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Despite moments that will light you fiercely from within, “Elizabethtown” finds Crowe trolling in weirdly well-trod territory.

Drew Baylor is having a career crisis most of us could not even have a nightmare about: at only twenty-seven years old he is seeing his life’s work go down in flames. The sneakers he designed for the megacompany he’s employed by, which he’s worked on for eight years, have been recalled, and this disaster will cost the business one billion dollars. The weight of the failure will be Drew’s boulder to pull (he alone is taking the hit for the company), and when he leaves work that day, fired and ruined, even his in-office girlfriend dumping him, he has only one thought: suicide. The thought is a freeing one. After ridding himself of his possessions (TV, DVD player, etc.), he rigs his long-dormant stationary bike with a Ginzu knife: technological hari-kari.

A phone call stops the deed, and the news gets even worse: his father, who was visiting relatives in Kentucky, is dead. Since his mother doesn’t like the people there and his sister has a kid, it is Drew’s job to go there and get his father’s remains. He meets a flight attendant on his way over, an attractive woman named Claire, and her insistent good nature and bonhomie cut through his depression enough for her to glimpse inside him, and make her fall just a little bit in love. They soon separate and he’s in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, and he wakes up to a new reality: an alien landscape that he doesn’t recognize, though his genes are in abundant supply: this is a world his father existed in that he knows nothing about.

Drew gets caught up in their chaos, soon retouches with Claire, and swims upstream against the tide of issues: whether to cremate his father like his mother wants or to bury him in his family plot like his friends want; figure out who his father really was, in the eyes of these people he does not know; navigate the loud, unfamiliar-to-him surroundings, fall into their zeal, without going insane; and connecting with Claire, who’s elusive yet chronically revealing.

Buried in Crowe’s overstuffed-though-underwhelming script is a great, touching, affable, funny, emotionally satisfying romance. But around that, like mold, you’ll find a lot of extraneous material that simply takes you nowhere.

I think what Crowe is saying with this script is that our current big-city, corporate society and workforce is distancing us more and more each day, and that in life you really need to stop worrying, you really need to take risks if you want to find happiness, and you better embrace the vicissitudes and lack of order that comes with our existence. These aren’t exactly new or exciting ideas. And Drew’s stay in Kentucky feels like Crowe’s journal entries (he has family there) — the observations about food and culture, which he appears to find fascinating, never really rise above their seemingly autobiographical trappings. The significance of it all remains unreachable for us because we do not have Crowe’s familial bonds. The characters in Kentucky aren’t cliche, exactly, but only because they’re not really deep enough for that. Drew’s cousin Jessie has a kid he can’t keep a handle on, and it’s clear that Jessie is a kid with a kid. And even though that’s of puddle-depth, psychologically speaking, I think Jessie is probably the Elizabethtown resident you get to know the best. Drew’s father had a lot of friends and family, and while Crowe adores showing us how they live there, he’s not very interested in letting us know who they are. He loves them too much to turn them into backward buffoons. But even that, at least, would have shown some sign of a pulse. And where, exactly, among all this gazing-into-the-past, elegiac eulogizing, is the exploration of how Drew felt about his fatherr

Crowe writes Drew’s mom, Hollie, as the most high-strung woman on the face of the planet. She fences with her grief by embracing things she always wanted to do but didn’t. Cooking, dancing, comedy, etc. Hollie’s character is so over the top and hysteria-shaken that I couldn’t help but think of Jessica Walter in “Arrested Development.” She shows back up in Elizabethtown to confront the people who accused her of stealing Drew’s father away from them. She gets onstage and does a comedy act. Its meaning seems to be “live life day by day and have fun.” Crowe has as much contempt for these city characters as he has reverence for the country people. He wouldn’t satirize them, but he does just that to the mother and sister — satirizes them right into cartoonishness.

Cut away all that fat, and you have an amazing connection between Drew and Claire. This muted, glorious replication of reality, where you feel that enchanting magnetic pull between two people. There’s a scene, one of the best I’ve ever read, where they’re talking on the phone all night (after seeing a wedding party Drew feels utterly lonely and calls her out of desperation) about every conceivable topic and they keep saying “Well, I’ll let you go,” and then something new comes up and they can’t stop and they’re doing laundry while they talk and clandestinely going to the bathroom and wandering around, the phone pressed to their ears so long they start to hurt. And the whole experience is bright surprises. You fall into this comfortable embrace. You found someone, you’re shocked to realize, that thinks just like you. Has the same sense of humor. And this person is really a stranger. But you can’t stop yourself from disclosing everything there is about you. Crowe handles this scene like a poet. I felt like he plucked it straight out of my memories. It’s something we’ve all experienced — not just the phone call and not just the conversation, but that click of something that feels right — and that’s what Crowe does so well: he gives us that starry, cute, Hollywood romance stuff, but in a way that is so true and honest, so attuned to his characters and to the small details of reality, that we’re instantly involved in something that feels intimate and genuine.

Crowe made me fall in love with Drew and Claire (not necessarily individually, but together), but even they don’t fully escape some dents. Claire is clearly Penny Lane (Kate Hudson’s character from “Almost Famous”) all over again. That spunky spirit whose unending optimism can tunnel through anything. The relationship between Drew and Claire is essentially the same one between William and Penny in “Almost Famous,” only this time it’s the girl who wants the boy. And once again we find a free-spirited girl unlocking the soul of a careful, plan-carrying male (which seems to be the grid for every romantic comedy these days). In the end, though you want them to be together and they’ve charmed you, you can’t help feeling that Drew and Claire are really Crowe remaking “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” The complexity of their relationship is really no deeper than that.

“Elizabethtown” is a script about a guy whose life is shattered and who leaves the hermetic box of his life to see that there is more to the world than he knew. Along the way he meets a woman who changes his life forever. And while it’s all hokey and Hollywood-happy-ending sappy, it has the warmth and familiarity of a hug. Which makes Drew’s time in Kentucky all the more tragically meaningless. Crowe wanted to tell the tale of a handful of interesting people. He didn’t quite get there. Drew and Claire make your inner cynic wither and die, but around them you’ll find what feels like bad studio comedy fare: unfunny jokes and gags that give the script an overburdened, messy feel.

Kirsten Dunst and Orlando Bloom have been cast in the leads. If Crowe is able to slim this thing down, and make it less about Kentucky culture and more about humans sparking, maybe, as with “Say Anything” (which this resembles in small ways), he’ll have something that will make moviegoers remember his characters not just on the drive home from the film, but for the rest of their lives. Maybe. This script is dated March of 2003. The film will be released sometime in 2005.

Rating: B

20 Questions Interview: Screenwriter Dayan Ballweg

Dayan Ballweg adapted T.C. Boyle’s best-selling novel “The Tortilla Curtain” and Frank Baldwin’s “Jake and Mimi” for Scott Steindorff’s Stone Village Productions. His script “Young Americans” was optioned by Samuelson Productions and Gold Circle Films. In this interview he gives advice to young screenwriters, talks about the challenges of adaptations, the reality of screenwriting, and of a crazy development meeting with Gene Simmons (yes, the guy from KISS).

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“Derailed” isn’t a good book, a good thriller, a good anything; this novel has more holes than a slice of Swiss cheese. Siegel is a poor writer in just about every regard. His analogies and metaphors are bizarrely off— it’s like something translated from another language. His prose is so thin, so conversationally dull, that you find yourself skipping over it, not bothering to process the words, because there is nothing to process. It feels like a story from a drunk at a bar, where you goad him on to get to the good parts. His plot manages to be both totally derivative and also lacking in sufficient misadventures for his beleaguered hero. As a book it’s a total airport read: take it in, have a laugh, throw it away. But as a movier

As a movie it has a lot more promise. Books like this – which are essentially movie-ready screen treatments – aren’t bought for their prose or insight or their smarts. They’re bought for their set-ups, and “Derailed” has an excellent one. It has what every thriller needs to succeed: a plot that puts an average man in extraordinary circumstances and makes that man dance, as Fate fires gunshots at his feet.

In this case, the added giddiness is that the man cannot go to the police. He’s just cheated on his wife for the first time in a seedy hotel when someone pushes him back into the room, brandishing a gun, and relieves him of his money. When the crook realizes what is happening here – that these are two married people having an affair – he rapes the woman repeatedly, knowing they can’t reveal what happened without revealing it to their spouses. Together, Charles and Lucinda (the woman, who he met on the train) decide that they can’t let their spouses find out and move on with their lives. But the crook, a guy named Vasquez, calls up Charles for a loan. A loan he has to give to save his own marriage and Lucinda’s. The first loan is for $10,000, which Charles takes out of a fund he keeps for his severely diabetic daughter, and the second is for $100,000. When Charles refuses to pay for the second, Vasquez abducts Lucinda and hurts her. That gets Charles to dip deeper into his sick kid’s fund and he pays Vasquez off. Only there are more complications: all stories like this must have a scene where our hero disposes of a body, and this is no different. As it turns out, Charles’ disposal – of a man he wanted to “talk” to Vasquez – might come back to haunt him.

This book is a quick, harmless read – very James Patterson-esque in its short, quick-paced chapters – but it has a few major scars: the first, and most detrimental, is that you see the “twist” in the story from the very start. I’m not exaggerating, either. It’s so obvious you’d have to have been recently smacked in the head with a baseball bat not to catch it. It practically waltzes across the page in gaudy red print. Another scar: Siegel never establishes why Charles, after his daughter’s life has been put in danger, wouldn’t just say to hell with Lucinda, it was horrible that this happened to her and that this will end her marriage, but I have to go to the cops. Another scar: Charles just doesn’t go through enough. He has to dispose of a body, yeah, and that’s pretty scary, but even that scene doesn’t have any real suspense to it. This guy has to jump through bigger and crazier hoops. Another scar: Siegel is unable, even in an infinitesimal way, to evoke what makes New York the city it is, and his thugs speak like no thugs have ever spoken. One uses the word “crimey.” Another scar: a whopping logic gap during the penultimate confrontation between Charles and Vasquez. Check this out: Charles has gone native, away from his wife and daughter, and he’s staking out where he knows Vasquez will be shaking down his latest victim (I won’t get too specific, not to ruin the “surprise”). He needs to know what room this is happening in. So he goes to the bellhop, who he knows is in on the deal(!), and bribes him with two hundred bucks. Did Charles think this guy wasn’t going to come upstairs and get involvedr That he’d let his partner in crime get screwed over in their conr It was just about the weirdest thing you’ve ever read. And the final scar: the book veers off into a pointless, too-long epilogue that reads like “The Contortionist’s Handbook’s” ugly, totally ordinary brother. You want the confrontation with Vasquez to build to a point and explode, giving us a finale to what we’ve been embroiled in, but that’s not the case.

This novel is being adapted by hot-new-thing Stu Beattie (whose “Collateral” got Michael Mann and Tom Cruise to sign on to that film) and will be directed by Mikael Hafstrom (making his English-language debut). I think, as a movie, “Derailed” is in pretty good shape. Beattie has a lot of work cut out for himself, but he has that great hook to open his story: regular guy, extraordinary circumstances, can’t go to the cops, is stuck in a frustrating, dangerous position. My hope is that Beattie leaves most of the plot behind and creates his own obstacles. I don’t mind Charles having to get rid of a dead body – and I like when he turns the tables – but for this to feel like anything but one of a million thrillers they show on late-night cable, Beattie is going to have to heighten the suspense. He should also lose or alter the “twist” in the story. And get rid of the prologue and epilogue. In the novel the story starts at the end: Charles working as an English teacher in prison, watching as a student turns in assignments which feature his story of blackmail. The idea that we know Charles lives through his experience, to say the least, makes any danger he’s in innocuous.

My hope is that Beattie went radically to the left here, and dropped Charles’ job as an ad man (where he got in on an illegal deal to pay off Vasquez), the constant mewling over his sick daughter, and everything else that takes away from his desperate quest to get this guy off his back. Charles is an animal backed into a corner. He needs to spring forward with a self-preservation-inspired intensity. In the novel, his attempt to fight back gets someone else hurt, but Charles stays undamaged. It should be Charles that takes the wound, so that when he’s running around, sweating, it’s his own life that he’s trying to save, and not that of his wife and daughter. I want everything to escalate until Charles has blood on his hands, and it doesn’t take his family kicking him out of the house to get him in motion.

I can’t say what Beattie has done, but I’d gladly bet my money he’s improved this story. I’m guessing he simply had to, because Siegel’s plot tap-dances forward, without giving you much to chew on, before flying off the edge for an ending that doesn’t quite jibe.

On the casting end, Charles is depthless enough to be perfect for any middle-aged movie star. You can take your pick: George Clooney, Richard Gere, Tom Cruise. It’s open to anyone. And though we’re told later she’s Hispanic, which isn’t clear at first, I couldn’t get “The Practice’s” Rhona Mitra out of my head for Lucinda.

Thrillers are usually the best type of trash, because they get your metabolism going, make you ingest junk food, and usually have the means to take things to that absurdly lovely level where we can question ourselves on what we’d do in the same situation.

“Derailed” suggests that with this powerful set-up. And if Beattie took the story apart and put it back together again, and Mr. Hafstrom (whose “Evil” I’ve never seen) knows how to stretch a scene taut, so that when it pops it makes you hop out of your seat, there’s no telling what kind of high-caloric feast we might have. “Derailed,” a novel written by James Siegel and published by Warner Books, was released in hardcover February 2003.

Rating: A-

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy

This script says it’s a first draft and, my friends, this is truly a first draft. It feels more like something you’d jot down on a cocktail napkin. With a storyline that clumsily jumps around like a live wire, with multiple ideas that go nowhere thrown against the wall to see if they’ll stick, and with punctuation and spelling so atrocious it looks like the writers got drunk and slammed their heads into the keyboard, this script has the feel of something written in a bout of hysteria. Though, somewhat amazingly, from the trailer and clips I’ve seen, most of this script remains intact.

Will Ferrell plays Ron Burgundy, a much-beloved local anchor in ‘70s San Diego. When this guy is on the air, everyone rushes inside to watch. The streets are empty. His Action News team includes Champ Kind, sportscaster, whose catchphrase is “Whammy!,” Brick Tamland, the weatherman, Marshall Connors, consumer reporter, and Brian Fantana, their man in the street. With their ugly suits and hair-sprayed ‘dos, these guys are local rock stars. The women drool, the men are envious, and they rule the town. McKay and Ferrell have a ball showing what twisted, vice-addled, fatuous malcontents the people in the news business are. They are like a roving therapy session. Their lives burdened by problems their egomaniacal, empty minds are not swift enough to see the importance of.

Things are shaken up when the beautiful Veronica Corningstone arrives. Smart and ambitious, she’s also the only news member who has a clue what the hell she’s doing. Her appearance, while inspiring the lust of every male there, also challenges their contemptuous view that women have no place in their world (other than to flirt with and grab coffee).

After every guy strikes out with her, Ron finds his way in and somehow — through luck, more or less — steals Veronica’s heart. When Veronica jumps into Ron’s lead-anchor chair during his most personal tragedy, they break up, but she’s so popular with the audience they make her a co-lead. The News Team rebels, but they can’t shake the professional Veronica, and soon a prank she plays on Ron gets him fired.

There are moments of pure lunacy in this script. Times when you can’t hold in the laugh for the sheer absurdity of what you’re reading. And, though I’m basing it on almost nothing, I can pretty much guarantee that “Anchorman” will be a funny, weird, offbeat little movie. This script, though, focuses its attention in the wrong place. McKay and Ferrell spend a lot of time with the romance between Ron and Veronica, but it’s the thing they get the least comedic mileage out of. The view we’re given of this community of newscasters — this beyond-redemption pack of wolves — with their troubles and their perversions and wild parties — is like some delicious spoof of those hitting-the-subcutaneous-of-a-society docudramas normally directed by Oliver Stone. Those false smiles you see on the air, this script tells us, hides every behavior that is opposite to what it symbolizes.

You’ll also find some brilliant bits of nonsense. Such as when a rival crew rides up and surrounds the Action Team on bicycles, like bullying kids. Or when something horrible happens to Ron’s dog and he breaks down. The toss-away lines about the crimes someone’s kid commits.

When Veronica screws Ron over (since he reads anything on the TelePrompTer, she slips in foul language and he repeats it without even realizing it) the Action Team sets out to get her. The material picks up a bit, but not as much as you’d hope. Truthfully, this whole script is like that: hilarious bits sprinkled around, coming unexpectedly, surrounded by a lot of junk that just lies there. There are recurring gags here that even Will Ferrell’s blank-but-cocky timbre couldn’t make amusing. That flailing, thrashing, reckless, unhinged quality that lets the writers throw in animation and tear apart conventional structure is also what keeps “Anchorman” from being fully effective. The ending, as is always the case with this type of movie, is just an excuse to wrap things up.

Ferrell’s specialty is the naive man-child, and Ron Burgundy will allow him to polish the character one more time. Some of the best material in the script is devoted to Ron’s cluelessness. After they crack a joke that it’s Veronica’s “time of the month,” she questions if the men on the set even know what that means, and Ron says, “It’s when the bones in a woman’s breasts contract and seize up due to tidal fluctuations and the consumption of too much Halloween candy.” And Ron’s inept coverage of the Democratic National Convention is, in its contained little skit-ness, one of the funniest things I’ve ever read.

All in all, “Anchorman” is one of the better comedy scripts I’ve read recently. Just because it’s so untamed and unafraid. It wants to excel at that eccentric, off-the-wall comedy — the stuff you see done so adeptly on “The Simpsons” every week — and succeeds. There’s enough lousy, going-nowhere material in this first draft to knock it down a few pegs, but the good certainly makes up for the bad and, with Ron Burgundy, Ferrell has created an empty-headed, falsely confident, George W. Bush-like character that will easily raise this film to hallowed “Elf”-like heights.

Throughout the script the writers list actors they want cast in the roles. They didn’t get many of them, but they did end up with some fine folks: Paul Rudd, Vince Vaughn, Maya Rudolph, Fred Willard, Chris Parnell and Steve Carell. The only question mark for me is Christina Applegate, who plays Veronica.

Rough around the edges though it may be, “Anchorman” at the very least walks with a strut and isn’t presenting anyone’s ideas but its own. It’s more than good enough, to say the least, that I think McKay, directing his first feature, will give us a fine time at the movies later this year in the summer of ’04. This script, marked as a first draft, was written by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay.The film is set to open on July 9 and this draft is titled as “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.”

Rating: B-

Planet of Sound: Are You an Actress Who Wants to Be Taken Seriously? Get Ugly

Say you’re an actress who’s really beautiful — your skin is smooth and milky white, your body is lithe and inspires the lust of every man, woman and inanimate object (such as Bob Goen and Pat O’Brien) you come into contact with, you have the type of bone structure women spend millions to replicate — and the only roles you’ve been getting over the years require you to take off your clothes and play second fiddle to a male co-star. What do you do?

You get ugly.

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