BLANK CHECK (1994)
Directed by Rupert Wainwright, Blank Check is notable for being one of only two movies written by Blake Snyder, author of the acclaimed screenwriting how-to book Save the Cat!. Well, in preparation for this review, I went out and bought myself a copy, and I must say, Mr. Snyder was a man with big balls. He frequently dressed down critically acclaimed movies like Memento, calling them pretentious failures that broke the immutable laws of movie physics. From this I can only assume that Blank Check must be a true pinnacle of storytelling perfection! Let’s check it out.
Preston Waters (Brian Bonsall) is a kid with a terrible family. His father (James Rebhorn) values financial success and private enterprise above all else, and his brothers insist on using his room for their own ill-defined business needs. He desperately needs to escape from his miserable family life.
After a few minutes, the audience wants to escape as well.
Thankfully he gets hit by a car. Well, his bike does, more accurately. The perpetrator is an escaped criminal named Quigley (Miguel Ferrer) who’s on the run from the law. He and an associate named Juice (Tone Lōc) are attempting to use banker Biderman (Michael Lerner) to launder a million in cash. It’s all somewhat complicated. In any event, Quigley ends up giving Preston the titular blank check to repair his messed-up bike.
Finally, after 15 minutes.
He fills the check out for one million dollars, and due to some confusion related to the aforementioned laundering, is able to cash it. He uses the money to buy all kinds of stuff that would presumably be really cool if you were a kid in the ’90s.
A tacky house that looks like a castle!
(Which Quigley also wants, just to add some manufactured conflict.)
His very own emotionally stunted chauffeur (Rick Ducommun)!
Piles of douche clothes!
A trash can full of ice cream!
This is all well and good, but soon he sets his eyes on Shay (Karen Duffy), one of the tellers from the bank. I’m not saying it’s wrong to have a love interest in a movie about a 12-year-old boy, but the person in question probably shouldn’t be in her thirties. Anyhow, they go on a date, and there is far too much creepy flirting.
Mary Kay Letourneau meets Mrs. Robinson.
But creepy creepy happiness can’t last forever, and the three criminals from earlier are prowling around looking for their cash.
Insert joke about Tone Lōc and/or that shirt he’s wearing here.
Well, Preston escapes from these bumbling asshats a couple of times, and everything seems good, so he throws himself a giant birthday party. But, wait! He’s all out of money. Turns out a million doesn’t go very far when you spend it on a bunch of stupid crap. Everybody leaves the party early, the criminals attack, and things start getting all Home Alone.
Like if Macaulay Culkin had access to really expensive stuff like go-karts and a pitching machine.
During this defense of his home, Preston somehow uses a virtual reality machine to torture Mr. Biderman. I’m honestly not sure what is going on here; it is entirely baffling.
Academy Award-nominated actor Michael Lerner, everybody!
Anyhow, the criminals are beaten, the FBI shows up (led by Preston’s 33-year-old crush, who was working for them this whole time), and there are no consequences for Preston whatsoever. Hooray!
In his beloved book on screenwriting, Save the Cat!, Blake Snyder says that all good movies must make a thematic statement in the first five minutes. In Blank Check, he says, the thematic statement is “he who has the gold makes the rules” and that this will either be proven to be true or false over the course of the film. But you know what? I honestly can’t tell which it was.
Could this movie be about the virtues of selfishness?
It does have a shot of Preston looking up at a shrugging Atlas…
If the movie is trying to say that he who has the gold does not make the rules, it fails several times over. While Preston isn’t happy the entire time he’s wealthy, he certainly is in control. He’s able to get his dream girl to (creepily) go out with him. He’s able to plan the exact type of party he wants. He’s able to purchase his dream house and fill it with gadgets. He’s even able to manipulate his father. He is undeniably the master of his own universe, and the source of his power is his dough.
Behold the king at his throne.
But I’m not sure that the film is trying to affirm “he who has the gold makes the rules” either. Mainly because that would make this a terrible film with a deplorable lesson. If we’re supposed to walk away with the message that money equals the ability to get everything we want out of life, then Preston’s main fault isn’t using deception to gain his million, but choosing to squander it so frivolously. As obsessed with financial ends as Snyder seemed to be (more on that in a bit), I don’t think his intended moral was “invest wisely so you can retain your power.”
“Throw it all on the bed” is not a wise investment strategy.
So in the end, which is it? I don’t have a clue. In the final moments of the movie, Preston’s dad says, “Be careful what you wish for” which, though sickeningly trite, does fit the film pretty accurately. On that note, I wish I hadn’t had to watch Blank Check.
WHY DON’T PEOPLE LIKE IT?:
Despite largely sticking to Blake Snyder’s structural rules on how to write a good screenplay, Blank Check is not very enjoyable. Sure, all of the plot elements in the third act are dutifully set up in the first and second, but that doesn’t amount to much if your story is boring, your bad guy’s plan is confusing, and your protagonist is borderline unlikable.
Maybe it’s just the ’90s dripping off him, but this kid is insufferable.
But then I wonder if Blake Snyder ever really intended to write a good movie in the first place. Throughout his book, the bar by which he measures success is not whether a film is critically acclaimed, or even whether it ever makes it into production, but whether or not he can sell it to a studio. Maybe Blank Check was nothing more than a pay check, and it’s just an unfortunate side effect that an actual film was created from the script he was able to convince Disney to buy. His gain, our loss, I guess.
- I’m not sure that I can pinpoint a “save the cat” moment for Preston. A “save the cat” moment is when the protagonist does something endearing or heroic in the first few minutes of a film. It helps to make the main character relatable and likable, and happens to be the rule Blake Snyder’s book is named after. As such, it’s somewhat ironic that Preston spends the opening scenes of the movie moping around and being picked on by his brothers. Maybe making his computer shout “Damien and Ralph sleep butt to face” at his brothers repeatedly is this movie’s cat-saving. I don’t know, and ultimately I’ve stopped caring.
Preston studied at the Lex Murphy school of computer hacking.
MOST REGRETTABLE MOMENT:
Pretty much every interaction between Preston and Shay is irretrievably skeezy, but it reaches its peak at the very end of the movie when the two haggle over how long they’ll have to wait before going on a date. She starts off at ten years, but is brought down to six, which, if this is Preston’s 12th birthday, would make him just barely legal when they meet up again. Hooray? Anyhow, they share a kiss. How sweet.
This totally wouldn’t fly if you reversed their genders, so how is it even remotely okay?
Oh, and the movie ends with him making a birthday wish for the two of them getting together. As far as Preston is concerned, this isn’t over, and that just makes this all even creepier. Ech.
Blank Check is no fun. It may have been if you watched it as a kid in the ’90s, but it certainly isn’t fun as an adult, and I doubt that this particular brand of ’90s materialism would resonate with kids today (not that kids are less consumeristic, they just want different things). That leaves this film as a sad relic of a decade gone by, probably enjoyable to no one. But hey, the script sold, and I guess that’s what really mattered. After all, he who has the gold makes the rules.
Man of the House (1995)