Monday, February 6, 2012

Screenplay Review: Bad Words

Today’s screenplay probably won’t win the Nicholl anytime soon, but it might just win your death from laughing so hard.

Genre: Comedy
Premise: An angry bitter 30-something finds a loophole in the National Spelling Bee rules which allows him to join the competition.
About: Bad Words made the 2011 Black List, finishing near the middle of the pack. This is Andrew Dodge’s breakthrough screenplay.
Writer: Andrew C. Dodge
Details: 106 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).

The Bad Trilogy. First, there was Bad Santa. Then…there was Bad Teacher. And now, the trilogy is complete with…………BAD WORDS! The baddest of all the baddery. And boy is this one bad. You thought Billy Bob Thorton was bad. You ain’t seen nothing yet. Buster.

I have no idea what your reaction is going to be to this script. Nobody agreed with me on He’s Fucking Perfect except for the funny people. This is way more extreme than that. It’s low-brow. It’s vulgar. It’s cruel. It’s anti-human. It’s basically one man telling everyone else to fuck off for 90 minutes. Oh, while spelling words in the meantime. If you are cynical, or if you’re one of those really nice people who secretly laughs at the less fortunate, you’ll love this.

Guy Duncan is a bitter dude. He’s one of those guys who thinks the world is after him – that everybody wants to take him down. So his plan is to take everybody down first. And right now, he’s set his sights on the 2012 Scripps National Spelling Bee. You see Guy found this loophole in the rules that states as long as you haven’t graduated 8th grade yet, you’re eligible for the Bee. And Guy never graduated 8th grade. He’s even got the documentation to prove it (how you get documentation to prove you *didn’t* graduate from somewhere is beyond me).

Try as they may, try as they might, the Bee organizers can’t find a way to legally keep Guy out of the competition. But they figure he won’t last long anyway so what’s the harm? I mean, he didn’t even graduate 8th grade. How good can he be?

V-E-R-Y G-O-O-D. Great even. Amazing.

One of the funnier earlier moments is watching the kids go through their time tested routines when given a word (“Could you give the country of origin please?” “Could you use the word in a sentence please?”) taking hours upon hours to get to the actual spelling of the word. Then Guy marches up, and before the judge can even finish the word, Guy spells it and trudges back to his chair.

The organizers quickly realize – they might be in trouble.

And that seems to be Guy’s focus – causing trouble. Except we’re not sure why. I mean, this guy has a huge chip on his shoulder for SOME reason. But we’re never given a C-L-U-E as to what it is.

Eventually, Guy meets Chaitanya, a weird clueless 12 year old Indian boy who’s a favorite in the competition but who’s so hopelessly awkward, he has no friends. He also has no social awareness whatsoever, so when he asks Guy if he wants to hang out and Guy tells him to fuck off, it doesn’t faze him. He just shrugs his shoulders, stands there for awhile, then changes the subject, asking him what his favorite color is or something.

At a certain point Guy realizes there’s no getting rid of Chaitanya, so he just starts hanging out with him. Chaitanya plays games by himself while Guy drinks all of Chaitanya’s booze from his mini-fridge. Little by little, though, Guy realizes that Chaitanya’s not too different from him. They’re both outsiders, misfits in their own way, so Guy, although he’d never admit it, actually starts to like the kid.

As you can probably guess (and if you can’t, you’ve never seen a movie before), Guy and Chaitanya end up battling it out for the final prize. What you won’t guess is how it goes down, as their spell-off transforms into one of the weirder showdowns ever.

I’ll give Bad Words this. The Spelling Bee is the perfect subject matter for a comedy. I don’t know why it hasn’t been done before. I mean – and I say this with all the love and respect in the world – these kids are so dorky! And dorkiness is comedy gold. Chaitanya is comedy gold. Who hasn’t met a kid just like him before?

But the thing that’s going to determine your love (or hate) for this script is if you like angry humor. If you like grown men sitting down next to fat 12 year old children and saying, “Christ. Would it kill you to lose some weight? I barely have any room here,” you’re going to love this. And I admit – I hate to say it – but I laughed. At that and a lot more of these transactions.

The thing is, a couple of months back, we reviewed an amateur script titled "Mrs. Satan," where the main character, a girl, was kind of a bitch. And the argument in the comments section was that she wasn’t likable enough for us to root for. The writer pointed out that movies like Bad Santa had asshole main characters that worked. Why couldn’t he do the same?

Eventually someone made a great point. He said, the reason Bad Santa worked was because of the irony. Santa isn’t supposed to be bad. That’s what makes it so funny. Same thing with Bad Teacher. A teacher isn’t supposed to be a bitch. She’s supposed to be helpful!

The irony in Bad Words isn’t as obvious, but there is some irony in a grown man competing in a children’s competition. So even though the guy’s a big jerk, the irony of the situation has you giggling despite yourself.

What you also want to take away from Bad Words is that most beginner writers come up with funny ideas, yet by page 20, they run out of story. They’ve used up all their funny “grown man in a spelling bee” jokes. So what are you left with? The way to extend any idea out to feature length is via relationships.

So Dodge wisely brings in Chaitanya and that friendship is what moves the story through its second act. If you’re not building compelling relationships, you don’t have a second act. Exploring those and resolving those is what writing screenplays is all about.

Now was that enough to save Bad Words? Well, I’m not sure. It still felt a little thin to me. Maybe that single relationship wasn’t enough. Maybe Dodge needed another one. He tried to create one with Guy and his assistant/journalist, Jenny, but that character was so weak, I’d forget about her the second she wasn’t in a scene. I’m not sure her inclusion even makes sense.

I wouldn’t have minded a more extensive exploration of Chaitnaya and his father, as there seemed to be some real meat to that relationship there. However, maybe Dodge didn’t want to go that deep.

But you know what? As it stands, Bad Words is still pretty good. I mean, I laughed out loud at least a dozen times, which is a very good sign for a comedy. You rarely laugh if you don’t care about what’s going on. So I’m going to give this a “worth the read.” It ain’t going to change the world, but it might entertain it a little.

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

What I learned: Be careful about shrouding your character’s main motivation in mystery. Audiences become frustrated when they don’t know why their hero is doing what he’s doing. For example here, we have no idea why Guy wants to win this contest. You can make the argument that this causes curiosity, which entices the reader to keep reading. But most of the time, it just causes frustration. We want to know: “Why the hell is he doing this???” I mean, isn’t that what movies are about? People going after things that are important to them? If we don’t know why they’re going after them in the first place, we’re missing a key component to enjoying the movie. I’m not saying this approach NEVER works. I’m sure a few of you can point out examples where it does. I’m just saying be careful if you use it because it’s really hard to pull off.