Thursday, May 26, 2011

Why Bridesmaids Is The Best Comedy Since The Hangover

A friend of mine was telling me that Bridesmaids was written in six days. I laughed at him. “No it wasn’t.” “Yes,” he assured me, “It was written in six days. I’m positive. I read it in an interview.” Having just come from the film, and marveling at how well-written it was, I assured him, that without question, there was no way in a Bridezilla-infested hell that this movie was written in six days. If a thoughtful nuanced character driven comedy was written in six days, it would mean I would have to reevaluate the totality of screenwriting. I mean, there was just no way.

So I did a little digging. Read a few interviews. My friend was right. Bridesmaids was written in six days. Oh, but there was one small detail he left out. It was then rewritten over the course of five years. Now THAT sounded more like it. Not that I have any problem with genius writers writing amazing scripts in the same time it takes to read a novel. I just felt that this script was way too good to be haphazardly thrown together over five nights of Hawaiian pizza and pajamie-jam parties.

Another key piece of the puzzle revealed itself when I heard that Judd Apatow shepherded the script. Wiig and Mumolo had never written anything bigger than a comedy sketch before. And when that’s the case, you need someone who understands structure, who knows what to do with all 110 of those big white pages. Again, this is not to take anything away from Mumolo and Wiig. Actually, these two contributed the single most important element of the script that’s led to Bridesmaids’ success.

What would that element be? What is it that makes this film so much better than the awful comedies studios have been peddling to us like “The Dilemma” and “Couples Retreat?” The answer is simple: Character. Everything that happens in Bridesmaids is born out of character. And you just don’t see that anymore. We preach it. I preach it on the site here all the time. But nobody listens to me! The majority of comedy writers these days start with a funny idea, come up with a few funny scenes, and then look for a plot and characters they can jam into those scenes. But in Bridesmaids, every single laugh is born out of character.

So what do I mean when I say “born out of character?” Well, there are four main character components that drive the comedy in this film. Let’s take a look at them. We start out Bridesmaids with Kristin Wiig’s character, Annie, having sex with super asshole take-advantage-of-her-guy Ted (Jon Hamm). Now it’s a goofy scene in that they’re never in sync, that she’s never comfortable with anything Hamm tries. But the thing you’re getting from this scene goes way beyond the hilarity of awkward sex. This scene does an amazing job of setting up our main character so that we both love her and understand her flaw. Annie is desperate to find someone to be with. She wants that other half in life so bad, that she’s deluded herself into believing that Ted might be the guy. The fact that he’s so shitty to her makes us feel bad for Annie. Which means we now want her to be happy, to not have to cling to jerks like Ted. This is the first character component that drives the humor.

Cut to a nonchalant lunch scene between Annie and her best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph). I always say to never put two characters at a table together unless you absolutely have to. It’s really hard to make two people sitting down and talking interesting. And as far as this scene goes, it’s probably one of the weaker in the script. However, the scene does a great job establishing the amazing friendship between Annie and Lillian. We see these two play off each other, understand each other, finish each other’s sentences. There’s no doubt in our minds after leaving this scene that these two have an amazing friendship. This is the SECOND character component that drives the humor.

Soonafter, Lillian tells Annie that she’s getting married, and while we can see that Annie is happy for her, we also sense that this affects her in two important ways. 1) She realizes her friendship with Lillian is never going to be the same again, and that terrifies her. And 2) Her best friend getting married highlights her own biggest fear – that she’ll never get married herself. These two things combine to give Annie her defining characteristic which will drive much of the comedy – her fear of being alone. Therefore, it’s the third key component.

This leads us to the (pre?) bridal shower party and it’s here where we meet the fourth and final component that makes the film work: Helen (Rose Byrne). Helen is Lillian’s best friend at work, and when Annie sees them together for the first time, she realizes that they’re a lot better friends than she thought. For that reason, Helen becomes the embodiment of Annie’s fear. Losing Lillian to Helen, in Annie’s mind, means being alone for the rest of her life. And that leads to the main engine that drives this story. Annie will do anything – and I mean ANYTHING – to make sure she doesn’t lose Lillian to Helen.

And there you have it. This is why the movie works so well. Those four character-related components drive 95% of the laughs in the movie.

Take a look at the bridal shower speech stand-off for example. That scene’s not funny because Annie is making a fool of herself or because Kristen Wiig is mugging for the camera. It’s funny because the entire scene is born out of her character’s need to prove that SHE’S Lillian’s best friend, NOT Helen. Had the writers not put all of that legwork into establishing the characters’ flaws and relationships, scenes like this would just die on the screen.

One of the things that shocked me about Bridesmaids was all of the long scenes in the film. One of the “rules” often touted in screenwriting books is to keep your scenes between 2-3 pages. Which is actually good advice.  Scenes tend to play a lot slower than you think they will, so writing a 4-5 page scene is often akin to putting a dead fish on the screen for 5 minutes. But there are tons of scenes in Bridesmaids that last 6-7-8 minutes long. Why do these scenes work?

Well I hate to sound like a broken record but it’s the same answer. The character work. If you make your characters likable? If you build people whom we want to see succeed? If you show us characters with real fears (being alone) and real backstories (lost their business) and real dreams (finding happiness) and real failures (being a hook-up for a guy who will never love you)? Those characters will end up “fixing” a lot of your scripts' other problems. It’s no different than in real life. If you like somebody, you don’t need to be with them at Disneyworld to be having fun. You could be in the back alley of a Tijuana suburb and still be having a good time.

But Bridesmaids didn’t stop there with its character work. It did something that is so rarely done nowadays that I’ve almost given up on expecting it. Bridesmaids puts just as much thought into its secondary characters as it does its primary characters. Here we have Rita, the disgruntled overworked mom whose home has become a prison, Becca, the “married the first man she had sex with” innocent newlywed, Officer Rhodes, the earnest mini-carrot loving perfect for Annie but she doesn’t know it yet love interest, and even Megan, the weird puppy-stealing positive-thinking-for-no-good-reason sister of the groom. The writers take advantage of every single moment of screentime to make these characters distinct and memorable. I just don’t see that in comedy scripts anymore. There’s usually the main character, the wily friend, and those are the only two people in the entire screenplay that the writer puts any time into.

What I take away most from Bridesmaids – the thing I “learned” from this film - is that great comedies are character pieces first and comedies second.  Mumolo and Wiig – either through Judd Apatow or on their own volition – decided to explore their characters first, and see what kind of funny situations arose from that exploration, as opposed to coming up with a bunch of funny scenes and then trying to reverse engineer characters to fit those scenes. I’m hoping the staggering staying power of Bridesmaids (20% weekend hold??) will prove that audiences want to connect with people first and laugh second. For all you comedy writers out there, take heed of this advice, and go write your next character piece. I mean your next comedy!