The Portland Condition

portlandThis was [by miles] the most unbelievably bizarre script I’ve ever read. It has an amazing hook which is not mentioned until page 7. That hook is then ignored as an actual hook until page 27. After this, it gets abandoned again until the last page [minus one brief appearance on 37] where it performs an Ex Machina that would make a God, smile. And yet, the script landed on the 2012 Black List and is currently “in development”. The IMDB page rumors that Jim Carrey is attached. How can either of those things be true given everything I’ve said in this paragraph and everything I know about screenwriting? Let’s dig deeper into the mechanics of this impossibly bizarre script to see if we can find something worth salvaging.

I started reading, and the script was turning me off, fast. It is front-loaded with a depiction of depression which is trivializing, at best. Then we get this, near the bottom of page 2:

The offices of an alternative newsweekly. Jasper plays “Words
With Friends” in his cubicle. Over his desk is a framed column:

“What’s the Haps, Portland?” by Jasper Ayles, dated 2007.

Exposition designed to tell us that our protagonist is an entertainment journalist for a newspaper. The exposition is made worse by the “on the nose” quality to the name of his column… We all know how much I hate exposition, but I had decided to give the script three pages, so I kept reading. The script rewarded me a half a page later with this:

PHIL
Your job is to tell us “what the
haps” are.

JASPER
(cringes)
Can we at least drop that phrase?

The terrible name of the column was a set-up, and I fell right into it. Whenever, a writer does this to me in the first few pages, I’m going to read the rest of her script. It gives me confidence in her abilities. Unfortunately, for me, my page three belief in the writing team behind The Portland Condition wasn’t supported by the rest of their script.

The story then meanders from page 3, to that hook I mentioned on page 27. In that entire time, I only took one note. It was about the blooming relationship between Jasper [our hero] and a bartender named Nicole. It was not flattering:

“Do these writers not know about Manic-Pixie Dream Girls”.

After finishing the script, I can’t say they do. In some ways they built Jasper’s character specifically to be attracted to the self-fulfilling emptiness of the Manic-Pixie Archetype. The fact that Jasper is eventually rescued by a younger sister he never knew he had, and a sort-of-dead mother, are beyond my ability to analyze psychologically within the Pixie Context. [Additionally, Jasper ends the script by starting a “healthy” relationship with Manic-Pixie Dream Girl Substitute, Gwen—a brilliant, wild-haired, beautiful… book store clerk with a serious case of Russian Literature Adoration. So, I’m willing to bet the writers aren’t familiar with the archetype.]

From there I made it to page 37 and the appearance of the FBI??? An Agent has a small conversation with Jasper, during which he tells him this TIDBIT FOR NO DISCERNIBLE REASON WHATSOEVER:

FBI AGENT
We’ll lean on your mother if we
have to.

JASPER
(confused)
Rose?

The FBI Agent checks his notes.

FBI AGENT
Mary.

JASPER
(long beat)

Mary’s been dead 25 years.

FBI AGENT
Not if your mother is Mary Whitehead.
Alive and well in Boise, Idaho.
8916 Braxton Avenue.

and the script never mentions the FBI again. Plot points like this, which are expository to the point of breaking my will to keep reading, are even more unbearable when they disregard facts. In what possible world does an FBI agent show up at your house and threaten to “lean on your mother” over A POSTAGE STAMP?

From there the script devolves to the point that a volcano [Mount St. Helens] erupts and Jasper’s psychologist base jumps off the Portland offices of Bank of America. Since the hook [which is interesting] is never explained, I don’t feel like taking the rest of the script seriously in terms of its plot. I summarize by saying, I’ve never seen such an interesting premise be this malnourished by its authors.

You all know how dependent I think a plot is on its theme, so it’s not surprising [given the plot issues I’ve detailed] that I think The Portland Condition struggles with its theme. What is surprising, is my admission that I believe these writers knew exactly what they wanted their theme to be. I’ll quote this line from page 41 as introduction to the discussion:

JASPER
Do you believe you can change your
fate?

Based on the direction the plot takes it’s clear the authors mean to be using their story to tell us:

YOU choose your fate.

That’s a great theme. It is intended. So, why was I left dissatisfied? Because the storyquarks (1) don’t support that theme. Jasper doesn’t choose to alter his fate; a bunch of random things happen to him which FORCE him to break out of his depression. If you interpret this from my Spectrum of Ways (2) hypothesis, Jasper is one of those characters who acts in one way for most of the script, and then right angles toward growth as a human being simply because the authors are running out of pages.

Had Jasper gone through a series of wins and losses until he came to understand some quality within himself that lent him the keys to ending his depression, the script might have been better. Or, had the authors not introduced their unique hook and then spent zero time trying to decipher what that hook meant according to the rules of their story world, the script might have been better. As written, however:

RATING: Wait for the rewrite

FOOTNOTES:

1 Here is the article that explains StoryQuarks.
2 Here is the article that explains The Spectrum of Ways.

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