Thursday, April 21, 2011

Comedy Theme Week - Wedding Crashers

It’s Comedy Theme Week everyone. For a detailed rundown of what that means, head back to Monday’s post, where you’ll get a glimpse of our first review, Dumb and Dumber. Tuesday, I took on the best sports comedy ever (yeah, I said it), Happy Gilmore.  Wednesday was Grouuuuuundhog Day. And today, grab your invites cause it's time to crash some weddings.  

Genre: Comedy
Premise: Two friends who live their lives to crash weddings get in over their heads when one of them falls in love with a bridesmaid.
About: Steve Faber and Bob Fisher wrote Wedding Crashers, yet strangely haven’t had a produced credit since (the film came out in 2005). They have sold a couple of specs though, including the Scriptshadow reviewed, “We’re The Millers,” about a fake family trying to smuggle drugs across the Mexican border. While Faber and Fisher obviously wrote the script, Vaughn and Wilson are said to have rewritten a lot of their own dialogue. The film made 209 million dollars in the U.S., which was a total surprise to New Line, who would’ve been happy with a take of 75 (the movie cost 40 million).
Writers: Steve Faber and Bob Fisher

So I sent an e-mail out to my most loyal readers asking them to pick between Wedding Crashers and Office Space for the final comedy pick of the week (there's one more tomorrow, but I already had that one in place). I was kind of shocked when Wedding Crashers received just as many votes as Office Space, a movie that’s in my Top 3 comedies of all time. I thought Crashers was amusing but I didn’t think it was hilarious. When the final tally came in, Office Space actually beat Crashers by a couple of votes, but I decided to review Wedding Crashers anyway. Why? Because I think Crashers represents the beginning of a paradigm shift in the way comedies were marketed and, by association, written. Wedding Crashers decided to do away with the high concept, and make the concept the title itself. Wedding Crashers. Knocked Up. The Break-Up. 40 Year Old Virgin. Forgetting Sarah Marshall. The shorter time in which you could convey what your story was about, the easier it was to sell. So what’s shorter than stuffing your concept into the title? Now, hooks like weathermen stuck in time loops and hockey players forced onto the golf tour were unnecessary.

How do I feel about this? Well, I find it funny. You’re essentially dressing up what 15 years ago would’ve been considered “low-concept” and saying it’s the “new high concept!” Who needs a plot? Just throw people into a situation! Guys! Crashing weddings! Genius! I’m not being totally fair here. The truth is, in the right hands, movies like this can work. The idea of crashing weddings is funny. It’s just a little sad to see the more intricate comedy ideas of the past being deep-sixed as a result.

Now my memory of this film is so-so. I only saw it the one time in the theater. But I remember thinking…ehhh, not bad but nothing special. So I was curious to see why I felt that way. As the first 30 minutes unfolded, the answer revealed itself. Wedding Crashers’ plot is slow and plodding. Instead of the hardline goals of the previous three comedies (return the suitcase to Mary, save Grandma’s House, get out of the time loop), Wedding Crashers’ goal is more generic. Get the girl. Which I think adequately pulls the film along. But there’s something second rate about it. Like the story’s being pulled by a golf cart instead of a pick-up truck.

Now I’m not saying Wedding Crashers isn’t good. I think there’s a little more going on here than people give it credit for. Arrested development, better known as “man-children unable to grow up syndrome,” is a universal theme that a lot of people are familiar with. I mean, who wants to grow up? Who wants to be responsible? Who wants the fun and excitement and unpredictably of childhood to end? So the fact that these two guys are in conflict with that means we’re exploring them on a deeper level, which again, leads to comedy that resonates more.

I also liked the way the movie handled its dual-protagonists. One of them has a clear goal (get the girl) and the other is stuck along for the ride. And he’s really stuck. The writers put this house out on an island, which was smart, cause that way Vince Vaughn couldn’t go anywhere. This allows them to shit on Vaughn’s character from every possible angle (psycho girlfriend, crazy son, dickhead boyfriend) and that’s where most of the comedy comes from. This is especially important because, let’s face it, the Owen Wilson/Rachel McAdams love story is a little boring.

Still, I’m not sure these writers really understand comedy. Most of the funniest stuff comes from Vaughn and Wilson talking to each other. And as has been well-documented, they wrote a lot of that dialogue themselves. As far as the mechanics of the story go, there were some huge missed opportunities. A lot of great comedy comes from setting up high stakes for your characters and then placing them in a situation where those stakes are in jeopardy. If you throw them into a situation and there are no stakes, no matter how wacky that situation is, it’s not going to generate many laughs. Take the football scene for instance. It’s a cute scene where Wilson is trying to impress Rachel McAdams, but the truth is, there’s nothing really on the line here. None of the plays matter. Who wins doesn’t matter. Contrast that with the volleyball scene in Meet The Parents. Ben Stiller has, up until that point, been desperately trying to prove himself to this family he’s trying to join, and everything he’s done has made them dislike him more. This volleyball game is presented as a last chance opportunity for him to redeem himself, for him to let these guys know he’s good enough for their sister/daughter/niece. That’s why cheap jokes such as him having to wear speedos and him accidentally giving the bride a bloody nose work, because we want so badly for him to make a good impression. All the stuff in Wedding Crashers, including the dinner table scene, are just a collection of gags, of funny jokes (the foul-mouthed grandma, the over-the pants handjob). There was never enough at stake to make the scene really pop.

Another red flag that the writing wasn’t as good here was the villain. I was *just* talking about this the other day in the “What I Learned” section of Happy Gilmore. Shooter McGavin is a character you remember because he’s got more than one dimension. Bradley Cooper’s villain here (the evil boyfriend) has one dimension. The asshole. And that’s why his character is so boring. I didn’t even remember that there was a villain in Wedding Crashers. That’s how little of an impact he left. But this is the writers’ fault. You can’t give us the simplistic “asshole” and expect that to resonate with an audience. It’s boring. You have to add more dimensions.
On the plus side, Crashers uses one of the all-time “always works” story devices and makes it, well, work. Guy falls for girl. Girl has boyfriend. It works EVERY TIME. And the reason it works is this. In any romantic comedy, you have to have someone who wants someone else, in addition to a reason why they can’t have them. If you don’t include the reason why they can’t have them, you don’t have a movie. The problem is, writers try to come up with all these convoluted reasons for why they “can’t have them” (they work at rival companies! Oh no!). But the simplest version of this is also the most convincing, most relatable, and least questioned: They have a boyfriend. Because we’ve all been in that situation before (We’ve liked someone but they were with someone else), we get it. So there’s a natural conflict driving the narrative. It’s not just “will he get her?” We know he can do that. It’s “Will she leave her boyfriend for him?” which is a lot more uncertain.

Another thing Wedding Crashers has going for it is that it has two of the most likable leads you’ll ever see in a comedy. And it’s so funny we’re talking about this since the comedy from yesterday’s review came from the opposite end of the spectrum. But it’s true. Of all the characters we’ve met this week, Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn are the two we’d most want to spend a weekend with. They’re fun. They’re funny. They’re a little childish, sure, but they’re far from mean-spirited. And that says more than you think it does. Because we talk a lot about how making your characters too likable can backfire on you. If someone’s perfect, how interesting is that? But outside of not being able to grow up, these two are about as “studio-friendly likable” as they come. And we never question it.

My thing with Wedding Crashers is that it’s not a very well-written script. The stakes aren’t high enough. The story emerges clumsily. And most of the comedy is sloppy. But the dialogue and the interaction between the two main characters is enough to make us forget about that *most* of the time. I didn’t hate this movie. I didn’t love it. But I enjoyed it.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: One of the most important rules in screenwriting, and especially comedy, is: “Never include a scene that doesn’t move the story forward.” It’s one of the biggest mistakes amateur writers make. The problem is, there’s a wide-ranging gray area of what it means to “move the story forward.” Well, a great way to see this in practice is to watch the UNRATED versions of comedies. In these cuts, the producers put back in all the scenes they cut out for time. And boy can you tell. The scenes just sit there, bringing the film to a crashing halt, while they dole out some unnecessary joke or advance some pointless subplot. Wedding Crashers (Unrated) has a ton of these scenes, and they make the movie endless. For example, as we’re racing towards the end in that third act and meet Will Ferrell’s character, he talks to Wilson about crashing funerals. In the movie, that’s it. In the unrated version, we actually see them go and crash a funeral. Yeah it's kind of funny, but it's not needed.