Friday, April 22, 2011

Comedy Theme Week - There's Something About Mary

 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. Thursday, Wedding Crashers.  And for our final film of the week, one of my favorite comedies ever, There's Something About Mary!  

Genre: Comedy
Premise: 15 years after a horrifying prom night accident, a man decides to take a second shot at the girl he fell in love with. Only problem is every other man in the world wants her too.
About: The movie that propelled cinema into a decade of gross-out humor (some of which is still going on today), There’s Something About Mary became a sleeper hit back in 1998, bringing in 176 million dollars at the box office. In one of the best known gags in the film, where Mary erroneously mistakes Ted’s semen for hair gel, Cameron Diaz was said to have fought the gag ferociously. Her argument (which was rather sound if you think about it) was that a woman on a date would be checking herself constantly, and therefore would never have her hair like that. The Farrelly’s finally convinced her to give it a shot, and we subsequently got one of the most memorable moments in film history.
Writers: Peter and Bobby Farrelly

There’s Something About Mary is in my top 3 comedies of all time. The structure, much like the Farrelly’s other movie I reviewed this week, Dumb and Dumber, is all over the place. But the reason this film makes you laugh is because it has some of the best comedy set pieces ever written. And it’s a testament to how finicky comedy is, because I’ve seen the Farrelly’s create countless set pieces since then that just weren’t funny. And that’s one of the reasons I wanted to revisit this classic. I wanted to figure out what made this one different.

First, the structure. Again. Three words. “What the hell?” This is a really oddly-structured film. The movie places its first act in the past, establishing Ted and Mary’s relationship as teenagers. It then spends its entire second act with the two apart. I want you to think about that for a second. A romantic comedy (which is what this essentially is) keeps its two leads apart for the entire middle portion of the movie. What the hell?

It gets weirder. We started off with Ted as our main character. But the middle act actually switches over and makes Mary the main character, occasionally giving the spotlight to Healy (Matt Dillon’s private detective villain). So the entire middle act is dedicated to a relationship which isn’t the main relationship in the movie. The main relationship, Ted and Mary, doesn’t get kickstarted again until the final act! That’s when Ted arrives in Florida and makes his move on Mary. The third act then becomes its own little romantic comedy, with the traditional, “Guy gets girl, guy loses girl, guy gets girl back.” With montages and everything!

So why does it still work? Well, I think I know. All of the guy characters in this movie have incredibly strong goals: “To get Mary.” That drive means that it doesn’t matter whose story we jump to, because when we get there, that storyline will have intense forward momentum driven by that character’s pursuit of that goal (Mary). Also, through it all, the story’s driven by our ultimate wish, to see Ted get Mary. In fact, outside of When Harry Met Sally, I don’t know of a comedy or romantic comedy where you want the two main characters to get together as much as this one.

And I think that’s a huge part of why the movie works. There’s Something About Mary spends the first 90 minutes of its running time building up Ted’s attempt to get Mary. Remember how yesterday I said the reason Wedding Crashers was weak was because the stakes were low? Well here, the stakes are as high as they can possibly be. The reason we care so much in the last 30 minutes is because we’ve just spent the entire movie watching Ted go through hell and back to get to Mary. This build-up is what makes their scenes together so captivating. Because they’re packed with the tension of “Will this work out? Does he finally have her?” Go back and watch that scene where Ted first meets Mary again. In that 3 second moment after Mary responds, “Didn’t we just do that?” to Ted’s asking her if she wants to get some coffee and catch up, I can’t remember a time in movies when my heart sank that much. And it’s all due to the buildup of stakes.

Attention to stakes is also the key to one of the most famous comedy scenes ever, when Ted gets his balls stuck in a zipper. The reason this scene works so well is not because, “Wowza! His nuts are stuck in a zipper!” It works because for the last 20 minutes, the writers have built up that this is the single most important moment in Ted’s life. Somehow the nerdiest kid in school has pulled off the impossible – he’s taking the prettiest girl in school to the prom (stakes)! We are on pins and needles begging that this works out. So when it starts to backfire, and when that fateful zipper moment comes, and we’re hoping and praying he somehow fixes it in time to still go to prom. When it doesn’t? And the situation continues to get worse instead? It breaks our heart. Because we know this is it. You don’t get a second chance to take the prettiest girl in school to prom.

The scene also does double duty, creating a key residual effect. That terrible situation he went through? That losing of the chance to go out with the most popular girl in school? It makes Ted the single most sympathetic character in the world. I mean we’ll go anywhere with this guy after that. And so when we learn that he’s going to take another shot at Mary, even if he’s going about it creepily and hiring a private investigator? We don’t care. Because we believe he deserves that shot. And whereas yesterday the goal of getting some random girl at a wedding made Wedding Crashers' driving force weak, the pursuit of the perfect girl who you lost out on when you were in high school because of a freak accident…that goal is about as strong as they come.

I want you to think about that because it’s an important screenwriting lesson to remember. What happens if Owen Wilson loses that girl? Let’s see. He loses out on a girl he’s known for all of 24 hours. No offense but: BIG FUCKING DEAL. He’ll get over it. But with Ted, this is the girl he’s spent every day for the last 15 years thinking about. It’s personal. There’s history there. If he loses this girl, you feel there’s a good chance it will destroy him for the rest of his life.

The Farrelly’s, like Happy Gilmore, have also created a great villain. Unlike the one-dimensional forgettable villain in Wedding Crashers, Tad Healy has a ton going on. He’s smart. He’s funny. He’s slimy. He’s good at what he does. This is what I mean when I say, “Add some dimension to your villain.” Again, you could’ve just made him a great big asshole. But Healy is much more than that, which is why his character is so memorable.

Another thing I like about the Farrelly’s comedy is they always ask the question, “How can we make this worse for the character?” And when you do that, you usually end up with something funnier. So in the scene where Healy drugs the dog so it likes him and impresses Mary, they say, “How can I make this worse for Healy?” Well, what if the dog died? So now the dog’s dead. And now Healy has to do the whole “CPR” bit on the dog and bring it back to life before the women come back in the room. You see this device being used again and again throughout the movie, especially on Ted, and it’s a big reason for all the hilarious set pieces.

But I think the thing that sticks out to me most when breaking down this film, is how wonky that structure is. The Farrellys have really weird structures to their films. Just like Dumb and Dumber, we have our heroes starting in one place, driving to another, and then beginning a relationship in the final act. But Mary is even more complicated, since the second character (Healy) is our villain, and isn’t with Ted on his trip. Therefore you have this cross-cutting storyline going on in the second act where we’re jumping back and forth between Ted’s journey and Healy and Mary’s courting. I have to admit, it’s different from any comedy plot I’ve read, and I get the impression that Peter and Bobby haven’t ever looked at a manual on how to structure a screenplay. This is why Dumb and Dumber and Mary feel so fresh. They don’t go how you think they’re going to go. However, before you jump on that bandwagon, it’s important to note that this seems to hurt them just as much as it’s helped them. They have some dreadfully unfunny movies in their vault, many of which peter out near the end (Stuck On You, Me Myself and Irene, and The Heartbreak Kid), and a lot of that is structure-related.

Lots of other things to take away from this movie. I didn’t get the chance to show, once again, how much effort the Farrellys put into making you love their hero (he befriends the retarded brother. He wants to help out Mary even after learning she’s 250 pounds and in a wheelchair), but I think it’s safe to say that a big part of the formula for their success is making sure you love and root for their protagonist. I also thought this was one of the few “romantic comedies” to create a fully rounded female character. She was maybe a wee bit on the wish-fulfillment side (she loves sports, likes to hang with the guys, doesn’t care about looks) but Mary is definitely different from every other romantic comedy lead female you’ve seen. There’s Something About Mary is one of those few screenplays that takes chances, breaks the rules, and those changes actually end up making the final product better. I can’t tell you if this happened on purpose or by accident. All I can tell you is that it worked.

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

What I learned: KYFC! Know your fucking characters! I’ve been encountering this a lot lately in the amateur screenplays I’ve been reading. Writers aren’t thinking about their characters! They don’t know what their character does for a living, what their passion is, what their dreams are, what their vices are, what their bad habits are, what they like in the opposite sex, what their education is, what state they grew up in. I used to be of the opinion that this stuff didn’t matter. I’ve done a 180 on that and let me tell you why. I’ve realized that a lot of boring dialogue comes from the fact that the writer doesn’t know enough about the character who’s speaking that dialogue. When you don’t know that person, you give them generic lines. Let me give you an example. There’s a moment where Mary’s roommate, the old woman, asks her if Matt Dillon, who she’s going on a date with, is cute. She replies, “He’s no Steve Young.” Now this is by no means an earth-shattering line of dialogue. However, it’s a line of dialogue that could only come from Mary herself. It’s a line of dialogue that tells us a lot about who Mary is (she likes football – which is also established earlier in the screenplay when she’s telling Ted about her love for the 49ers). Without knowing that Mary is a woman who loves football and the 49ers, we may have heard a more generic response such as: “He’s all right I guess.” That’s a line that anybody in the world could’ve said. It’s generic and uninteresting. And the less you know about your characters, the more lines LIKE THAT are going to come out of your characters’ mouths. Add enough of them up, combined with enough lines from other characters who you don’t know well, and the more non-specific lacking-of-insight boring generic dialogue you’re going to get. So people, please: KYFC!

What I learned from Comedy Week: In 4 out of 5 of this week’s comedies, the writers went out of their way to make their characters sympathetic. Loving the characters may not be a requirement (you don’t love Phil in Groundhog Day), but in comedies, it helps a lot. Also, in 4 out of 5 of the comedies, the characters had incredibly strong goals. I can’t stress this enough. The more your hero wants to achieve his goal, and the bigger and more important that goal is, the better your script is going to be. It’s no coincidence that the script with the weakest central goal (Wedding Crashers) was also the weakest of the comedies. Outside of that, the rules are fairly wide open. Just try to keep the stakes up, not just for the film but for the set pieces and individual scenes as well. Add multiple dimensions to your villain to make him memorable. And make sure your concept is funny to begin with! Any other trends you guys caught from this week’s entries, please include in the comments section! :)