Thursday, September 17, 2009

Extract - Show Me The Funny!

So, I’m a big fan of OFFICE SPACE and was one of the five people in America to buy a ticket for IDIOCRACY, and was really looking forward to seeing Mike Judge’s new film EXTRACT. Though they keep cycling through “interested stars” for my Top Secret Remake Project, the most recent name the producer said was Jason Bateman. Of course, Bateman would be the fourth or fifth star that cycled through the project - we started with Paul Rudd - and Bateman may have “cycled out” by now. But, I am suddenly Bateman’s biggest fan... well, I was actually a fan before. And Mila Kunis was just great in FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL, so this should be pretty good, right?
Well, I was also disappointed. Mildly amusing, but not *funny*.

It was an amusing story and had amusing situations and characters that should have been funny, but it seemed like someone went through the script just before shooting and cut out all of the punchlines and gags and anything else that might make you actually laugh. I know they do this with *my* scripts, but who the heck would do it to Mike Judge? The film made me smile, but I don't think I had a real laugh the entire time, except for when Ben Affleck was on screen.

I haven't read the script, but I wondered how the heck it got this far? Okay, people really like Mike Judge and want to work with him... but shouldn't someone have noticed the lack of, you know, funny stuff in the script? A comedy needs to be funny. When you see a comedy film in a cinema, with a bunch of people who are *not* laughing, something is wrong! My Friday Night Film Guys group was not laughing, and neither were the people sitting around us. In the cinema parking lot we all talked about how it just wasn't very funny... all of us were disappointed. We like Mike Judge. We want his films to be hits. But to do that, they have to be... funnier.

Movie opens with hot&cute Cindy (Kunis) the center of a salesman battle at a guitar store - every other customer in the place is being ignored so that these two guys can show her the most expensive electric guitar they sell. When she figures out some lame reason for them to go to the backroom at the same time, she splits with the guitar... selling it at a pawn shop for more than the going rate.

Bateman plays Joel, the owner of a factory that bottles extracts (like vanilla) used in cooking. He’s about to make it big, because his 2nd in command (J.K. Simmons - way too good for this nothing role) tells him that General Mills is interested in buying them for a huge chunk of money. Now, I realize that this is a comedy (or supposed to be), but this factory is filled with misfit idiots who would be fired from any actual factory - and end up making blue collar workers look like idiots.

Why is it that people who work for a living are always shown as being dumbshits in films? It’s bad enough that movies never actually show people who work for a living on film, movie characters always seems to be employed by big companies in new buildings where their job is to breeze through an office every once in a while and make that critical presentation the day after the wake up a member of the opposite sex after some magical thing happens. We never see people in manufacturing in films, we never see people who do construction or dig ditches or do anything that looks like actual work. I suspect this is because many of the folks in development have only worked in offices, and don’t even understand the concept of manual labor.

That’s the first thing that goes in most of my scripts - my working class heroes suddenly end up with an office job. And that reason they like to use - the audience doesn’t want to see people working in a warehouse, it’s not interesting - is BS. Where did Tom Hanks and John Candy work in SPLASH? But, in EXTRACT we get blue collar workers... who are complete idiots. Caricatures but not characters... and not funny. We have the swaggering Step (Clifton Collins), the two old bats who do nothing but gossip, the awful forklift driver who is in a band, and the Mexican guy who everyone thinks is stealing their stuff. Why couldn’t these characters be *competent* and funny? You know, I would have settled for just funny - but it’s like, once the exaggerated characters were created, Judge stopped there. No funny lines.

The sale to General Mills hits a snag when a chain reaction accident causes Step's testicles to be blasted off his body. Well, the reattach one of them. This sets off another chain reaction of incidents, that has Cindy take a job at the plant in order to get info on Step so that she encourage him to sue the company for millions (and then she will split with the cash) and Joel realizes his wife (Kristen Wiig) is probably never going to sleep with him again, so he decides to have an affair with Cindy... but when he drunkenly tells his stoner bar tender buddy Dean (Ben Affleck, who completely steals this movie just through his performance) that it would be easier for him to sleep with Cindy if he discovered that his wife was also having and affair, Dean comes up with a plan... They hire an idiot named Brad who thinks he's a gigolo (Dustin Milligan) to pretend to be a pool boy and seduce his wife.

Nice plan, but it backfires big time. Cindy hooks up with Step (who literally has no balls) instead of Joel (who just figuratively has no balls) - and gets Step to hire an obnoxious lawyer played by Gene Simmons (more Hollywood nepotism - both J.K. *and* Gene!) and sue Joel’s company for everything. And Brad the fake pool boy hooks up with Joel’s wife, having constant wild monkey sex with her all afternoon and then wants to be paid extra. The pool boy thing is one of the situations that seems to work even after being stripped of all of its jokes. You don’t laugh outloud, but it’s amusing enough to keep you interested. Most of the movie is just not amusing enough. You can see that the story seems like a comedy movie story - it's got some crazy loopy thing happening and all kinds of potentially funny situations... they just forgot to add the funny. It's as if they removed all of the jokes.

And, by "jokes" I don't mean some Henny Youngman joke. I mean anything funny. Clever lines, wordplay, comic misunderstandings, prat-falls, visual humor, etc. Funny stuff of any kind. The situations are there, but the funny stuff is not there.

I have read some scripts that were clever and funny in *description*, but nothing funny was in the part that showed up on screen (dialogue and actions). Writers who were tap-dancing. Funny prose writing, but not funny *screenwriting*. A screenplay is a sperm. It’s entire purpose is to swim upstream and fertilize an egg and become a movie. Yeah, scripts can also land you an assignment, but again - that assignment script is all about becoming a movie. So *anything* that gets in the way of that happening is making your script worthless and pointless and just a wank. There are a lot of wanker-writers who spill all of their jokes on the description and none of them make it to the screen. I’m over in the action & thriller world, and the same thing happens there - writers who leave the suspense on the page, or take that big moment... and leave it in the description. It’s in the prose, but not in the *action* or in the *dialogue*. It never makes it off the page!

I would think that if that were the case here, someone would have caught it before they gave Judge the check to make the movie. I'm sure Devos do what I do - and read past the tap dancing to see what makes it to the screen. Did you ever have that old game version of the TV show PASSWORD? They had these little envelopes with red tinted windows that you put the clue cards in. The clues were written in blue ink, the answers in red ink. So you could easily read the clues through the red window, but the answers were completely invisible. Well, I have one of those red windows when I read a screenplay. I see what can be put on screen and ignore the clever tap-dancing that some writer thinks will fool me. I know when I start to read a script filled with obvious tap-dancing, I raise the deflector shields and use my red filters to see what's gonna stick to the screen. At the end of the day, that's all that matters.

I think it’s strange that screenplays seem to be evolving from, well, screenplays, into something with writing that often more closely resembles a novel. All of the obvious tap dancing that would have shot down a screenplay when I started writing is now *expected*... even though it doesn’t stick to the screen, and forces readers to use those deflector shields and red filters to weed out the crap when they are reading the script. That must be a pile of work! I realize all of that tap-dancing is probably amusing to read, but a screenplay is a sperm - it’s job isn’t to amuse a reader, it’s to make a movie. If all of the funny stuff is just wank, the script may be a great funny read but a bland crappy movie. The only think that matters is what sticks to the screen.

Was the script to EXTRACT as blah as the movie, or filled with tap-dancing? Were there gags and jokes and humor that wasn’t just wank, but something that would make it all the way to the screen? Hard to imagine Judge The Director cutting out all of the jokes from Judge The Writer.

I felt the same way about IDIOCRACY - amusing situations, but a lack of actual laughs. Again, it seemed like they hired the joke removal service they use on all of my scripts. I'm a big fan of OFFICE SPACE, though, and even though that film was low-key, it had enough actual laughs to make it funny. That film had a bunch of funny situations and funny characters and funny gags - do you know how I often I use the term “flare”? I laughed outloud a bunch of times in OFFICE SPACE... which I did not do in EXTRACT. So, has Judge lost it? And who though a comedy without any really funny stuff was the script they should make?

I *did* laugh at Ben Affleck - who completely steals the movie. Someone should write another shallow stupid character like this for him to play - he's great at it. And the dopey pool boy guy committed to his role as if he were playing Hamlet - when he realizes he’s in love with Joel’s wife, it’s a great bit of cringe-comedy. But those are a couple of scenes in a 90 minute film. The rest is mildly amusing. You know, ADVENTURELAND had more laugh outloud moments... and it was a coming of age drama! By the way, Mike Judge the Director should have fired Mike Judge the Actor for giving a completely crappy performance - it’s strange enough that in all of the scenes where they introduce the crew, he’s never shown, and then suddenly becomes this critical character in the last half of the film, but he’s so over-the-top you cringe. Not comedy cringe, this-is-really-bad cringe.

What should have been a funny movie ends up mildly amusing. It will probably play much better on DVD because you can do something else while the movie is playing and if you only half-pay attention to it, it will seem more entertaining. In the cinema it just seemed bland most of the time. So, where did all of the funny stuff go?

Funny stuff - you really need it if you are writing a comedy.

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- Bill

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Theme and the point of your script - and WOLVERINE and X-MEN 3.
Yesterday's Dinner: Subway Ham & Swiss.
Bicycle: Just over to Coldwater and a Starbucks where nobody know my name.
Pages: Um, do these count? Well, not in my book. Nothing on 2ND SON.

SCRIPT SECRETS: LONDON - October 10 & 11, 2009 - BIG IDEA class, using GHOST as our primary example and it includes the new Thematic element!


Adrian said...


If you want to take a look at the script it's here, along with a review.

Überpossum said...

I haven't read Extract but I agree you you about the evolution of scripts. These days it seems to be all about *voice* and *a good read*.

No one is worried about the end product as long as it looks good on the page. It's style over substance. Heaven forbid that you break up the flow with some detail that'll make the movie stronger. We have to look good for the other writers out there.

Christina said...

I read one of the early drafts of The Hangover. Oh my, it was LOL funny. UNLIKE what you're describing here. I read it months before the movie was released - a lot changed between the draft I read and what ended up on screen. Still, as I was reading, I was thinking: this is major hit. So funny. And what they changed just made it funnier. We could all take lessons from that movie: great premise filled in with well developed characters.

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