Monday, May 9, 2011


A quick note to drop by this Wednesday as I'll be posting a review for the first script to break into my Top 10 in over a year!

Genre: Crime/Caper/Comedy
Premise: An art curator enlists the services of a Texas chicken farmer to con a wealthy collector into buying a phony Monet painting.
About: They’ve been trying to get this Gambit remake going forever. The original starred Michael Caine, and Joel and Ethan Coen’s draft of the script has been kicking around for 7 years now. They finally got financing, throwing newly minted best actor winner Colin Firth into the lead role, as well as bringing Cameron Diaz in to play the southern belle. The film is being directed by Michael Hoffman, who’s been seen by many as a talented director waiting to break out (his films include the underrated “The Emperor’s Club” and the more recent “The Last Station.”). As you’ll read a little more about in a link I provide for Wednesday’s interview, one of the practices the Coens’ use is to write their characters into a corner and leave it up to the other brother to figure out how to get them out.
Writers: Joel & Ethan Coen
Details: 129 pages – 2004 draft (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).

Question. Can the Coens be stopped!? Long time readers know I’m not exactly public supporter numero uno for the siblings. But I will say this. Outside of maybe Tarantino, there are no other writer/filmmakers who take more chances than these two and still manage to bring in big box office. We talked about breaking the rules the other day and really, if you’re a supporter of that mantra, these guys should be your deity. Last week I was watching Fargo, my favorite of the Coen films, and there’s this scene near the end where Margie has a date with an old Asian friend of hers that has absolutely NOTHING TO DO WITH THE MOVIE. That’s, like, rule number 1 in screenwriting. Don’t include a scene that doesn’t push the story forward. Yet the scene works. It’s hilarious. You don’t think twice about it. And I couldn’t tell you why. Go figure.

Gambit starts off by introducing us to art curator Harry Deane, who’s playing the British version of Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy in Fargo), a desperate morally skewed man obsessed with money.

He’s enlisted his best friend and compatriot, a stalwart older gentleman known as “The Major,” to accompany him to Alpine, Texas to locate the owner of an extremely rare Monet painting known as “Haystacks Dusk,” which went missing half a century ago. The reason this painting is so important is that Deane’s employer, the obscenely rich English magazine magnet, Lord Shabandar, has the companion piece to Haystacks Dusk, Haystacks Dawn. Obtaining the long-missing Haystacks Dusk would complete the pair, and therefore he’ll be willing to pay a mint for it.

How this painting ended up in an Alpine, Texas trailer is another story. Through meticulous research and a few lucky breaks, Deane was able to trace the origins of the painting back to the trailer owner’s great grandfather. The current owner of said trailer, chicken herder and minimum wage earner PJ Puznowski, isn’t even aware that the painting’s a Monet.

Oh, there’s one thing I’m forgetting to tell you. This is all a lie. Deane has fabricated the lineage and the connection and, of course, the painting itself. He’s going to Texas to find a pretend PJ Puznowski, someone to play the part, who will meet Shabandar, pretend to be the owner of the Monet, sell it to him for 10 million dollars, of which Harry will take all of and give PJ 50 grand for her help.

Perfect plan right?

Of course not. Once PJ comes to England and meets Shabandar, the two hit it off, and soon they’re spending time at restaurants and balls, with Deane being pushed further and further out of the picture (so to speak) with each successive date. PJ’s rascally straight-forward personality delights the more buttoned up Shabandar, and before she knows it, she’s feeling bad about deceiving him. Maybe she won’t sell him this fake painting after all.

In the meantime, Deane, who’s put every last penny of his into this scam, is being nickel and dimed by PJ’s expensive lodging tastes, someone who extorts him once he leans about the scam, and is eventually fired by Shabandar for, not surprisingly, a lack of trustworthiness. Deane must find a way against all ways to reign PJ in, keep her on track, and somehow pull this all off. Can it be done?

First thing you gotta talk about whenever you read a Coen Brother’s script is the complete disregard for standard formatting. These guys don’t use Courier when they write. They use Times New Roman. Why would this matter? Well, the truth is, Times New Roman is much easier to read than Courier. So in reality, it would make more sense if we all used it. But we can’t, because Times New Roman takes up less space, giving an incorrect page count, screwing up the precious 1 page of script = 1 minute of screentime rule. This script is 129 pages. It’s probably closer to 140 or 145 if it were in Courier. Unless you’ve had a few Oscar wins under your belt, producers don’t like when you fudge the page count, so this is not advised.

Next, the guys don’t use sluglines. Instead, they use “faux lines,” mini slugs without all the technical jibber-jabber. This is another one of those things that actually makes more sense. It’s a lot easier to read, “A GAS STATION” than “INT. GAS STATION – NIGHT.” And you would think that with scripts becoming more reader-friendly over the years, that this practice might have caught on, but the Coens have been doing it forever, and it still hasn’t changed, so I guess it’s not going to anytime soon.

On the story side of things, there’s a lot of good here. First of all, I’ve been thinking a lot about “voice.” Personally, I’m sick of when people say this or that writer has a distinct “voice.” I guess what annoys me is that it’s too broad, and kind of lets the person get away with saying they liked something without being able to verbalize why they liked it. “Oh I LOVED that script.” “Really? Why?” “Because of the writer’s voice. Such a unique voice.” “What else? Anything specific?” “Oh, just the voice. The voice was so uniquely theirs.” “What about the characters?’ “Oh the characters. They all had such an original voice.”

Well, I think I have a better understanding of voice after this script. “Voice” encompasses a script that nobody in the world could’ve written outside of that writer (or writers). Yes, I know this is a remake, but when you read this script, you just know that nobody else in the world could’ve written this story the way the Coen Brothers did.

Look at how the characters speak for instance. First, you have this line from a British Lord: “I knew a Koznowski once, charming man, no relation I suppose, Baron Koznowski, Janusz, related to the emperor Franz Josef on one side, also quite the equestrian, man had horseblood in his veins. Mixed Cossack descent, stuck to a horse like a burr on a dog’s arse. Assassinated in the early nineties, sadly enough. By the Ossetians, the swine…This was, please.” Contrast that with this line from Southern belle PJ: “Well hey-ho there, friend, I wouldn’t recommend it. Yeah your nose’ll roll with the punches but Merle snores like a sawmill without that reinforced septum. Course I snore too on account of the sleep apnea, or maybe that’s just Mama puttin’ me on since in other respects I’m dainty.”

I mean, who the hell is able to pull off two distinctly different dialects like that in a single screenplay!?? You have to understand, I read a couple dozen scripts a month where the disparity in the character’s dialogue amounts to, “Hey essay, I’m going to the supermarket” and “Sounds good bro. Pick me up some cheese.” I could be wrong and this dialogue is plucked right out of the original, but the Coens past work tells me that they’re responsible for this incredible ability to write unique characters each with unique ways of speaking.

Structurally speaking, the script is good. The Coens follow a very simple formula in most of their movies. They put money in the middle of a room (the goal) and watch all of their characters try to get it (strong motivation). In this case, the money is the painting (or at least it pretends to be), and I actually liked that better, because money is so…generic. A painting, on the other hand, is romantic, intriguing, unique. And no, I don’ think it’s a coincidence that the Coens simply swapped out the last letter of money and replaced it with a “t.” This is what they do. Throw money out there and see what characters will do to get it.

My one problem with Gambit was that it started out so clever, and we’re led to believe this will continue, with double crosses, neat twists, and a reversal or two. But the second half of this script feels more like a Pink Panther film, with Deane turning into a stooge, scaling buildings naked and hiding behind curtains in Shabadar’s quarters before he and PJ get it on. I don’t know, I guess the humor devolved into juvenile tomfoolery, and that’s too bad, cause I really liked the first half. Luckily, there’s enough good stuff here to still recommend it. Not a bad script at all.

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

What I learned: Stop writing boring characters! I implore you to rent 5 Coen Brothers films this weekend and study how different and unique all the characters are. I know that we don’t all write in this kooky exaggerated reality that the Coens have perfected, where every character is a little off his rocker. But you can learn so much from how different they make each of their characters. Throwing “essay” or “bro” into a character’s dialogue is not enough to make them stand out.