like it could be good.” I always say, when writing comedies, if you can convey exactly what your movie is about in your title, you’re in good shape. And it’s hard not to envision this movie after reading the title.

Now it’s been awhile since I really liked a comedy, since I actually got that charge you get when you’re reading something great. The last one may have been Crazy, Stupid, Love, and I don’t know how long ago that was but it certainly wasn’t yesterday. A big reason for the low quality in comedies is that not enough writers take them seriously. They focus on the gags, on the set pieces, and forget to build interesting likable characters that we want to be around. The comedy almost becomes like the special fx of a blockbuster, where the effects become the focus, and the story and characters are an afterthought. Well, suffice it to say, I was hoping Facebook Friend would break that trend. It had a great title, a solid premise, and sounded fun. So, did I like Facebook Friend?

25 year old agoraphobe Owen Dietz spends every spare moment on the internet. He even has a job as a web designer, allowing him to never leave the house (the life!). It only makes sense, then, that he’s fallen in love with Jessica Henessy, his sweet and cute Farmville neighbor, whose field he plows every day. The only thing keeping them apart is Jessica’s mysterious boyfriend, a boyfriend who on this day, she breaks up with. Which means that FINALLY, Owen can be together with the love of his life!

However, later that day, Jessica pops up on IM, scream-writing that someone’s coming, and that she’s in grave danger. Before Owen can do anything, she signs off. He sits there in silence, coming to terms with the reality. Someone’s attacked Jessica. A call to arms is needed. One that will require him to, gulp, actually go outside, and like, interact with the real world. Owen can’t do this alone so he calls his internet best friend, Rishi Rao, the only person on the planet more addicted to computers than he is, and his manic blogger buddy Jeff Pants, who makes Dwight Shrute look like Ben Stein. Needing a ride, the three turn to their Zombies Vs. Zebras internet co-player Morbid Bunny, who surprisingly turns out to be a 15 year old girl.

The four burn rubber to Ohio, where Owen has mapped out Jessica’s most frequently visited spots via her Foursquare footprints. The first of these locations is an internet café, the second a recording studio, and the third, a raucous nightclub where Youtube internet celebrities such as Techno Viking hang out.

Things get complicated when they realize Jessica’s associated with some sketchy players, most notably her on-again off-again fiance, D’Mario. D’Mario met Jessica when she was an aspiring singer and proceeded to exploit and take advantage of her, leading to a marriage proposal that Jessica probably felt forced to say yes to. When she called the wedding off, D’Mario went apeshit, and that’s where we find ourselves now, with D’Mario unwilling to let Jessica leave him.

Owen and his rag-tag group of buddies, all of whom are having a hell of a time adapting to the real world, will not only have to find Jessica, but learn to overcome their dependency on a medium that’s shut them off from real life. Regardless of what happens, this experience will surely change them forever.

Okay, so first the good. I love the setup here. I love the idea of a technology dependent agoraphobe being forced into the real world – his biggest fear. You can already imagine the hundreds of comedic possibilities with that setup. The structure here is solid as well. We have a clear goal (find and save Jessica). The stakes are high (the life of Jessica). We have plenty of urgency (they’re running out of time). And the plot is focused (due to the foursquare locations, we always know where we are in the journey).

The Clarks have also put a lot of effort into exploiting their premise, which is essential with any comedy. We cut away to scenes in the Farmville universe to establish Owen and Jessica’s relationship. Our characters have trouble operating in the real world (when given a real map, the characters try to “pinch-zoom” it a la an iphone). And locations like the Bumblebee Internet Café exploit this theme of real world vs. “the internet world.”

Finally, in one of the most critical components to making a comedy work, the main character is strong and likable, an underdog character whom we want to see succeed.

So everything here is set up for success. Everything is in place for a gangbusters script. Why then, doesn’t Facebook Friend deliver?

The other day we were talking about choices and making sure every choice was interesting and right for your story. I’m aware that this comes down to my opinion and my opinion only, but I thought many of the choices here were uninspired, starting with the set-pieces. In the cases of the Bumblebee Café, Dreamz, and finally The Library, nothing really funny or memorable happens. They just didn’t seem – I don’t know – inspired. With the exception of Dreamz, it felt like any one of these places could’ve been anywhere (a hardware store, a high school gym, a flower shop), because the characters would simply show up, talk to some people, and leave. The locations were functional. But they weren’t funny. And that sucked a lot of life out of the screenplay.

That problem may have stemmed from a geography issue. I realized that while reading Facebook Friend, I never had a sense of where they were or where anything was in proximity to anything else. In The Hangover, it’s Vegas. There isn’t a moment where you can’t envision where they are or what they’re doing. Here, nothing really connected. Each new destination felt random and isolated from the previous one. I talked about this same problem in Die Hard when comparing it to Die Hard 2. The first movie’s geography felt strong and clear. In the second movie, since he can basically go anywhere, it felt…I don’t know, sloppy I guess.

But I think the real problem here – at least for me – is that Jessica and D’Mario don’t feel right as story choices. And I’m not sure why. My first thought was that they were too broad. They didn’t feel grounded enough. But then The Hangover has a naked Chinese guy leaping out of a car trunk and attacking our main characters. That’s about as broad as you can get. So I don’t know. But as Jessica’s sketchy past and sketchy association with D’Mario began to reveal itself, I found myself less and less interested in Owen finding and saving her. I don’t have some magical screenplay adjustment to fix that. It just felt like the wrong way to go.

Another problem Facebook Friend runs into is it feels sloppy. Despite the structure being laid out so nicely, there are too many moments that felt random and unnecessary. For example, while I appreciated the attempts to add depth to the characters, stuff like Rishi’s backstory with his ex-girlfriend only seemed to get in the way of the story, instead of enhance it. Stopping the script to go back and see him experience an embarrassing situation with his ex wasn’t necessary. This script needs to be streamlined, kept on track, simplified. Each page was packed with so much going on that I kind of got exhausted.

And probably my least favorite part of the script was Jeff Pants. I understand that this is a broad comedy, but he was just so random and out there, he ruined almost every scene he was in for me. There’s a moment in particular, where he reveals that he’s gay, that embodied why I had such a hard time with his character. There wasn’t a single occasion, either before that admission or after, that would indicate that Jeff Pants was gay. And that made me believe it was added solely for shock value. If you’re adding things for a laugh at the expense of your characters, those characters cease to be real in the eyes of the reader. Stuff like a character’s sexual preference, even in a broad comedy, need to stem from an organic place.

Having said all that, Facebook Friend is a script I want to try and figure out, that I want to try and fix. I feel with the right execution, it could be really good. But as I sit here, I’m having a hard time figuring out how I would recommend doing that. I know I’d axe Jeff Pants. I’d definitely get rid of the whole D’Mario thing as well. I don’t think that works. I’d personally like Jessica to be more normal, more innocent. There’s something about her shady association with this sketchy underworld that makes me not want Owen to be with her.

Unfortunately, I think the main problem is one that would require a complete overhaul of the story, and that’s rethinking their destination. A seedy city in Ohio feels…I don’t’ know…like it doesn’t carry the weight required to live up to this high concept premise. Should their destination be more internet related? Maybe a big tech CEO in Silicon Valley is holding Jessica hostage? I really don’t know, but my instinct tells me it should be something different from what it is now. What do you guys think? Any ideas?

All in all, I like Clint and Donnie as writers. I think they have potential. They just need to reign their premise in and make better choices. Maybe there’s a producer who likes this idea and is willing to develop it with them. I think it might be worth it.

Script link: I Think My Facebook Friend Is Dead

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

What I learned: Facebook Friend suffered in part from trying to make every single second onscreen funny. It’s exhausting reading a script where every line is trying to make you laugh. Don’t be afraid to use 2-3 slower scenes to set up some bigger laughs later on. Watch how they did this in Meet The Parents. They use 3-4 understated scenes once Ben Stiller’s character arrives at the house to build the conflict/tension between Stiller’s and De Niro’s character, and then that erupts in the fantastically funny dinner scene.