Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Screenplay Review - Leaving Pete

Genre: Comedy/Romantic Comedy
Premise: After his wife leaves him, good guy Paul is horrified to learn she's written a book about how to leave your loser husband.  It gets really bad, however, when the book hits number 1 on the bestseller list.  
About: This script finished on the bottom half of last year's Black List.  Ali Waller was a writer on The Jimmy Fallon show.  Morgan Murphy was a writer on Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, and wrote a couple of episodes of Two Broke Girls, which (and I'm making a bit of a leap here) might have been based on the life of these two??
Writer: Morgan Murphy and Ali Waller
Details: 103 pages

Jay Baruchel for Paul?

It's hard, because of what I do, not to know at least something about the script I'm reading.  But every once in awhile I open a screenplay where I literally know nothing about it, such as today.  The only thing I have to go on with Leaving Pete is the title.  Who's Pete?  Why is someone leaving him?  I sorta wanna know.  So crack open a can of Blood Orange San Pelligrino and join me.  Let's find out if this Pete character deserves getting left.

Paul is a typical nerdy adorable rom-com protagonist.  In fact, Paul is an appropriate name, as I'm pretty sure the writers were thinking of Paul Rudd.  And if you're worried about the hero being yet another lovable loser...well, be worried.  Cause he is.  BUT, the writers seem to know that this is a problem for certain readers, and have made Paul a little more active and take-charge than your typical loser-ish Seth Rogan-type. Paul is writing a book (about an obscure Civil War hero) and wants to do good in the world.  He's just...a little slow.  But hey, aren't we all slow?  Don't we all finish drafts a little later than we mean to?

Paul's idea of fun is hanging out with his pals Murph (think a younger Jack Black) and Dean (think a younger Jason Bateman).  Murph's the kind of guy who hits on every girl, gets turned down every time, but doesn't give a shit.  Dean's the kind of guy who's married, lives vicariously through his single friends, and does give a shit.  The three spend their guy's night out every week at a bar playing a cheesy Bar Quiz game where the winner gets a free pitcher of beer.  Not exactly a giant stuffed bear (now THAT'S a prize) but each wackily-named team (Murph came up with their name: "Taking Care Of Quizness.") takes it very seriously.

It's on one of these nights that we learn Paul's been riding solo since his wife, Jane, left his ass.  As far as Dean and Murph are concerned, that's good news.  Cause Jane was a bit of a bitch.  Without the "bit of a" part.  Naturally, then, they're skeptical when they hear Paul's meeting her for lunch tomorrow.  Paul's still in that delusional state we've all been in where he thinks he's over his ex yet secretly hopes she's meeting him to get back together.

Which, of course, is not even close to reality.  Jane actually shows up with a lawyer, who's there to inform Paul that Jane's written a book about leaving losers, based on him, titled "Leaving Pete."  Guess that rules out a sympathy screw.

But it gets worse.  The book becomes a smash-hit!  Like Da Vinci Code sales.  Without the boring movie adaptation.  Pretty soon Jane is on Oprah touting her catch phrase ("Go it alone") and every woman out there is making sure their man isn't a "Pete" (a "Paul"), someone who's lazy and clips their woman's wings.  Of course, Paul wasn't any of these things.  He was nice and sweet and super-supportive of Jane, so he has no idea where any of this is coming from.  In the meantime, Paul's inadvertently become the poster child for "Men you shouldn't be with."

Even retreating into his man cave for months does't work (this is us guys' GO-TO MOVE when we encounter trouble - retreat to the man cave for two months.  It's where problems magically disappear!).  Except books that sweep the nation never disappear.  This is one virus Paul can't wait out.

But then salvation arrives in the form of Abby, a beautiful barroom quiz nut who answers those pitcher-chasing questions faster than Paul can process them.  Paul's wowed by her intelligence and after that night's game, the two are off to Umani Burger to have the time of their lives (okay, they don't go to Umani Burger.  That's where I'd go with a girl for the time of my life.  But you get the idea).

Everything's going swimmingly, in fact, until Paul learns that Abby, gasp, works as an assistant at the publishing company that publishes Jane's book!  Luckily for him, she hasn't read it yet (she assumes it's trash).  Still, Paul's the most popular anonymous book character in the world, and everywhere they go, it seems like he's one slip-up away from Abby finding out his not-so-secret persona.

Obviously, the longer this secret goes on, the more precarious Paul's situation gets.  There's that delicate point in a relationship where you can't disclose certain secrets afterwards less you want to be lynched by your significant other.  Paul crosses that line ten times over.  And since this is a movie, we know it's going to blow up in his face.  Which is where all the fun is...for us at least!

Finally!  A good script!  Finally!  Good writing!  This was mostly great.  Not only are these writers hilarious, but they nail the beats every romantic comedy must have.  First, the characters have to be likable.  I dare you not to like Paul, Murph, Dean, or Abby.  It's impossible not to like someone who gets screwed over by a bitch.  It's impossible not to like the most supportive friends ever.  And it's hard not to like a girl who falls in love with our hero, warts and all.

Next, the dialogue here is great/hilarious.  This is a MUST for any comedy/romantic comedy writer, and it's where talent comes into play most as a screenwriter.  Any writer can learn structure and conflict and character construction with time and determination.  But only those special few can consistently write funny dialogue.  Some of the most painful scripts to read are comedy scripts where the writer can't write anything beyond average dialogue.  And believe it or not, that's about 90% of the comedy scripts I read!

These girls, however, tear it up.   Here's an early sequence where the friends are playing the "Celebrity Jeopardy"-like bar quiz game in which Paul is his team's only chance at winning. HOST: "Next question.: Uxoricide is the killing of one's what?" Paul's stumped. DEAN: "Why aren't you buzzing?  You're supposed to be buzzing." PAUL: "I don't know this one." MURPH: "OH, COME ON!" Becca N Friendz buzzes in. BECCA: "Uxor?" HOST: "No it is not the killing of one's uxor, but Becca, I would love to know what you think an uxor is." Becca looks disappointed.  She thought she had that.

MURPH: "We can figure this out.  Uxor sounds like Luxor, we stayed at the Luxor in Vegas last year...(suddenly excited)...remember that waitress who was into me?!" PAUL/DEAN: "No." Terry (the annoying player who always wins) buzzes. TERRY: "Wife.  It's the killing of one's wife."  HOST: "Correct."  Unphased by his victory, Terry casually takes a sip of beer.

Later in the scene -- MURPH: "THAT'S what your book was about?  Why don't you write something commercial like a zombie soap opera?"  PAUL: "Because I'd hate myself." MURPH: "You already hate yourself." PAUL: "By the way, I started writing again." DEAN: "Wow. That's great, man." PAUL: "I feel good about it.  I think I'm in a good place.  I'm finally over Jane.  Last week I even went to the gym." DEAN: "You went to the gym?" PAUL: "I walked past the gym. I saw a guy on the treadmill in the window.  He smiled.  I smiled back...the wheels are in motion."  DEAN: "It's nice to see you happy again." PAUL: "Thanks." MURPH: "You only sucked for a year." DEAN: "Give him a break. Divorce is hard. I read an article once that break-ups are more painful for people than a death in the family."  PAUL: "Yeah, cuz when your mom dies you don't  imagine her fucking all your friends."

And it goes on like this.  The dialogue between the characters is always lively and entertaining.  And it looks so damn easy when someone does it right, even though it's so damn hard!  I envy writers who are able to pull this off.

But the script's real power comes from its...big screenplay term here: DRAMATIC IRONY. That's right.  Weeee know something a key character does not.  We know that Paul is lying to Abby, which means every single scene where Paul and Abby are together contains a secret.  And when you have a secret like that, it creates subtext, which makes all of the scenes waaaaay more interesting.

For example, when Paul and Abby are going to Dean's place for a couple's dinner, we know that one slip-up could lead to Abby finding out who Paul is.  Mundane conversations become suspenseful and terrifying.  If Dean's wife accidentally says the wrong thing, Paul's secret is out, and he's lost the love of his life forever.  That's how to make scenes come alive!

Finally, there just wasn't any fat here.  The script comes in at a lean 100 pages, which is exactly where this genre should be, and that's an indictor that these writers know what they're doing.  I see too many comedy (or romantic comedy) scripts coming in at 115-120 pages, with writers swearing they need every cubic square inch of those pages, and there being 8-10 scenes that could be cut instantly.  Not the case here.  Every scene pushes the story forward.  Nothing is included that doesn't need to be included.  This skill is one of the easiest ways to identify a pro writer.  Amateur writers always include stuff they shouldn't (so remember guys - ONLY write scenes that PUSH THE STORY FORWARD!!!).

So as far as I'm concerned, Leaving Pete leaves the Scriptshadow arena a winner.  ALMOST got an impressive.  Thank you for finally giving me a good screenplay to read Screenwriting Gods!

[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] not for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I Learned: Substitute an inevitable disaster for a goal.  I talk about goals all the time on this site.  If you give your main character a goal, we'll want to stick around to see if he/she achieves it or not.  But lots of romantic comedies don't have goals.  Which means you need to substitute something to keep us interested - to keep us turning the pages.  A great alternative, then, is to create an inevitable disaster, usually brought on by a secret one character is keeping from another.  Our need to see what happens when that secret is revealed will work, in a lot of ways, like a goal.  We HAVE to be there when that happens, and therefore, we HAVE to keep reading your screenplay!

What I Learned 2: Subliminal naming!  In a comedy, it might be a good idea to name your character after the name of the actor you want to play the part (just the first name, not last).  Subliminally, this will make the writer think of that actor, which definitely helps the read (it's easier to imagine lines coming out of a specific actor's mouth, since every actor has their own unique voice).  I would only do this in comedies though.