MY BEST FRIENDS BIRTHDAY
April 14th, 2004
Script Review: MY BEST FRIENDS BIRTHDAY
by Darwin Mayflower
Hey folks, Chris here. I've heard about this script but have not had the pleasure of reading it yet. Darwin, our world famous script critic, has scored a copy. I need to stress that this is one of Tarantino's very early attempts at writing and directing. Another effort, LOVEBIRDS IN BONDAGE co-written and co-directed by Tarantino and Scott McGill. Small films that Tarantino and his video store buddies made with virtually no budgets. But anyway, I hope you enjoy Darwin's comments about Tarantino's MY BEST FRIENDS BIRTHDAY.
The closest you can get to an unproduced Quentin Tarantino script is something called MY BEST FRIENDS BIRTHDAY. Of course, as anyone whos a student of Tarantino lore (shamefully, I was myself from the early- to mid-90s) knows, calling MY BEST FRIENDS BIRTHDAY an unproduced script is a misnomer. What it actually is is an unreleased/undeveloped film.
Tarantino wrote the script with acting-class buddy Craig Hamann and starred (with Hamann) and directed the film with money pulled together from his Video Archives friends (who were all involved, either as actors or behind the camera).
The audio from their first batch of footage was out of synch (thanks to the ancient camera they used) and the second batch of film was destroyed in the lab. So Tarantino dropped it altogether and moved on to writing TRUE ROMANCE. Somewhere -- God knows where -- lurks Quentin Tarantinos first (unfinished) directing effort (which, he admits, was his film school).
Something becomes clearly apparent very quick when reading this script. A friend said Tarantino was on a screwball comedy jag when he rewrote Hamanns forty-four page screenplay. And it shows. The script is a sloppy, slightly neophyte-like, contemporary take on the glorious films of Howard Hawks (the pinnacle being BRINGING UP BABY). This is probably a shock to any Q.T. fan (as it was to me) because when you think of Tarantinos movies you think of crime, cussin, bad-asses and violence.
The truth is that the script reads very Tarantino-y...but at the same time -- it doesnt. There are plenty of his patented observations (about his favorite subjects: Elvis, movies, rock n roll), but these are the worst part of the script. They read like the rejected scene in PULP FICTION (where Uma interviews John with a camcorder) that Tarantino cut because he felt it was too much like a Q.T. imitator.
The material that works is the stuff youd never expect -- or would believe -- came from Tarantino. Cute little asides; running gags; romantic comedy bits; slapstick scenes; a tremendous food fight. Most of this is stolen from other movies, but its still funny and it works. Its enjoyable. If the script has a problem its that it really has no direction and it bounces around for a good fifty pages before it picks up any speed. The characters (including the two leads) are empty and interchangeable and when theyre not in a situation they become dull (and even a bit vexing) fast.
Mickey Burnett (played by Hamann in the film) is about to turn thirty and hes not happy about it. Worse yet: his girlfriend has dumped him. And worse still: hes just gotten fired from his deejay job thanks to Clarence Pool (played by Tarantino in the film). Clarence, whose friendship with Mickey rises to almost homosexual proportions, wants his buddy to enjoy his birthday and hires a hooker (named Misty Knight) to go to Mickeys house and sleep with him. Mistys pimp (Clifford) shows up. Mickey and Cliff battle it out. Misty ends up with Clarence. Mickey winds up with Clarences girlfriend Cecilia. And Cecilias real boyfriend, the volatile, truculent Eddie (whos a cop) is looking for Cecilia and to kick the crap out of anyone who steps in his way.
The showcase of the script is the free-for-all that takes place when all the characters show up at Clarences apartment and have it out in true slapstick style. From the point the six characters (Clarence, Mickey, Misty, Cecilia, Clifford and Eddie) meet the script becomes about as good as any modern screwball comedies get. Its fast and funny and silly as can be. Which is, basically, what makes screwball-slapstick comedies what they are.
The script has two problems, though. The opening feels tacked-on and elongated so the script could just cough in at feature length (though with all the elaborate fight scenes I dont think running time would be a problem). The main joke -- about Mickey turning thirty -- is boring and old. Especially since Tarantino doesnt give us anything new to chew on. Its the same old bit: guy doesnt want to talk birthday and everyone mentions it (it reads more like a lazy, sub-ALLY MCBEAL, David E. Kelley knockoff). The opening scenes of Mickey and Clarence at their radio station are so terrible that I doubt anyone would continue on (to the much finer material to come) if Tarantinos name wasnt on the cover. Tarantinos classic observations (about how good Brian De Palmas films are (I guess Q.T. isnt perfect) and about the merits of Elvis movie oeuvre) run on and on and they simply dont have the strength that things like the real meaning of "Like a Virgin" or the Alabama-Clarence pop-culture diner conversation in TRUE ROMANCE had.
The other problem is that the non-slapstick moments -- the "one-liners" and relationship jokes -- arent really funny and come off as awkward.
Tarantino and his video-store cronies (who are one hell of a jealous pack of dawgs now) intended to shoot this for five thousand dollars. I dont know what the film looked like, but the scripts scope definitely outweighs that and from the looks of things Tarantino didnt write this as a low-budget feature at all. Instead it reads like a fairly big-budget studio comedy. (Id actually go out on a limb and say that with some tinkering from the more mature Tarantino this could be worked into a pretty good film -- an even-sillier, L.A.-set version of Scorseses AFTER HOURS with a little bit of LOVERBOY thrown in.)
The most interesting thing about the script is to see Tarantino tread on ground we couldnt have imagined he would and probably never will return to. I suppose its a testament to both his obsessive film-watching and early talent that he actually comes out ahead and crafts what is, in the end, a marginally effective comedy.
The other fascinating thing about Q.T. is how he tears scenes and ideas out of one script and sticks it in another (we all know how much of TRUE ROMANCE, NBK and PULP FICTION got mixed and matched). In this case you can see the seeds of ideas used later: the names Mickey and Clarence (used in NBK and TRUE ROMANCE); the kid who falls hard for a hooker who knows her pop culture (as in TRUE ROMANCE); the radio station name KBLI (thats K-Billy) ended up in DOGS (heard in the famous ear-extraction scene); and the most obvious: Mistys pimp and Mickey duke it out in MY BEST FRIENDS BIRTHDAY. In this script its total slapstick: Clifford thinks hes a karate expert and Mickey actually is. But if you look at it closely its not all that different than the fight between Drexl and Clarence in TRUE ROMANCE.
You can love him or you can hate him, but Quentin Tarantino, without a doubt in the world, was the most influential filmmaker of the 90s. What he inspired may have been a lot of junk, but you cant blame him for that. He did almost exactly what the Wachowski brothers did with THE MATRIX: he took elements from all his favorite movies, comics, novelists, etc., made a flick, people loved it, and millions of fan-boys started mimicking it.
Tarantino gave us (or gave us back, you can say) the claustrophobic crime drama and lengthy, "witty" pop-culture-reference-dropping dialogue. The Wachowskis gave us people flying through the air in every-muscle-visible slow motion, doing karate moves like Sonny Chiba on high-grade coke. What people seem to forget is that THE MATRIX wasnt reality -- it was a virtual reality. Which is why people were able to hover and kick you in the head.
But back to Tarantino. I realized, after reading this script, that I had not actually sat down and watched a Tarantino film since 1996. Four long years ago. And as I began to flip through some of his older scripts and think back on his movies, I was hit anew with just how great his movies/scripts were. Derivative or not. Immature or not. Stolen or not. They were good. And its not really a surprise, looking back on it now, just why every fan-boy who ever drooled over Pam Grier was trying to write the next "gritty crime thriller" that would shake em up the way RESERVOIR DOGS did. Because anyone -- author, director, actor -- who really has it together shows you the sublime and makes it look like a piece of cake.
Which is just what was missing from JACKIE BROWN, Tarantinos botched attempt at adapting Elmore Leonard (though Q.T. fan Leonard says its his favorite adaptation). The script tried too hard to be PULP FICTION and the film seemed like a lot of empty space striving toward becoming another epic.
You also realized something else: Tarantino no longer lived in the real world and it had obviously affected him in a negative way. Since his reality wasnt one filled with everyday things like Dennys restaurants and TV reruns, he was separated from everything that inspired his greatness. He could no longer come up with his famous observations because he lived in a three-million-dollar home, was a "rock-star filmmaker" and was dating Oscar-winning starlets. What was he supposed to write about? How annoying it is when Pamela Dennis doesnt get back to your sweetheart right away about a one-of-a-kind dress for the Oscars and you have to hear her whine for a week?
MY BEST FRIENDS BIRTHDAY may not completely work. But it shows a talent digging himself out of the muck that sticks to you with inexperience.
Tarantino will be making two films back to back: KILL BILL (with Uma Thurman) and a World War II flick. It will be interesting to see peoples reaction to his films. Now that the Tarantino backlash has substantially subsided and he can be "just a filmmaker" again (though I dont know if hell ever be that).
Its hard to believe -- but Tarantino has only made three and a half films. Thats a lousy three years work for someone like Woody Allen or Clint Eastwood.
But despite that miniscule turnout Tarantino has been made to be a God, a thief, a has-been and the antichrist. Maybe now, with the glitter of hype and expectation faded, we can let him work and really see what he has left.
-- Darwin Mayflower.