Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Trade

Genre: Comedy?
Premise: Based on a true story, The Trade documents a pair of pitchers on the 1970 Yankees who traded their wives.
About: This script landed high on the 2009 Black List, was purchased by Warner Brothers, and quickly got mega baseball fans Matt Damon and Ben Affleck interested. It’s written by Dave Mandel, who’s known mainly for a stellar TV career. He helped write tons of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm episodes. He also wrote the huge spec sale “Eurotrip,” and most recently scripted the upcoming Sacha Baren Cohen vehicle, The Dictator.
Writer: Dave Mandel
Details: 125 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).

Let me start out by saying I’m a huge Dave Mandel fan. Eurotrip is a hidden gem of a comedy (“Scotty Doesn’t Know!!!”) and he helped write some of the best Seinfeld episodes ever (The Secret Code, The Wig Master, The Soup Nazi). He also co-wrote two of this season’s instant Curb Your Enthusiasm classics, “Palestenian Chicken” and “Larry Vs. Michael J. Fox.” So this guy has had me in stitches since the 90s.

Which is why this script confuses me so.

It’s never a good sign reading a comedy and you’re not sure if it’s a comedy. For the first 30 pages, I thought this might have been a light drama. And to be honest, I’m still not sure. The tone vacillates so wildly that I gave up trying to categorize it. I guess I’d call it a light comedy sorta drama?

The Trade is actually based on the real life story of 1970s Yankee pitchers Fritz Peterson and Mike Kekich. Fritz is an overachieving underappreciated lefty playing on a lousy Yankees team. He’s married to his overly bossy wife, Marilyn, who’s turned him into a big pussy.

Then Mike, another pitcher (tagged “the next Sandy Koufax”) arrives on the team and everything changes for Fritz. Mike is free-spirited and weird and could care less about his own wife, Susanne. The two married in high school and as far as he’s concerned, he’s still living the high school life – not a care or responsibility in the world.

Mike quickly ropes Fritz into his partying ways, and the next thing you know Fritz is bedding ladies left and right. But that’s nothing compared to what happens next. When the men start double dating, it’s clear they get along a LOT better with each other’s wives than their own. One thing leads to another and soon they’re……well, they’re dating each other’s wives!

If only that were the end of it. Each man then FALLS IN LOVE with the other’s wife and they realize that the only proper thing to do is to SWITCH LIVES. So Mike moves in with Marilyn and Fritz moves in with Susanne. They even switch KIDS!

Unfortunately (or fortunately), after awhile, Mike starts freaking out about Marilyn’s controlling ways. He can’t handle it anymore. The problem is, Fritz and Susanne have fallen deeply in love. So Mike wants to trade back but Fritz doesn’t. News of this scandal soon leaks to the media, and the next thing you know all of New York is talking about it. The guys will have to resolve the conflict themselves or the Yankees will resolve it for them.

Okay, let’s be real here. The only thing that works about “The Trade” is the title. It’s clever. It’s perfect for a poster. It works.

Everything else?

I don’t know where to begin with this one. This is a 5 minute conversation piece stretched out to 120 minutes. There just isn’t ANY meat to this story.

My biggest issue with The Trade are the stakes. There are NO stakes here. None. Zip. Zero. If you don’t have stakes, you don’t have comedy.

What do I mean by that? Well, in The Trade, neither character has a problem with their wife being with the other man. So there are no stakes there. Also, it doesn’t really matter whether they get caught. I suppose they’d have some explaining to do. But it’s not like they lose their job. It’s not like either of them loses their livliehoods. They simply get made fun for a couple of weeks. Big freaking deal. They’ll get over it.

In the end, the scandal does, in fact, get them traded. But never once is the possibility of that threat conveyed DURING the screenplay – only after the fact. You never get the feeling that if they get caught, something bad will happen. So there’s NOTHING there. The situations are the same over and over again and because we know the trade isn’t going to hurt anybody, there’s nothing to lose. And if there’s nothing to lose, there’s no humor.

Look at the simplicity of Mandel’s “The Soup Nazi” Seinfeld episode. He establishes at the beginning that this soup is like CRACK to the characters. The characters will do ANYTHING for this soup. To lose (stakes) this soup would be the equivalent of dying. THAT’S why the scenes are so funny! When the Soup Nazi screams at them to move, they do it! Because they know if they screw up, they could be kicked out and never allowed to have their soup again. Something is at stake! We never have a scene in The Trade where anything important can be lost (minus the very end – which I’ll get into in a moment).

Another issue here is that the current standard for media scandals is about 1 million times worse than 1970. We have R. Kelly peeing on underage women. We have history’s best golfer – one with a squeaky clean family image no less - having sex with an endless number of hookers. We have celebrities popping out sex tapes weekly. Two guys on a baseball team playing wife swap just doesn’t seem like a big deal.

When you combine this with an unclear tone and unclear writing, it’s hard to find anything to grab onto. For example, there’s a moment where we find out Marilyn wears a wig. When it’s off, her hair is described as thin and disgusting. So I’m imagining a Cryptkeeper look. Then later in the script, she decides to go to a party without her wig and all the guys go gaga over her. Umm….what??? You’re telling me that women rocking the Cryptkeeper is attractive??? There were a lot of unclear moments like this in the screenplay.

On top of all this, there’s no goal! There’s nothing driving the story forward! And there’s no time-frame, no urgency. I admit there are instances where you can get away with only the G and U in GSU, or the S and the G, and in the rarest of circumstances, just one of the three. At least if you have a GOAL for your characters, your characters will be active. But to try and write a story where you have none??? Not a single one? It’s like a blind man going bird-hunting. I don’t know how you make it work.

Can The Trade be salvaged? I don’t know. But I know the first thing I’d do on the rewrite is make this trade MATTER. Make sure there’s danger present and that the audience UNDERSTANDS that danger. In other words, make it clear that if they get caught, their lives would be destroyed, uprooted, ruined. Make playing for the Yankees a bigger deal for both of them as well – a dream! Now they have SOMETHING TO LOSE if they’re discovered. Raise the stakes of this movie and the movie improves dramatically. From there, try to add some sort of goal (maybe one of the players is trying to meet a huge contract bonus? And that bonus is threatened by the problems this trade is causing?). I don’t know. But something. ANYTHING.

I’ll admit that when I heard about this script, I thought to myself, “How do you make an entire movie out of such a thin premise?” But it was a Black List script so I assumed they’d figured it out. Man, I was wrong. I would love to see Matt and Ben back onscreen together again talking about “cahs” and “bahs.” But they’ll have to gut this thing and figure out a new angle first.

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

What I learned: The only portion of this script that works is the last 25 pages. Why? Because SOMETHING IS FINALLY AT STAKE! Fritz and Susanne have fallen in love. We FEEL that love. We know they want to be together. So when the media crashes down on them and Mike wants his wife back, we actually feel someone’s pain – Susanne – because SOMETHING IS AT STAKE. Somebody in the script ACTUALLY CARES ABOUT SOMETHING and that something could be ripped away from them. This is how powerful stakes are in a script. Show that somebody wants something badly and then introduce the possibility of that thing being taken away from them. Whether it be love, a job, or soup. As long as you have stakes, you’ll have drama.