Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Screenplay Review - Lamb Of God

Waiting for Roger to send me this review was like watching paint dry.  The great thing about me, though, is that I don't wait for paint to dry before painting again. So I was about to start writing a pretend review for a phantom script titled, "Oxley's Mittens."  It was going to be about this guy named Oxley who inadvertently purchased some magic mittens that allowed him to control the weather.  He then uses them to thrust Los Angeles into a deep set winter, effectively bringing the town, and the movie business, to a standstill.  Well, I'm glad Roger's e-mail finally showed up then.  Cause I did not know what happened after the midpoint in Oxley's Mittens.  Feel free to tell me in the comments section though.  Maybe we can all write a screenplay together!  In the meantime, here's Diablo Cody's directing debut. 

Genre: Dramedy
Premise: After surviving a plane crash, a young conservative woman suffers a crisis of faith and decides to go to Las Vegas to live the life of a sinner.
About: Diablo Cody’s directorial debut. Producers are Mason Novick and Mandate Pictures. Set to star Julianne Hough, Russell Brand, Octavia Spencer, Holly Hunter and Nick Offerman.
Writer: Diablo Cody
Details: 109 pages

Whenever I read a Diablo Cody script, I always get the sense that I’m reading a story that’s personal to her. And, perhaps that has a lot to do with the subject matter she chooses. Juno was about teen pregnancy and Young Adult was about growing up, but the themes ran deeper than that and thanks to the complex characterization, the stories struck heart chords. They were memorable and stuck with me. 

Yet, one foray down the rabbit hole into the comment sections of various blogs or sites that are part of the online scriptwriting community and you’ll discover that there’s a lot of resentment towards Cody. Haters gonna hate, I suppose, but I always left those threads with the taste of misogyny in my mouth (which is a taste that only twice-divorced men with serious vagina dentata issues can really relish). 

I never thought this may have been a big deal for her. After all, she’s busy working and making monies and interviewing Adam Brody in her Airstream trailer. But, then I listened to Marc Maron’s interview with her on his WTF podcast and she spends a good deal of time defending herself against the backlash of her success. It’s not like she makes bad movies, either. 

Although I’m not exactly a fan of Jennifer’s Body, (when compared to her other stuff), I am a fan of Amanda Seyfried putting her mouth on Megan Fox’s mouth. 

She was doing something right, and I’m not just talking about woman-on-woman action. Her voice was still there and even Maron will say someone has a voice when people try to imitate it. And, I’m sure many of us remember a time where every other script tried to replicate Cody’s gift for banter and “quirky” characters but all fell flat because they lacked soul (or basic grasp of storytelling fundamentals).

Fact is, Cody found a way to make screwball dialogue her own, and she knows how to write themes.
I may be wrong in saying this, but I get the sense Lamb of God is a story Cody has been carrying with her for a while and she’s been waiting for the right moment to tell it. It explores a surprisingly specific emotional period (religious detox) that will connect with anyone who was raised in a conservative church culture or who has seriously struggled with issues of faith and love. 

But, what’s it about, Rog?

This script caught my attention in an odd way. With the Michael W. Smith song, “Place in this World”. I never ever expected to read a Hollywood screenplay that references this Christian anthem, much less use it as a recurring theme. It conjured up memories of a youth group outing to Atlanta where I was forced to watch this guy perform and all I could think was, “This white guy really wants to be Michael Jackson”. Jars of Clay was also on the bill and my youth pastor did not appreciate my joke that their song “Flood” was really about how they made all the Christian girls moisten when they took the stage. 

We meet Lamb Mannerheim as she’s performing this song at an American Idol-style youth talent night at her church. She’s pretty in a wholesome way, but we realize this is just a video her conservative Christian parents are watching (and that her mom seems to be vicariously living through). Juxtaposed, present-day Lamb is lying in bed listening to her parents watch the video, which she is a bit annoyed by. It’s a startling parallel image, because the Lamb lying in bed is covered in burn scars. 

She immediately gets into an argument with her parents. She doesn’t like them watching the video, even so far as saying she hid it in her father’s guns safe so this wouldn’t happen again. You know you’re reading a Diablo Cody script when there are jokes about dogs. The mom delivers one such line when she says that the combo to the safe is the dog’s birthday. 

The attention to detail about her parents is accurately comical. The father has spiky hair and he’s wearing an Ed Hardy-esque tee, and if you’ve ever been inside a megachurch with your fashion blogger female friend you’ll hear rants about how pastors trying to be hip all style their hair and clothes the same way. Goatees and spiky hair and embroidered shirts. The mom substitutes swear words with religious replacements and if you think this is made up, it’s so not. Spend time sitting shotgun with some church bitch who has road rage and you’ll hear the Biblical evolution of cursing. Nothing more disturbing and hilarious when you hear a chick say, “God BLESS it” when they mean, “Motherfucker!” 

Anyways, we learn Lamb was in Bible College but isn’t so sure about going back although her mother wants her to. So, there’s that tension. It’s a transitional period for Lamb, so the story is starting out during a time of change as all good stories do. We also learn that she’s preparing to deliver a guest sermon at her family’s church that is led by Pastor Rick (Rick Warren?).

Her mom is excited because she’s trying to teach Lamb that she can make a change in a small way, like a fart that causes big ripples in bathwater. Another nice touch I liked was the church marquee sign displaying a corny Proverb, “Why tweet at Satan when you can follow Christ?” I’ve spent a lot of time driving in the Bible Belt taking mental photographs of these signs and sometimes it’s better than reading twitter. 

Before her sermon, we’re also treated to some borderline retarded comments about Catholics, which is a recurring topic and tone amongst Protestants. There’s also the cringe-inducing Christian rap performance. If I’m ever bored for entertainment on a Sunday morning and Tim & Eric isn’t on TV, I like to pick a church at random and hope to get there in time for one of the more topical dramas or musical performances that tries to be not of the world, yet totally influenced by the secular. 

Narratively, we’re well on our way when Lamb’s “sermon” ends up being an announcement that she’s atheist and that she may vote for Obama, which casts the church into chaos. Yep, to mainstream Christians, politics and religion are the same thing. It’s also an entertaining scene of exposition, where we learn that Lamb has survived a plane crash and we hear of her plan to go to Vegas and experience the pleasures of the sinful world, which she really knows nothing about because she’s been sheltered her whole life.

She’s able to afford this trip because of the insurance money from her crash. 

Does this religious detox work, Rog?

A lot of my most entertaining friends are people in their late teens or early 20s who have been homeschooled. The friendships are fantastic for both of us, because I get to teach them words like “queef” or show them movies that blow their minds, and they get to detox from their sheltered upbringing in a way. I have several friends like this who were not allowed to watch movies when they were growing up, like real life Paul Schraders. Imagine showing two brothers who grew up in Jesus Camp (where they were never even allowed to watch The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Pokemon because the “spirits might taint them”) the movie Splice and you get the idea. 

Which is why I laughed out loud when Lamb was watching Showgirls on her flight to Vegas, because she thought it would prepare her for the city, and her seatmate wakes up to a scene of violent pool sex and thinks she’s watching Species.

The rest of the script is kind of like a fish-out-of-water tale with Lamb in Las Vegas. It’s two different worlds colliding, and you know, it’s pretty funny, but humor and charm can only carry a story so far. Luckily, there’s a real emotional journey here.

Like Young Adult before it, this is a simple story with complex characters who have complicated backgrounds who are looking to compensate for their lacks. Lamb feels like she lacks a place in this world, so she sets out to experience the world. On her journey, which is always entertaining, she has a group of encounters that ultimately give her insight into her identity. 

The heart of the story is Lamb’s friendship with a washed-out bartender named William, who may or may not have been addicted to painkillers at one point. Which is ironic, because Lamb has to take painkillers because of her condition. So, there’s a lot of dramatic tension because we constantly if William is genuine with Lamb or if he’s just using her for pills.

The other cornerstone for William and Lamb is a black stripper named Loray, who is also a film student. She shares the audience’s reservations about William so a lot of our opinion of him comes from her perspective. She’s sort of Lamb’s guide to the real Las Vegas, and she shows her where the hidden beauty of the city that is underneath the tourist trap exterior of it all. To give away too much about these three characters would ruin the story, and I’m interested to see how Cody’s vision plays out on screen.

So, what sets it apart from other scripts that cover similar subject matter?

I’ve read a lot of scripts that satirize and mock religious culture in an attempt to both attack the church and make the story entertaining. I get the sense that there’s a lot of anger and frustration coming from the writers, but this approach always feels too easy because, ultimately, the characters are caricatures and nothing is being expressed but, “Hey, look at these stupid people! Aren’t they stupid?! Isn’t church and religion and faith stupid?!”

Lamb of God is different. It finds the funny in such an upbringing, it’s not mean-spirited about it. Which I think is brilliantly reflected in the way Lamb has dealt with an issue concerning her pastor: She has forgiven him. True forgiveness is something third-parties have trouble coming to grips with or don’t understand, and Lamb’s parents, ironically, don’t understand how Lamb can forgive so easily. Which is the Catch 22. Forgiveness is never easy; it just appears that way.

The characters are three-dimensional with real pain, real anger, real frustration, real loss, and they want nothing more than to come to terms with their beliefs and find their place in the world. Everyone in the script is coping in some way. Be it through substance abuse, twelve step programs, or humor. Defense mechanisms against life are on full display, and by the time you get to the end of Lamb’s anti-pilgrimage, she finds her identity, which gives her the strength and peace of mind that she’s been searching for. Lamb of God does something other scripts of its ilk fail to do, it says something about life and love and humanity and it all feels truthful.

This subject matter is often clumsily handled. Not here. Here it’s expertly handled. For that it gets an... 

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

What I learned: Here’s a quote to think about, “The story or the character who fascinates everyone is non-existent. The writer must pick a target audience and shoot for it – with a rifle, not a shotgun.” One of my mentors once described story not as a thing to be defined, but as something a writer DOES to a specific reader. A motivation, a stimulus a writer thrusts at his or her specific audience to thrust them into a whirlpool of emotion. I think, in online communities like this, it’s easy to fall into the pitfalls of group think. A beginning writer can save a lot of time if they accept that universality of appeal is a myth. The Avengers and Proust “seldom strike sparks in the same audience.” Themes may be universal because they are reflections about life and humanity, but the vehicles of plot and genre conventions are not universal. They appeal to specific fans of that type of story. Nothing is for everyone. Likewise, Lamb of God aims for a specific audience, and with them, it will be a success.