In the vein of REVOLUTIONARY ROAD and BLUE VALENTINE—set in 1990s Chicago, the marriage between a former ballet dancer and a philosophy professor falls apart under the stifling weight of artistic and intellectual ambition.
Based on the true story of Michael Larson, an Ohio ice cream truck driver who in 1984 won over one-hundred thousand dollars on the CBS game show Press Your Luck by memorizing the possible patterns on what had been believed to be a random game board."A great look at the fragility of the male ego and the dissolution of domestic masculinity which started in the 1980s. Using the game as a framing device is smart and surprisingly, the writer doesn’t build to his big win. By focusing on the aftermath of Michael’s “success” we get a much clearer and more satisfying portrait of a man on the edge of reason."— Black List Reviewer. THE CONTESTANT also advanced in the 2018 Austin Film Festival Screenwriting Competition. See notes below: Concept: The Contestant tells the story of Michael Larson, the man who figured out how to beat the computer on Press Your Luck in the famous scandal. The execution is very strong, combining an authentic account of Larson's television episode with a larger story of his life and relationships. Plot: Desperate for money and the respect of his wife, Michael devises a plan to win big on a game show. In a classic case of ‘money doesn’t buy happiness,’ Michael struggles with paranoia and ill-conceived schemes to make even more money, and this script does a great job of showing how the drive for Michael’s self-defined success puts a strain on his relationships. Larson’s life reads like a Greek tragedy, and the script captures his rise and downfall in a touching and relatable way. Structure: The script is lean and its three-act structure is well defined. The subplots are well developed and add depth to the main plot. For example, early on Michael has to ask his brother for money just to get by. By the late second act, Michael has lost a lot of his own money due to his brother’s faulty investment, creating a sense of irony and also setting the stage for Michael to become paranoid about his brother’s involvement in both a robbery and his wife. The use of flashbacks and voiceover throughout is well done – setting the stage early on, filling in the plot as the episode unfolds, and ultimately coming full circle to the retrospectively tragic comments of Michael’s interview after his win. Characters: The characters are well developed and relatable, each with a distinctive personality and point of view. Teresa is a compelling character, and their relationship has a broad emotional arc. Michael is compelling - we are rooting for this underdog as he struggles to provide for his family, and then saddened as we watch his descent into paranoia that ultimately makes him lose his family and most of his winnings. Dialogue: Dialogue is great – revealing character and advancing the plot. The actual dialogue from Larson’s Press Your Luck appearance is used, and works very well. The writer has built the plot so well that a tragic, ironic context is provided for Michael’s own words, which gives the script an impactful and thought-provoking conclusion. Overall: This script, which tells the true story of Michael Larson (the man who ‘beat’ the Press Your Luck computer) is very well written and masterfully structured. Glimpses of Larson’s tv appearance are dotted throughout in a way that builds the audience’s understanding of the event, but also serves as a spine for the larger drama of Michael and his family. The writer has done a great job of bringing the characters to life, and weaving the relationships together in a believable and emotional way. Michael is a tragic figure, and the script offers authentic glimpses at both his optimism and drive, and his eventual paranoia and downfall as he learns that money is not the answer to his problems. A thought-provoking running narration gives a deeper context to Michael’s inner thoughts, and the ending feels both inevitable and heartbreaking. Tonally and in terms of story, this script has the feel of modern Quiz Show, and absolutely deserves to advance in the competition. What I felt was missing was a postscript, to complete the story, as Larson’s life continued to be troubled (lottery scheme, the IRS and FBI investigations, estrangement from his family, and ultimately his death in Florida, etc). It would have been nice to provide that closure.