Those lucky enough to have seen Freaks & Geeks know John Francis Daley, who played Sam Weir on the cult classic TV show. But fewer people know Jonathan M. Goldstein, a lawyer-turned-writer who met Daley on 2000's Geena Davis Show and went on to be his screenwriting collaborator. With nearly a decade of working together as writing partners, the duo are finally hitting the big time in Hollywood, with their latest comedy, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, arriving in theaters this weekend.
Daley and Goldstein make the road to becoming big time screenwriters picture perfect, but that's all part of the illusion. In fact, Daley says that it took several years and a few stalled incarnations for Wonderstone to finally come to life. Goldstein adds another layer: "We did 11 drafts at one point for one director who didn't end up doing it (and, by the way, not getting paid for those drafts). That's screenwriting for you."
With every draft of Wonderstone, elements, plot points, and styles of humors shifted and evolved. The one thing that remained — and what drove Daley and Goldstein to conceive the movie in the first place — was the world of Vegas magicians. For the two writers, jokes came second to being authentic to the glitzy, demanding career. "[We talked] to a lot of Vegas magicians, getting insight into what their world really is," Goldstein says. "They were very helpful and willing to talk to us. Penn Jillette, David Copperfield, Criss Angel — a lot of these guys spent time with us."
RELATED: Is 'The Incredible Burt Wonderstone' Offensive to Professional Magicians?
After soaking in the backstage world of Vegas, the writers realized… it wasn't too different then their pre-conceived notions. "Sometimes we hear about the Vegas superstars and their lifestyles," Daley says. "I don't want to name names, but there are singers that when you hear what their demands are, it astounds you. I think the same applies to any Vegas personality that's been there for a really long time. They get whatever they want. With Burt, he's so used to getting what he wanted, he became lazy and tired. That's where his craft started to fall apart."
The exaggerated lives of magicians opened Pandora's Box for Daley and Goldstein, allowing the duo to pen comedy that could fit the two distinct voices of their leads, Steve Carell and Jim Carrey. Daley says that even before Carell joined the project, Wonderstone was written as the "perfect role" for the actor, while he was excited to tailor Carrey's punk rock illusionist Steve Gray to the comedian's voice. "He was one of the reasons I started acting in comedy," he says. "Just to see him embody this role — which is very big and physical — will be exciting for audiences. That old Jim."
Goldstein says that Carrey has very specific ideas for characters once he's committed to a movie, and the three worked together to shape Gray to utilize the physically inclined actor's skills. Carrey's slapstick tactics are rare in Hollywood. Daley was happy to bring them back. "I think the broad comedies with lots of physical comedy come and go over the years," he says. "It was huge back in silent movies because it was the only real way to get comedy across. Ever since, it's moved with the tides."
With all the rewriting, a few of Daley and Goldstein's ideas didn't make the cut — namely, a cameo from the infamous Masked Magician. Illusionist Val Valentino went incognito for a series of Fox TV specials that pulled the curtain back on magic's biggest tricks. Daley was actually a fan. "It was a gimmick, but I actually enjoyed watching the show," Daley says. "I wanted to see the magic revealed. At one point it was a plot point in one of our 12 or 13 drafts of Burt. But we wanted to focus on the rivalry of the two."
RELATED: 'Incredible Burt Wonderstone' Trailer: It's Not Easy Being Orange
According to Goldstein, the magicians they spoke to for the movie went unfazed after Valentino's "big reveals." "We talked to some of the magicians about that guy," Goldstein says. "They all knew who he was. They all felt not threatened by him. The tricks he's revealing are so widely known. They're not really secrets, except for maybe the general public." Daley dubs the Masked Magician's bits "royalty-free tricks." Not anything you would see in a Vegas stage show today. "Like playing a song that's 100 years old — no one's going to get upset about stealing it," he says.
With Wonderstone set to arrive in theaters, the duo is already working on their next projects. A follow-up to their hit 2011 comedy Horrible Bosses has wrangled the original cast for a sequel, and Daley and Goldstein will make their directorial debut in a semi-sequel to the beloved National Lampoon's Vacation franchise. Goldstein says the time is right for an update. "There hasn't been a great family road trip in awhile," Goldstein says. "They're inherently relatable because most people go on them at one point or another. And we have a great affection for the original movie — we wouldn't have done a remake of it."
Taking over the franchise is Ed Helms, who will star as Rusty, the son of Chevy Chase's Clark Griswold. "[Letting] him go on the road is a legitimate updating of the franchise," Goldstein says.
Daley and Goldstein aren't so much scared to direct Vacation as they are excited, looking forward to realizing the scenarios they've "directed" on the page for the first time. Their biggest hurdle is staying true to the original while innovating for today's audience. "The thing you have to watch out for is not retreading jokes that haven't been done to death," Daley says. "Figure out a new way to take something people are familiar with and turn it on its head. That's what we strive for in this movie and everything we do. If you're laughing because you've heard the joke before, a laugh of familiarity, it's never as potent as a laugh that is fresh."
Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches
[Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures; Nash Entertainment]
You Might Also Like:Topanga's Revealing Lingerie Shoot: Hello '90s! Stars Who Have Lost Roles For Being Too Hot (Celebuzz)
The story of the most dominant racehorse of all time does not easily fit into the standard inspirational sports flick mold. Such films typically require its protagonists to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles be they competitive (Hoosiers) personal (The Natural) societal (Ali) or some combination of all three (Remember the Titans). But by all accounts the greatest challenges to Secretariat capturing of the 1973 Triple Crown were not rival horses — indeed Secretariat had no true rival — but a pair of slow starts and an abscess. And abscesses — apologies to dermatologists — simply aren’t all that effective as dramatic devices.
Lacking most of the vital ingredients of the traditional underdog movie formula Disney’s Secretariat is forced to synthesize them. Its screenplay written by Mike Rich and based rather loosely on the book Secretariat: The Making of a Champion by William Nack adopts a conventional save-the-farm framework: When her parents pass away within months of each other Denver housewife Penny Tweedy (Diane Lane) is advised to sell off her family’s Virginia-based Meadow Stables a beautiful but unprofitable horse-breeding enterprise in order to pay the onerous inheritance taxes levied by the state. But Penny her deceased father’s hackneyed horse-inspired counsel fresh in her mind (“You’ve got to run your own race ” etc. etc.) is loath to depart with such a cherished heirloom. So she concocts a scheme just idiotic enough to work betting the farm — literally — that her new horse Big Red in whom she has an almost Messianic faith will win the Kentucky Derby Preakness and Belmont races in succession.
Of course Big Red under the stage name Secretariat goes on to do just that but only after the film subjects us to nearly two hours of manufactured melodrama. Lane grasping all-too conspicuously for awards consideration treats every line as if it were the St. Crispin’s Day speech. Her character Penny exhibits a hair-trigger sensitivity to the sounds of skeptics and naysayers bursting forth with a polite rebuke and a stern sermon for anyone who dares doubt her crusade from the trash-talking owner of a rival horse to her annoyingly pragmatic husband (Dylan Walsh).
Lane isn’t alone in her grandiosity. The entire production reeks of it as director Randall Wallace lines the story with fetid chunks of overwrought Oscar bait like so many droppings in an untended stable even using Old Testament quotations and gospel music to endow Penny’s quest with biblical significance. John Malkovich is kind enough to inject some mirth into the heavy-handed proceedings hamming it up as Secretariat’s trainer Lucien Laurin a French-Canadian curmudgeon with an odd sartorial palette. It’s not enough however to alleviate the discomfort of witnessing the film's quasi-Sambo depiction of Secretariat’s famed groom Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis) which reaches its cringeworthy zenith when Sweat runs out to the track on the eve of the Belmont Stakes and exclaims to no one in particular that “Big Red done eat his breakfast this mornin’!!!” Bagger Vance would be proud. Whether or not Ellis’ portrayal of Sweat’s cadence and mannerisms is accurate (and for all I know it may well be) the character is too thinly drawn to register as anything more than an amiable simple-minded servant.
Animal lovers will be happy to know that the horses in Secretariat come off looking far better than their human counterparts and not just because they’re alloted the best dialogue. In the training and racing sequences Wallace effectively conveys the strength and majesty of the fearsome animals drawing us into the action and creating a strong element of suspense even though the final result is a fait accompli. It's too bad the rest of the film never makes it out of the gate.
The first thing you notice about Jonah Hex is the fact that you can make a drinking game out of people saying the words "Jonah Hex." It happens so often I began to believe that this was simply how people used to greet one another in the Old West. You walk into a room: “Jonah Hex!” “Well Jonah Hex to you too buddy!” Take a bottle of whiskey with you into the movie* and take a shot every time someone says his name and you will have an incredible 74 minutes. You might also be dead at the end.
Why does it feel like I’m dedicating half the review to the use of the words "Jonah Hex?" Because half the movie is dedicated to uttering the words "Jonah Hex." Learn to love the sound of it. Josh Brolin sure did.
When our ‘hero’ (and I use that word in the loosest of possible terms) isn’t busy having people remind him of his name he is riding around killing people or being made fun of for his horribly scarred face. But when a villain from his past – and when I say "past " I mean from 10 minutes earlier in the film – turns out not to be as dead as we were led to believe in the opening monologue Hex sets out to get the revenge he really wish he could have gotten 15 minutes earlier. And that’s when the movie beings its plunge into logical implausibility. If you can find a single reason to give a rat's *** about anyone in this movie grip onto it with both hands brother and hold on tight – it’s the only way you’re going to care at all about this film.
It’s not the horse with side-mounted Gatling guns that got me or the silliness of dynamite crossbows; it was just how unlikable everyone was and how it leaned heavily upon cliché to tell a story without understanding how a story like this is supposed to be told. Revenge films are like romantic comedies: They rely entirely on a weak coincidence and delivering a series of emotional money shots that pay off for the audience in a big way. More importantly these money shots must be delivered in a very specific structure that allows people to forgive any thin or contrived story elements. Where a romantic comedy is "Boy Meets Girl Boy Loses Girl Boy gets Girl Back " revenge films are mostly comprised of "Guy Finds Simple Bliss Bad Guy Ruins Simple Bliss in a Cruel Manner Guy Left for Dead Guy Gets Revenge for All He’s Lost." Very simple stuff. Whether it’s Maximus in Gladitor or Eric Draven in The Crow or Charles Rane in Rolling Thunder the structure is the same. The key to a good revenge movie is a likable good guy a reason to care about his life truly despicable bad guys and a perfectly crafted ending for our hero in particular – often involving his death.
Right from the start Jonah Hex drops the ball. We open with him tied up and getting wailed on watching his family get murdered just out of frame and then get left for dead. But we haven’t found anything to care for yet and more importantly he immediately admits to having done everything he’s been accused of. This is revenge to begin with. Sure the movie eventually gets around to trying to explain why he didn’t really deserve it but only after 45 minutes of us pretty much disliking the guy. He’s mean unlikable murderous and his only friend in the world is a prostitute who tells us that she “Don’t play house ” just before begging Jonah to settle down with her. He’s got a great horse and a dog but doesn’t like them enough to have ever given them a name and every time someone finally gets around to killing him magical Native Americans show up to save his bacon AGAIN for no apparent reason other than his wife was Native American.
The only reason to root for Jonah at all is because he’s the protagonist and his antagonist (played comically by John Malkovich) is on a mission to I kid you not destroy America with a semi-magical nation-destroying weapon. Oh yes and we’re told the Mexicans call him “Terrorista.” A Terrorist hellbent on destroying America? In the Old West? You’d be hard pressed to find anyone you wouldn’t root for fighting that guy. This had all the hallmarks of being a WWE movie without the cool logo. If you’re 13 years old and you still believe wrestling is real this might be the movie for you. Otherwise it is an exercise in silliness designed to rob you of $10.
*Hollywood.com accepts no responsibility to cirrhosis of the liver or any sudden death caused by ingestion of alcohol occurring during the course of this game.
Of course 21 isn’t just about blackjack. It’s more about Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) a shy but brilliant M.I.T. student who--needing to pay Harvard medical school tuition--finds the answers in the cards so to speak. After dazzling his unorthodox math professor and stats genius Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey) with some mathematical prowess Ben is quickly indoctrinated into Rosa’s group of “gifted” students who head to Las Vegas every weekend with the know-how to count cards and beat the casino at the blackjack tables. And win big they do. Ben is soon seduced by the allure of this luxurious lifestyle including his sexy teammate Jill (Kate Bosworth) but begins rebelling against the well-oiled machine Rosa has built. Apparently you don’t want to cross this particular math professor--nor the old-school casino security consultant (Laurence Fishburne) who has set his sights on Ben as a master card counter. It’s not illegal to do that but the casinos don’t much like it when they catch you doing it. Hey what happens in Vegas…oh you know the rest. The most well-rounded performance comes from the British Sturgess best known for singing Beatles’ songs in Across the Universe. His Ben starts out as a naive math whiz/nerd whose biggest thrill is designing the perfect science project for an M.I.T. contest but then becomes the smooth Vegas dude with the nice clothes and hot girlfriend and finally turns into the guy who eventually loses it all. It’s not hard to see just how much Ben is going to change once he gets involved in the moneymaking scheme but Sturgess handles the transition with aplomb. The stiff Bosworth isn’t nearly as effective as his love interest but she has her moments. Also good for comic relief is Aaron Yoo (Disturbia) as one of the blackjack players who oddly enough is also a kleptomaniac. The performance drawbacks in 21 come from the more veteran players. Spacey and Fishburne seem to be going through the motions utilizing techniques they’ve used many times before. Spacey can whither whoever it is with that look of his while Fishburne postures as he always does. It’s too bad they couldn’t have put in more effort. As with any movie in which the action is inherently stagnant (i.e. sitting at a blackjack table) the question is how to keep things visually stimulating. That’s where director Robert Luketic--who up to this point has only done broad comedies such as Legally Blonde and Win a Date with Tad Hamilton--comes in. Luketic does a fine job maneuvering the camera around the tables creating slo-mo close-ups of the cards and incorporating a cool soundtrack. A good montage or four usually can also work well in a situation like this and Luketic fully utilizes that technique--from the kids winning to them spending their money in gloriously obscene ways. Based on the book Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions 21 has the extra advantage of being a somewhat true story as well. But the script from Peter Steinfeld and Allan Loeb basically copies from other sources and never really distinguishes itself.
Set in 1984 Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron) returns to her ice-cold hometown in Northern Minnesota after fleeing from an abusive husband. In order to care for her two young kids she needs a job--and for most of the townsfolk including her distant dad (Richard Jenkins) that means working in the local iron mines. Problem is not too many women work there and those who do are subjected to continual harassment by their male coworkers. Josey lands a job anyway and starts to get her fair share of sexual innuendos. One day her former high-school sweetheart also a mine employee takes it way too far with her. Although met with strong resistance of course a lawsuit ensues that results in a groundbreaking decision for women’s rights in the workplace. Ah what an Oscar can do for a career. It wasn't that long ago Theron wouldn’t even have been considered for such a dramatic role. But with deserved recognition she gets to strut her stuff in North Country. She's no Monster but she's no supermodel either--and while it's impossible to erase her beauty its glare has been reduced. A second-consecutive Oscar win? Maybe not but a nomination wouldn't be out of the place. Co-star Frances McDormand might also be in line for a nod of her own. She plays Glory a woman who gets Josey the job and encourages her to fight the good fight something that seems visceral for McDormand. Woody Harrelson is also solid as Josey's attorney though his Midwest-stoner drawl gets in the way of the northern accent he's supposed to be selling. New Zealand director Niki Caro mightily impressed us with Whale Rider a poignant mixture of grief and vigor and with North Country she continues to impress. As more an observer than anything else Caro lets the true story tell itself--of what happened in this small town with its frigid denizens and sexist behavior. And the film is definitely a period piece á la Norma Rae in that it's from a specific period albeit a recent one and pertains to a specific region. But it's kind of slow going. There’s a lot of weeping and dramatic speeches. Still Caro makes up for it by including several Bob Dylan songs who rarely grants the use of his songs in films. Perhaps he felt a certain a kinship to this film since it takes place in the desolate cold Northern Minnesota where he comes from--and so resents.