Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011

The Unsettling Real Story That Inspired 30 Minutes or Less

The upcoming 30 Minutes or Less has a premise that's pretty wacky on first glance — a pizza delivery boy is sent out to a remote location to deliver a pie, where two maniacs strap a bomb to his chest. If he doesn't rob a bank and bring them the loot in time, he'll explode. Pretty outlandish, right?

Well, not really. It's based on actual events in which pretty much that exact thing happened to pizza delivery man Brian Wells. But at the end of this story, the bomb actually exploded. Not very funny.

In light of this morning's news that a bomb squad in Australia was called in to defuse and remove a highly sophisticated collar bomb that was attached to a teenage girl, it makes you wonder: are we far enough away from these horrifying events to be laughing about them? And is it OK to base comedies off of specific events of this nature? This Australia news is very bad timing for 30 Minutes or Less, but I still can't help but be a little unsettled by the actual story the movie is based on, which happened in 2003.

Wired ran a long, in-depth story on the Brian Wells case late last year, and it's well worth reading. Here's how it opens:

At 2:28 pm on August 28, 2003, a middle-aged pizza deliveryman named Brian Wells walked into a PNC Bank in Erie, Pennsylvania. He had a short cane in his right hand and a strange bulge under the collar of his T-shirt. Wells, 46 and balding, passed the teller a note. “Gather employees with access codes to vault and work fast to fill bag with $250,000,” it said. “You have only 15 minutes.” Then he lifted his shirt to reveal a heavy, boxlike device dangling from his neck. According to the note, it was a bomb. The teller, who told Wells there was no way to get into the vault at that time, filled a bag with cash — $8,702 — and handed it over. Wells walked out, sucking on a Dum Dum lollipop he grabbed from the counter, hopped into his car, and drove off. He didn’t get far. Some 15 minutes later, state troopers spotted Wells standing outside his Geo Metro in a nearby parking lot, surrounded him, and tossed him to the pavement, cuffing his hands behind his back.

Wells told the troopers that while out on a delivery he had been accosted by a group of black men who chained the bomb around his neck at gunpoint and forced him to rob the bank. “It’s gonna go off!” he told them in desperation. “I’m not lying.” The officers called the bomb squad and took positions behind their cars, guns drawn. TV camera crews arrived and began filming. For 25 minutes Wells remained seated on the pavement, his legs curled beneath him.

“Did you call my boss?” Wells asked a trooper at one point, apparently concerned that his employer would think he was shirking his duties. Suddenly, the device started to emit an accelerating beeping noise. Wells fidgeted. It looked like he was trying to scoot backward, to somehow escape the bomb strapped to his neck. Beep… Beep… Beep. Boom! The device detonated, blasting him violently onto his back and ripping a 5-inch gash in his chest. The pizza deliveryman took a few last gasps and died on the pavement. It was 3:18 pm. The bomb squad arrived three minutes later.

Not exactly hilarious.

Obviously, we can expect the storyline of 30 Minutes or Less to use this story as a launching point, and not follow it all that faithfully. I certainly don't expect to see Jesse Eisenberg killed by a homemade bomb at the end. But it does raise the question: are there some stories that are too upsetting or dark to act as foundations for comedy?

There have certainly been some seriously dark comedies that were highly successful, most recently with Chris Morris's Four Lions. That movie isn't based on specific events, but it is about terrorism, and it includes some very realistic and upsetting scenes of innocent people being killed. I really liked the movie, and thought that its handling of sensitive and controversial subject matter was spot-on. Morris used the emotional weight of scenes of terrorism to redefine how we view "terrorists" as people and as characters. The movie was hilarious, but it also leaves the audience questioning the media-made image of evil mastermind terrorists, hiding in caves and plotting nefariously.

The difference between Four Lions and 30 Minutes or Less is pretty clear. 30 Minutes or Less is based on a specific event, not on the idea of terrorism in general. It also doesn't appear to be aiming to make any statements about its subject matter, instead using the unique scenario as a launching-off point for a wacky action comedy.

Of course, I haven't seen 30 Minutes or Less yet. I can't pass judgement on it. But I worry that I'll be unable to get the real story out of my mind while watching it, and it's tough to laugh at a funny movie when you're thinking about a serious tragedy.

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  • Robin@twitter

    I saw a screening of the movie and they did use the idea as a launching pad for the plot. Forcing someone to do something by threatening them with a bomb is one thing, but in the movie Jesse E. is a pizza delivery guy who is forced to rob a bank, so that is getting really specific and a definite nod to the original event.

    The movie was a black comedy, but I'm not so sure it did anything or had any specific thing to say about the event. I think that speaks to more of the quality of the movie, which was so-so.

  • Jason Farr@facebook

    This was a movie I was looking forward to. One of the only this summer. Way to poop the party.
    I'm kinda kidding. It's not you, it's them making a movie based on this. But if it wasn't for this article I wouldn't know that going in. Crap! I don't see how I can enjoy this movie now.

  • http://twitter.com/joshung Joshua Ungerleider
  • http://twitter.com/joshung Joshua Ungerleider

    Joshua Ungerleider
    Edit your comment (Comment editable for.. 3min0sec) Delete your comment
    I remember thinking when I heard about the film if they needed to get rights to the story or anything. Then I figured "no way" as I doubt the relatives would option a comedy for this story.

    Similar thing happened with the Mena Sevari movie "Stuck," however that wasn't a comedy. It was the one where a woman hits a homeless man with her car, he gets stuck in the windshield, and instead of notifying anybody, she leaves the car in her garage with him in it. In the movie, (spoiler) the guy manages to escape, but in real life I believe he just died.

    How much do you need to change a story like this to avoid having to buy rights?

    *Edit – on a side note, looks like that teenage girl is safe now.

  • Dan Angelucci@facebook

    For what it's worth, if you read the whole article, the guy who died was a willing participant, and the whole thing was a ruse, but eventually he got double crossed, and the bomb, unbeknownst to him, became a real bomb.

    Allegedly, at least.

  • Rob Moden@facebook

    Eisenberg states in the YouTube Q&A promoting the movie last month that nobody on the set of the film knew about the 2003 story until production had begun. Maybe that means the writers heard about it but didn't say it was based on a true story, but you've written this article with the assumption everyone knew and was on board.

  • Evan Whom@twitter

    Yeah, way to miss the part where the victim was a co-conspirator who got double-crossed, not just a helpless patsy.

  • http://jonaspolsky.tumblr.com/ Jonas Polsky

    '30 Minutes or Less' is the bomb!

  • Matt Kowalick@facebook

    Why would a website that supports alternative comedy post a story to keep alternative comedy fans from enjoying an alternative comedy? A comedy that takes chances and already has the odds stacked against it. In a marketplace of bland, safe, studio comedies, this film is the opposite of that, and a site like this should do everything they can to promote a comedy that their readers may actually enjoy, not deter them.

    Regardless of this story, I will see 30 Minutes or Less.

    • Ladyfriend

      @Matt Kowalick@facebook This website isn't a mindless shill for comedy — the idea is to discuss it. And if an upcoming release seems to push the envelope of good taste, why not address it?

      Would you prefer they whitewash any potential controversy in comedy?

  • Ladyfriend

    Thank you for posting this. When I saw this preview, I was shocked (and that takes a lot). I was reminded of one of the more unsettling crimes I've ever read about, and to use that as a premise seems macabre at best.

    To me it doesn't matter whether the victim was in on the scheme initially (it's pretty well accepted that he was) — the horror of having a real bomb strapped to your neck…this is the stuff the "Saw" franchise is made of. Anyway, I'm glad someone else noticed this very questionable choice of premise.

  • Justin Birch@facebook

    Happened in my hometown of erie pa…. still want to see the movie … looks hilarious!

  • Maggierodriguez5486

    ive seen a documentry about it, i cryed like a baby. Poor guy, he didnt deserve anything like that. He was just a delivery man.

    • spamthisone@clear.net

      Or did he? I'm not so sure he didn't know about this from the get-go. Hard to say though. Really weird case. I can't believe I've never heard about it until tonight's CNN special. I've seen 30 Minutes or Less and didn't even realize it's foundation. Where was I in 2003? =/

  • anonymous

    Basiaclly if the police would listen then he would still be alive that is so stupid. With their big ears they should have heard the beeps. This is so sad. R.I.P

  • xxtine

    The movie itself was okay…. this story ruined any part of it that was remotely funny for me. I can't imagine the horror he felt when it was about to go off.

  • lollimom48

    So this guy used the "Black guys did this to me" defense. I just stopped caring. Remember Susan Smith? So, it is with a clear conscience I will see the film. If you want to be creeped out by a movie with basis in fact…try Pain and Gain. That dark comedy is based on the deaths of real innocents.

  • lollimom48

    Much less sad when you know the whole story…


  • Guest

    So why are my posts being deleted? Don't want anyone to know the truth? Or is it because I mentioned the tried and true "Black guys did this to me" defense used by Susan Smith, et al.? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_Douglas_Wells