Twenty Bucks

Director: Keva Rosenfeld
Linda Hunt, David Rasche, George Morfogen

It probably comes as no surprise that the part of the cinema-making process that I enjoy the most is when the movies are completed - so I can sit down and be entertained for ninety or so minutes on average. But that's not to say that the various portions of the cinema-making process don't hold some appeal to me. I certainly like to research and read about how certain movies got made, or about the general process as to how Hollywood works. One of the parts of the Hollywood process that interests me has to do with the scripting process. Over the years, I have learned many interesting things as to how Hollywood movies get written. For example, I have learned that while the opening credits of a Hollywood movie may usually list just one or two writers, in actual fact the screenplay for the movie more likely than not before getting filmed got rewritten several times by a bunch of other (and uncredited) screenwriters. That fact kind of explains why so many Hollywood movies turn out to be bad - too many cooks do quite often indeed spoil the broth. (This fact also is the reason why I abandoned my dreams of being a screenwriter - I want to have creative control with whatever creative project I enter.) Anyway, another interesting thing about screenplays is how even when they finished, changes can happen along the way. One of the first screenplays I read was for the Monty Python movie Life Of Brian. I read the screenplay before watching the movie, and thought the screenplay was pretty funny. So I was pumped to see the movie. Imagine my surprise when watching the movie, I saw that several hilarious scenes in the screenplay either never got filmed or got cut out during the editing process.

Another interesting screenplay that I read was for the still unreleased Jerry Lewis movie The Day The Clown Cried. After hearing so many bad stories about this project, I was prepared for the worst. To my surprise, the screenplay was for the most part... okay. There were a few questionable (and unintentionally laughable) moments Lewis wrote, but otherwise the story came across as competent. And at least this screenplay got filmed, which is more than you can say for many, many screenplays floating out there. The reasons why all of these screenplays never got filmed I have learned over the years are both fascinating and varied. One of the frequent reasons is that the screenplay could not get financing. And the reasons for that are also fascinating and varied, though often the reason is that screenplay is so bad that no one with a lick of sense would invest in its filming. But what about the good screenplays - there are certainly a lot of them out there. Well, sometimes the producers can't get the right movie actor or actors to sign on the project - a movie's star power is an important marketing tool. Changing fads can sometimes cancel the filming of a screenplay - I am sure there were disco movie projects on the pipeline when suddenly the public declared that disco sucked and wanted nothing more to do with it. Also, the rights to a story can sometimes run out before filming starts, so legally the producers can't then get the script filmed. Sometimes it is diminishing returns and escalating costs. For example, I heard from several sources that a second Roger Rabbit movie got a great script written but never got filmed because Disney figured out they would lose money due to those aforementioned factors even if a good sized audience flocked to the movie like with the first movie.

But I think the reason why there are so many unfilmed screenplays out there is that Hollywood, even when you count the B and independent studios, can only make so many movies a year. When you think about that, it seems logical that Hollywood could save a lot of money and time by Twenty Bucksdipping into the supply of unproduced screenplays out there instead of getting new ones written. Certainly some would be bad, but I know there are gems out there. (If some studio wants to hire me to read unproduced screenplays, send me an e-mail!) Which brings me to the movie I am reviewing here, Twenty Bucks. The screenplay for this movie was written by one Endre Bohem back in 1935, but for unclear reasons never got filmed. When he died in 1990, his son Leslie Bohem found and read the screenplay, and really enjoyed it. He updated the script so it would appeal to a modern audience, found financing for it, and it got filmed. I will admit that true story intrigued me when I found a copy of the movie in a thrift store, and I decided to give it a look. It's only fitting that I found the movie in a thrift store, which had no doubt passed from hand to hand before I got my hands on it, because the story concerns a trip going from one person and situation to another instead of one solid story. Twenty Bucks is about twenty bucks. To be more exact, it's the tale of a brand new twenty dollar bill making its way from an ATM machine in some unidentified American city to one new possessor after another. With each new person that gets his or her hands on the bill, we get a short story about that person. Among the people who we see possess the bill are a homeless woman (Hunt, The Year Of Living Dangerously), an older gentleman preparing for the wedding of his daughter (Morfogen) to her fiancé (Brendan Fraser, The Mummy), a baker (Rasche, Sledge Hammer), two convenience store robbers (Christopher Lloyd and Steve Buscemi), a stripper (Melorma Walters), a drug dealer (Edward Blatchford), and a horny youth.

I have a feeling that Endre Bohem all those years ago got the idea for his screenplay from the 1932 movie If I Had A Million, which kind of had the same idea of multiple stories connected with a common money source. But if that was the case, I did not mind the borrowing of the idea. Any excuse for a multi-story movie is fine with me. I often like to watch such movies, because if one story is bad, there's a chance the next story will be better - an advantage you can't find in one-story movies. And it's often easier with movies with multiple stories to have a good amount of variety. And with Twenty Bucks having a multiple amount of stories, there is certainly a good amount of variety. Interestingly, the movie has something a lot of multi-story movies don't have, and that is a serious edge. For example, the story concerning Brendan Fraser's character getting married has one scene with his and his fiancé's character's families gathered together and watching a slide show. One slide shows Fraser's mother dressed in Spanish clothes, which prompts an aside from Fraser's mother to her son that she dressed that way because her late husband always wanted to go to Spain but never got the chance. As I said, it's only an aside, but all the same it stuck in my mind - we can all relate to dreams that never became reality. Not long after that moment, Fraser's fiancé's character makes a lengthy speech about moving to America from overseas with almost no money, but with hard work became wealthy and successful. Who hasn't heard of such stories before? While the movie certainly shows elsewhere characters down on their luck (the homeless woman, for example), it shows that America is still a great place for opportunity and growth for many people.

There are also some serious scenes that don't contain messages, but are just good drama; the whole segment concerning the two convenience store robbers, for one thing, has some nail-biting moments that build on one other and make you wonder just what's going to happen to these guys in the end. (I won't say what happens, except that the ending is believable yet satisfying.) While up to this point I have looked at Twenty Bucks with its serious angle, I don't want you to get the wrong impression about the movie. There are plenty of moments that, while maybe not be laugh-out-loud funny, are light-hearted enough to provoke smiles. When Fraser's character has his bachelor party, they are visited by a stripper who matter-of-factly states her various options and the expense they require. Her tired tone suggests someone who has done this kind of thing many times before, and it's amusing to observe. There are other realistic yet humorous actions in the movie, like when an herbal store owner (Gladys Knight) deals with neighborhood kids who think of her as some kind of voodoo queen. Not everything intended for laughs does work, however. The scene in the bingo hall with one patron (Alan North, Highlander) having a heart attack is kind of awkwardly presented. Also throwing an occasional wrench into the comedy works are some of the updates Leslie Bohem wrote into the script. We get things that would have been out of place back in 1935, like cocaine snorting, nudity, and the occasional use of four-lettered words.

But come to think about it, I've seen other movies with drug use, sexual material, and foul language that have been funny. I guess in this case my objection is that the bulk of the movie (obviously Endre Bohem's work) is written to play out in a mostly pleasant and almost old-fashioned manner. And the direction of this script by Keva Rosenfeld seems to compliment the mostly restrained writing. Doing a little research on Rosenfeld's career, I found out he has mostly done documentaries, which wasn't a surprise. Even though in this film he largely eschews obvious techniques like hand-held cameras, he manages to stage scenes in a manner that is at times almost like a documentary. Although he should have had actor David Rasche drop the very unconvincing German accent, Rosenfeld otherwise manages to direct the rest of his cast to act in a way that's, well, natural and believable. I think he simply trusted his cast and for the most part had them perform in the way they personally felt was right for their parts. They come across as real people instead of clichés. Rosenfeld also manages to use his low budget as an asset towards making this movie "real". Most hotel rooms are cramped and small in real life, for example, and big cities do have their seedy sides; the somewhat lack of slickness is something I think most viewers will relate to. Though Rosenfeld also puts in a few surprises along the way; there is one amazing shot involving a mail slot that for the life of me I can't figure out how he was able to accomplish. One character best sums up the movie early on when she says, "There's luck and there's fate." What follows shows that indeed life is sometimes made of pure chance, and sometimes predictable destiny. That line of dialogue also in a way sums up my opinion of the movie after watching it - I felt lucky to have seen it, but saddened that its fate was to have become an unknown movie.

(Posted June 24, 2018)

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See also: Black Sabbath, Interstate 60, The Ten