Monday, April 18, 2011

Comedy Theme Week - Dumb and Dumber

So the other day I did an amateur review of “Bass Champion,” a comedy about a Twilight-like actor who becomes a bass fisherman to win a movie role. I liked it quite a bit. The response to the script, however, was divided. Some people liked it. Others hated it. That response got me thinking. Why are comedy scripts so hard to judge?

Take Your Bridesmaid Is A Bitch for example. That was one of my favorite comedy scripts of the year. And yet I actually received hate e-mails afterwards telling me how terrible it was and how bad my taste was. I was like, “Did we read the same thing here?” Or The Escort, which I thought was a great road trip script which was both funny and had heart. I won’t revisit the comments section, but let’s just say 90% of you didn’t agree with me.

The weird thing I’ve found about comedy screenplays is that when the reader doesn’t like them, they actually start to hate the writer. Not just “Oh, I didn’t like it. But good effort!” No.  A rage builds up inside of them like Bruce Banner to the point where they want to find the writer and beat his brains in for making them endure this garbage. No other genre elicits that reaction. And the broader the comedy, the more vitriol you can expect. And I get it. I think Talladega Nights is godawful. The unfunniest piece of garbage I saw that year. I actually stopped thinking Will Ferrel was funny for awhile after that movie. Yet some people think I’m crazy for not liking that film. My best friend says I have no funny bone if I think Nights isn’t funny.

Naturally, a lot of this comes down to humor being subjective. But there are movies out there that everybody seems to find funny (or at least most people). So as much as I’d like to throw up my hands and concede “If it’s funny, it’s a good comedy, if it doesn’t, it isn’t,” I can’t do that. Comedy is the top genre in the spec screenplay market. We have to be able to measure its quality somehow or else we’re writing in the dark.

So what I’m doing this week is taking five popular comedies and trying to figure out what makes them work. Now I’ll be honest with you. I don’t know what I’ll be able to conclude after this. It’s an experiment I’m doing for myself and I’m forcing all of you to come along for the ride. So hopefully something will come of it. But if all the reviews go like today’s, I might be in trouble.

Genre: Comedy
Premise: A pair of dim-witted friends accidentally steal a ransom suitcase full of money. When they try to return the suitcase to its rightful owner, the lovely Mary Swanson, hijinx ensue.
About: The film was very successful at the box office, grossing $127 million in the United States, and $247 million worldwide, an impressive take for a comedy on the world stage at the time, especially from a relatively unknown star (Carrey had only done Ace Ventura before this). There was a huge battle between the producers and the directors (and Carrey) about the ending where Harry and Lloyd are offered to join a bus full of models and they refuse. The producers insisted that they get on the bus. But the Farrelly’s and Carrey would not film the scene, insisting that the characters were too stupid to do so.
Writers: Peter & Bobby Farrelly.

One of my favorite comedies of all time, Dumb and Dumber follows two dimwitted friends, Lloyd (a limo driver) and Harry (a pet groomer), who get inadvertently wrapped up in a kidnapping after snagging a suitcase filled with ransom money and trying to return it to its owner, Mary Swanson, who Lloyd’s fallen in love with (after a ten minute limo ride). The journey takes them to Aspen, Colorado, where they realize the suitcase is filled with a million dollars, which, instead of conserving, they burn through in a matter of days.  

I’m already regretting making this the first review of the week. If anything, this script’s served to confuse me more about comedy than help. Let’s start with the lead characters. If you walk into any movie studio and ask any creative person how to write a buddy movie, the first thing they’ll tell you is that the two leads have to be opposites. ESPECIALLY in a comedy. Opposites bring out conflict. Conflict results in humor. I actually can’t think of a single road trip comedy where the two leads didn’t have some key opposing quality which dominated their relationship.

Lloyd and Harry? They’re pretty much the same person. They’re both dumb. So theoretically, you lose out on a ton of comedy. And yet their interactions are funnier than 99% of the comedies out there. You see those question marks on my eyes? They were there the whole time. I mean, there’s no real conflict between these two until we get to the third act, when Harry steals Mary from Lloyd. THREE ACTS until we hit the conflict between our lead characters. Contrast this with the conflict that pops up right away in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. It’s baffling why this works so well here.

Bringing some sanity back to the analysis, the Farrelly’s do place a lot of external conflict on our characters, mainly with a world that keeps shitting on them and hit men who are hot on their trail. If there’s little conflict between your main characters, you should try to lay as much external conflict on them as possible, and they do that here.

But insanity returns when you break down Dumb and Dumber’s structure, which is really wonky. I always say, if you’re going to do a road trip film, make it a road trip film! Your entire second act should be your characters on the road, because that’s what your movie is about.  National Lampoon's Vacation, Little Miss Sunshine, Planes Trains, Due Date, Road Trip, all follow this formula. Dumb and Dumber starts out this way. But our characters end up getting to Aspen at the midpoint, a full 1 hour before the movie ends.

From there, the movie almost reboots itself. The “Get to Mary Swanson” movie becomes The “Find Mary Swanson” movie. And then it reboots itself again, becoming “The Lloyd/Harry/Mary Love Triangle Movie.” I was surprised to see Blake Snyder’s famous “fun and games” section (where you typically find all your trailer moments) right after they open the briefcase and start spending the money, a full 65 minutes into the movie. This section almost always comes right after the first act. 

I would say there’s no precedent for this but there actually is. Swingers sets itself up to be a road trip movie (or at least a “two guys in Vegas” movie) but then reverses itself and brings its characters back to L.A. for the final hour. I would say that there’s something to be learned here but every time I see an amateur try to do something similar, it ends up becoming a wandering mess, where we’re not sure what the movie is about. So I’m squirming in my seat trying to figure how it works here.

I’m inclined to guess that while the overall structure does have a strong driving force (get the suitcase to Mary), our real love for this movie comes from how much we love our protags. The Farrelly’s have said on many occasions that if you make the audience fall in love with your heroes, they’ll go anywhere with you. And they do work hard to achieve this. First of all, Lloyd and Harry get fired. Audiences generally sympathize with people who have fallen on hard times. They’re also extremely unlucky. Everything they touch turns to shit. Another layer of sympathy. But I think the big deal here is something that almost slipped by me. They’re underdogs. Say it with me. Everybody loves an underdog. Everyone! So we’re intrinsically rooting for these guys to overcome their deficiencies and achieve their goal.

Now I know what some of you are going to say. “Well, it’s Jim Carrey! That’s why it’s funny. That’s why we like it. The casting!” Okay, but let me reel off some movie titles for you. Me, Myself, and Irene, Bruce Almighty, Fun With Dick and Jane, Yes Man. Jim Carrey wasn’t funny in any of those movies. A writer must first write a funny character before an actor can come along and bring that character to life.

I have to confess that this is a pretty frustrating way to start my experiment. I love this movie. Really love it. But I was hoping to be enlightened while breaking it down. Instead, I’m more confused than ever. I didn’t even mention some of the other “essentials” the script eschewed. The guy doesn’t get the girl in the end. There are no real character flaws in the main characters (very little character depth).  I’m going to defer to the Scriptshadow Commenters on this one and see if you can’t find something I missed. In the meantime, on to the next comedy.

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

What I learned: Dumb and Dumber follows one rule I believe is imperative to making comedies work: Make sure the reasoning for your characters going on their journey is solid and believable. Had Lloyd and Harry just shrugged their shoulders and went, “Why don’t we go find this Mary chick,” I’m not sure we would’ve cared as much. But Lloyd, in one of the broadest comedies of that decade, breaks down in a very real way and, through tears, pleads, “I’m tired of being a nobody. I want to do something.” It’s that real character moment that propels us into this journey and fuels the next 75 pages.