Monday, January 30, 2012

Screenplay Review - Jeff, Who Lives At Home

The screenwriting duo that is The Duplass Brothers follow up Cyrus with their new screenplay about fate.

Genre: Drama-Comedy-Indie
Premise: A thirty-something man who still lives at home unexpectedly bonds with his brother when the two try and find out if his brother’s wife is cheating on him.
About: “Jeff, Who Lives At Home,” is coming to theaters soon. It stars Jason Siegel, Ed Helms, and Susan Sarandon. The screenplay is written by writer-directors Mark and Jay Duplass. Their previous films include Cyrus, Baghead, and The Puffy Chair.
Writers: Mark and Jay Duplass
Details: 87 pages – June 1, 2009 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).

Some people blame the Duplass Brothers for pioneering the horror that is Mumblecore. You know what I’m talking about. Those movies shot on video with available lighting and a handheld camera and characters who improvise. It's not that the movies are bad so much as they’re terrible. I mean, you’re not supposed to want to throw your TV out the window during a movie, right?

My problem with the Duplass Brothers is that they have a tendency to back away from the moments that define a movie. For example, in Cyrus, I kept waiting for something interesting to happen with Cyrus but it never did. Cyrus was only *sort of* psycho, so you always felt safe, like our hero was going to be okay in the end. And was that movie a comedy? I’m still not sure.

However, I’ll always give the brothers a shot for one reason: Baghead. Baghead was one of the weirder movies I've seen. It’s about these four people who head up to a cabin in the middle of the woods and start getting stalked by a man with a bag on his head (we’re unsure, of course, whether the stalker is one of them or someone else). It walks this unpredictable line between humor and horror that I’ve never seen baked up that way before. It's a film you should check out if you have the chance. But be prepared for something really different or you’ll leave disappointed.

That brings us to “Jeff, Who Lives At Home,” about a guy named Jeff (Jason Siegel) who, well, lives at home. While we’re not clear WHY Jeff lives at home, the implication is that some traumatizing event happened to him as a child which never allowed him to grow up.

When we meet Jeff, he’s sitting around, thinking about how the movie Signs is the best movie ever, mainly because it was about fate and how we all have a purpose. So Jeff starts thinking, what's his purpose? What signs are out there to guide him through his life?

Right at that moment, Jeff gets a call from someone asking for “Kevin.” There’s no one named Kevin who lives there, but Jeff thinks this is a sign, and rearranges the letters in the name “Kevin” to come up with “knive.” He then goes and checks the silverware drawer, grabs a knife, and finds the word "Delta” carved on the handle. Cut to Kevin in his closet where he finds a group of Delta Airlines playing cards. He throws them against the wall (no, I'm not kidding) and the only card that is face up is the ace of hearts. This is the end of the sequence.

Naturally, at this point, I was thinking about peeling the skin off my body with a potato peeler. But I forced myself to press on. Jeff then goes to pick up something for his mother but since he can't drive, he takes the bus. On the bus he spots an African-American kid about 18 years old who’s wearing a jacket with the name "Kevin" on his back.

So he follows him to a basketball pickup game and ends up somehow playing. It turns out Jeff’s really awesome at basketball (even though this has nothing to do with the story at all). Afterwards, he and Kevin become quick friends until Kevin robs him. Friendship over.

At this point I was getting so angry at the pointlessness of the story that I wanted to pillage my neighbor’s basement. But I soldiered on. Eventually, Jeff runs into his brother who he has an even worse relationship with than Snooki and The Situation (sorry, I had to get a Jersey Shore reference in there). He and his brother become convinced that his brother's wife is cheating on him. So they decide to follow her around.

During this time, Jeff shares his new revelation about fate with his brother, who thinks his theories are insane. We’re also intercutting with their mother, who spends the movie in a cubicle at her office, and finds herself the recipient of a secret IM’ing admirer.

Eventually, the three of them come together in the end and encounter an unexpected event that may or may not prove Jeff’s theory about fate.

 Jeff, at home.

Where to begin here. The first 25 pages of this script where almost unreadable. I don't like scripts where no story emerges within the first 25 pages (I don’t like scripts where no story emerges within the first 10 pages!). I want to know where my story is going. We don't get a whiff of that here so Carson not happy.

But when Jeff's brother enters the equation, the script takes a turn for the better. Maybe it's because we were thankful that at least SOME purpose had entered the story, but I thought the conflict between the brothers was actually pretty authentic. As soon as you present a relationship that needs to be repaired to an audience, the obvious response is going to be wanting to see if that relationship can be repaired (which means - most importantly - we want to keep watching!).

As for the cheating stuff…I don’t know. Here was my problem with it. We only get one scene with the brother and his wife that establishes their relationship. And neither of them seemed to like each other. So when the brother becomes devastated by his wife’s cheating, I’m not sure we buy into it. I mean, I barely know these people. Why do I care if his wife is cheating on him?

That’s the problem with an 87 page screenplay. You don’t have enough time to establish the relationship to the point where we care what’s happening with it. And it doesn’t help that you spent the first 30 pages of your script with one of your characters throwing cards at a wall.

I also felt the subplot with the mom was too thin. It basically entailed a secret admirer IM’ing her from inside the office all day. It’s a nice little surprise when we find out who the person is, but the storyline itself was so lightweight that it felt like padding to get the script up to feature length.

The script’s shining light is probably its ending. I like indie movies that go big with their endings and the climax here definitely has some weight to it. I just wish there was more of that weight throughout the rest of the script.

[ ] Wait for the rewrite
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Flesh out your subplots. Thin subplots feel empty and pointless. To combat this, try to add as much detail and thought to your subplots as you do your main plot. The mother’s storyline here amounts to a woman at a cubicle receiving IMs. I don’t know what the mother does. I don’t know what her company does. It seems like there’s nothing for her to do all day other than answer IMs. That’s not how the real world works (well, for most of us anyway). Build up the details of your subplot world. Give her company a purpose. Maybe she’s a debt collector (would explain why she’s angry all the time). Or maybe she’s a customer support person (again, would explain why she’s so angry – she gets yelled at all day!). Have her boss demand that something be done by the end of day. Now those IMs are interrupting all the calls coming in AS WELL AS a deadline. It’s much more compelling to watch a character make a tough choice (do I answer this IM or keep working?) than freely answer IMs to her heart’s content. Flesh out those subplots people. Add details. Add reality. Or else your subplot is nothing more than a boring distraction.