Friday, September 11, 2009

Film Friday: Rat Race (2001)

“A horse race with animals that can think and lie and cheat and play dirty?”

With the summer ending, let’s do one last film that’s just fun. Directed by Jerry Zucker, Rat Race is the updated version of It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). If you’ve never heard of Rat Race, that is because it was a victim of poor timing. Released two weeks prior to 9/11, Rat Race faced stiff competition from a slew of comedies. If you haven’t seen it, you should. Not only is it absolutely funny, but it stands out from the crowd of angry/gross out comedies that are so prevalent today. Here’s why the movie works:

** spoiler alert **

Classic, Flexible Plot

The first element of Rat Race’s success is its classic, flexible plot. Eccentric billionaire Donald Sinclair (John Cleese) picks six people at random from his casino and offers them the chance to race to Silver City, New Mexico, where the winner will get $2 million in cash. He does this so that he and his clients can bet on who will win. Most of the six have partners that join them in the race, and every one of them is a freak. Hilarity ensues.

This is an ideal storyline for comedy for several reasons. First, it’s highly believable, even though it’s outlandish. We all want to believe that races like this happen all the time and that there are dozens of billionaires out there waiting to offer such challenges and hand out money to the winners.

Secondly, the story structure is so flexible that it can be bent to fit whatever comedic ideas work best without making the audience feel that the scene was an after-thought. For example, if the Ghostbusters suddenly came across a rocket car, we would feel that the scene was tacked onto the movie. . . that it was not organic to the plot. But in a movie like Rat Race the flexible plot structure allows the characters to find a rocket car (or a “Barbie” Museum or a busload of Lucy’s) without ever feeling like the scenes have nothing to do with the plot. This gives the movie tremendous comedic possibility.

Excellent “Natural” Casting

The second element in Rat Race’s success is the casting. Check out these names: John Cleese, Rowan Atkinson, Whoopie Goldberg, Jon Lovitz, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Seth Green, Kathy Bates, Wayne Knight, Amy Smart, and a dozen more. Each of these actors has proven through their body of work that they are capable of handling comedic timing without coming across as staged or stilted. And in each instance, the actors are well cast for the roles they play. Indeed, they are so well cast, that the actors merge into the roles and you can easily see every one of them being in real life the way they are portrayed in the film. That pulls you right into the movie because you never once feel like they are acting. Compare that with Ben Stiller, who I like, but who always feels like he’s playing a role.

Classical Comedic Principles v. Modern Gross Out/Angry Comedic Principles

But what really makes Rat Race stand out is its reliance on classical comedic principles, rather than trying to apply modern gross out or angry comedy principles. Rat Race is not a gross out/angry comedy. Here’s why that’s a superior choice.

Gross Out/Angry Comedy Characters Must Be Unlikable
Think about how gross out comedies and angry comedies work. They work on the principle of schadenfreude -- that is, they work because the audience derives joy from seeing the character suffer. Still, funny is funny right? Well, not really. There is a price to pay for basing humor on schadenfreude. Before an audience will find it funny that a particular character suffers, the audience must feel that the punishment is warranted. That means that the director must fill the movie with nasty people doing nasty things to each other just so they can become the butt of various jokes. Otherwise, the movie feels mean spirited, if innocent characters suffer. It is exceedingly difficult to lose oneself in a film when one doesn’t like the characters.

And since the point of gross out/angry comedies is to generate shock at the punishments inflicted, either because of how painful they appear or how gross they are, the filmmakers really cannot make the punishments fit the crime. They must instead make the “crime” fit the punishment. If they don’t do this, they will run afoul of the human desire for proportionality; as a race, we are uncomfortable with excessive punishments. Thus, the filmmaker must either find some “crime” that mirrors the punishment, which is difficult to do when you’re looking for the grossest shocks you can find, or they must set out to make their characters so nasty that the audience doesn’t feel the least bit queasy or uncomfortable with the punishment.

Rat Race, on the other hand, follows more classical comedic concepts. That means likable characters subject to classical morality. Good deeds get rewarded, bad deeds are always punished, and the punishment always fits the crime both in terms of proportionality but also in terms of mirroring the crime -- an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Thus, greed is punished by an equal loss. Gluttony is punished with deprivation. Arrogance is punished with humiliation. Secrecy is punished with exposure. And it is precisely because the punishment does fit the crime that we not only feel satisfied by the punishment (which is not always the case in the angry/gross out films) but we never feel “guilty” about seeing the character punished. Further, except when the character misbehaves, there is no need in a classical comedy to make them out to be unlikable.
Making Characters Unlikable Limits The Types Of Humor That Can Be Used
Not only do unlikable characters make it harder for the audience to get into a story, but the use of unlikable characters dramatically limits the types of humor the director can employ.

For example, in Rat Race many of the jokes work because of the innocence of the characters. Take Whoopie Goldberg: her character is presented as likable and hopelessly naive. She is in Vegas to meet her grown daughter for the first time (having given her up for adoption). She envisions the daughter being a sweet young woman, and that is how the daughter presents herself. . . until she answers her cell phone. Then she turns into the dragon lady from hell. She is a Type A business woman with a penchant for ripping the heads off her employees. When she finishes the conversation, she crushes the cell phone. Whoopie innocently and sympathetically says, “Oh honey, you broke your phone.” Without missing a beat, the daughter smiles and cheerfully says, “It’s ok, I carry extras.” This is a funny moment. But it only works because we like these characters. They are good people with bizarrely outrageous flaws. And since they are generally good, and the flaws are outrageously presented, they are really funny to us.

Compare that with an angry comedy like Tropic Thunder, where these same outrageous flaws are presented as the standard personality of the characters. If Ben Stiller were to deliver the daughter’s line about having a spare cell phone, we would not find it funny because it wouldn’t appear to be an outlandish moment, we would instead view it as mere confirmation that he’s an unlikable ass. Thus, the humor is lost.
Gross Out/Angry Comedies Cannot Do Introspective Humor
Moreover, because we do like the characters in Rat Race, we can sympathize with them. Thus, Rat Race has available to it, another whole type of humor that it can exploit that angry comedies cannot: introspective humor. In other words, unlike angry comedies, Rat Race can derive humor from the experiences the audience has in common with the characters in the movies.

Whoopie discovers that her now-grown daughter is not the sweet little girl she expected. Lovitz lies to his family about being in a race because he wants to get rich so that he doesn’t have to work at Home Depo. Cuba Gooding Jr. is hiding from the world after making a fool of himself on television. Breckin Meyer discovers that there is an unexpected side to the girl he likes, Amy Smart, and that makes him adventurous. These are all experiences we have had in one form or another. And by exaggerating these experiences on screen, the writers let us re-live them vicariously in a more harmless way, and we get to laugh at the way we acted at the time. Thus, the humor becomes very personal.

The angry/gross out comedies, on the other hand, cannot do this because the audience never sympathizes with the characters, because the characters must be seen to be assholes so that the audience does not object to the periodic punishments. This prevents us from ever seeing our own experiences being played out by the characters because we don’t associate ourselves with the jerks we see on the screen. (As an aside, many gross out/angry comedies attach a redemption theme at the end of the movie in an attempt to inject this type of humor, so that you leave the theater believing that you did like the characters after all.)

Moreover, since we can sympathize with the Rat Race characters, we can put ourselves into their plight. This manifests itself in us rooting for each team to overcome whatever obstacles they encounter to get to Silver City. And that presents yet another fertile ground for comedy. Each of these obstacles turns out to be things that we have all encountered, things that have frustrated us before -- like fully booked flights or long lines at rental counters. And since we don’t need to hate these characters, we can feel their frustrations. That’s where Rat Race gets very clever in its writing.

Rat Race zigs when it should zag, just to frustrate us. Then it zigs again, to push us further. And just as we reach the breaking point, it drops a perfectly timed joke on us to defuse everything.

For example: who hasn’t been in a hurry only to be stuck at a counter with a slow clerk? We all have, and we all know the frustration. So when Whoopie and her daughter end up stuck in the rental car line, we can instantly sympathize. And since this is a race, our frustration is compounded. But we’re not ready for the joke yet. When they finally get to the counter, and we assume they are over their hurdle, the film doubles down on our frustration: the clerk turns out to be the world’s dumbest trainee. . . and who can’t relate to that moment? So you are further frustrated, but you also laugh at the situation -- not because you are laughing at the two women, with whom you sympathize, but because you are laughing at all the times this happened to you and how frustrated you felt (only to realize that in hindsight, getting upset was pretty silly). But that’s not the joke. The joke comes a moment later, just as your frustration reaches its peak, when the clerk states that they have a car available. Suddenly, without missing a beat, Whoopie asks, “what color is it?” And this totally ridiculous question, asked at the right moment, makes you burst out laughing and makes all of your frustration disappears, making your joy all the greater.

Gross out/angry films can’t duplicate this because you can’t sympathize with the characters. Indeed, they know this. So they don’t even try to gain your sympathy. Instead, they use these moments to allow the angry characters to erupt to demonstrate how frustrated they are. Thus the joke, rather than being based on our own experiences, is based on the ability of the actor to amuse us with their ranting.

Thus, classic comedy is capable of using more types of humor and particularly more internalized/personal humor, than modern gross out/angry comedies.

Conclusion

Rat Race not only is a classic comedy, it is a well done classical comedy. The jokes are well set up and unexpected, and they pay off handsomely. The actors give you characters you simply will not forget. There are lines you will remember (“siphoning gas is not a smoting offense”), scenes you will remember (Pepto-Bismol), and you will go away from this movie smiling. It may not be deep or philosophical, but it’s absolutely worth your time.

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26 comments:

ScottDS said...

I saw Rat Race at a sneak preview shortly before I left for FSU and I was pleasantly surprised! I even saw it again with a new friend I made at FSU (it might've been just after 9/11).

I think the "Barbie Museum" got the biggest laughs along with Seth Green's schtick (the radar tower, the hot air balloon, etc.). And seriously, where is Dave Thomas and why isn't he in more movies?

I'm conflicted over your definition of the Gross Out/Angry Comedy, and I don't think the two should necessarily be lumped together. American Pie would be classified as a gross-out comedy but a.) only Stiffler is the unlikable one, and b.) the audience is satisfied when he gets his just deserts for picking on our otherwise likable heroes. Just because a movie character suffers some indignity, it doesn't mean they deserve it or that the audience won't sympathize. (The same logic can apply to something like Animal House. And John Landis knows his classic comedies.)

I do see your point re: a movie like Tropic Thunder (which I liked) where ALL the characters are completely over the top (though I think that was the point) and where the normal rules don't seem to apply. But I think the audience still instinctively roots for these guys when they accomplish good deeds.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, the gross out comedy and the angry comedy don't necessarily go hand in hand, but they work along the same principle -- you enjoy them because someone you don't like is made the butt of the joke. Humans just don't find "unjust" punishments to be funny. Nobody finds Mother Theresa slipping on a bannana to be funny. . . but Leon Helmsley falling is hilarious.

On American Pie, I think more than just Stiffler is unlikable. But in any event, a comedy need not be entirely one form or another. You can have characters in a gross out film, for example, that operate more like they are in a classic comedy, an angry comedy, or even stand up. Although typically, movies tend to group their characters into one type.

On Tropic Thunder, ask yourself, are you really pulling for these heroes at any time until they have their redemption moments? Do you care at all if Jack Black gets out of the jungle until he tries to rescue Stiller? Or do you care about Stiller's agent until he finally turns down the money offer? Or even Stiller, do you care about him until he stops being the "asshole" star? And after they undergo their redemptions, note that they no longer display any asshole tendancies anymore -- because if they did you would feel the redemption to be bogus and you would return to your prior hostile attitude.

On Animal House -- which is neither a gross out film or an angry comedy -- even there, they have to give a nod to making the punishment justified. We don't like the fact that the Dean is after the heroes, but we have to admit that they have done a lot to deserve his ire. In fact, the only reason we pull for the heroes -- despite the fact that they are clearly bastards (see Fawn) is that the other guys are worse. In effect, we are pulling for Mussolini in a mud wrestling match with Hitler.

Thoughts?

MegaTroll said...

I really liked Rat Race. That Barbie scene and the scene with the state troopers where the guy is cleaning the window, LOL!

You make an interesting point and I think you might be right about gross out films. They never really do anything nasty to anyone who isn't nasty themselves. If they do, it's not really funny either, at least until that person gets even. Cool. I need to watch a couple movies and think about this.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Mega, glad you enjoyed it. As I've said before, I try to give you something to think about.

I'm not saying there is something wrong with the gross out or angry comedies, they can be quite entertaining, I'm just trying to explain some of the differences.

Writer X said...

This sounds hilarious. I don't remember it at all. I may try to pick it up this weekend. I love comedies like this.

I agree with you about Ben Stiller. In fact, I usually avoid his movies because he's just not funny. He's too predictable.

Thanks for the review!

AndrewPrice said...

You're welcome X. I'm always surprised how few people have heard about this film. It's very enjoyable.

AndrewPrice said...

P.S. I do often like Stiller's movies, but he is very predictable, despite trying to play such a variety of roles, and he doesn't strike me as a great comedic actor.

Also, I find too often (almost always in fact), that his movies are so entirely about him that it's distracting -- it's almost like the other characters exist solely for the purposes of letting him pull off his gags. He needs to learn to be a more "giving" actor.

ScottDS said...

Andrew - Interesting comment about Stiller. I know I've said this before but I enjoy him more when he's playing a character (Zoolander, Dodgeball, etc.) than when he's simply playing a nebbish (Meet the Parents, etc.).

Jerry Seinfeld was a very giving performer. I recall one of the Seinfeld DVD making-of featurettes where one of the executives said he noticed in one episode that Jerry didn't even have his own plotline! When confronted about it, Jerry said he was fine with that.

As for our previous exchange, you're hitting on something; I'm just having trouble articulating a response! Can you give me another example of an angry comedy?

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Off the top of my head, I would think the following would be “angry comedies”: Anger Management, Me Myself & Irene, The Cable Guy, and Dodgeball. I would also put There’s Something About Mary and American Pie into both the angry comedy and gross out comedy boxes.

And again, not everything about these movies is pure “angry comedy” or pure “gross out comedy”, but I think that by and large these comedies have a heavy theme of deriving their humor from the punishment of asshole character(s), and they need to “redeem” one or more of those characters before the end of the movie so that you don’t walk away saying, “wow, I hated everyone in that movie.”

LawHawkSF said...

Andrew: I liked Rat Race too. I think your analysis was excellent, although I'm getting a headache trying to figure out which categor(ies) to put my favorite comedies into. As for Tropic Thunder, may favorite character in the movie was the Robert Downey Jr. guy who is so into his part that he doesn't realize he's white. Downey's one of those people I don't have anything good to say about in his real life, but his acting is top-notch.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, Tropic Thunder was definitely an "angry comedy" -- there isn't a likeable character in the movie until they all go through their redemptions.

I actually don't have a hard time separating the actors from their political views, unless the movie is itself political.

freedom21 said...

I havent even read this review yet...but I am just so excited that I am not the only on who saw it and liked it. YAY. ok, time to read....

freedom21 said...

Great Review! It was a comical feat! Personally, my favorite part was when the Jon Lovitz family is riding in Hitler's car...and the daughter is putting on Eva Braun's lipstick. The whole scene is genius.

Some of the other comedies that I feel don't follow the traditional
gross-out themes but are based around good characters are Dumb and Dumber, Black Sheep and Tommy Boy. I love those films and love pulling for the main characters the entire time

AndrewPrice said...

Freedom21, I'm glad you enjoyed the review. I thought that was a great scene too. And they did it in such a way that you never could have guessed how it was going to end. Very well done.

ScottDS said...

Well, you've done it now. :-) I really can't articulate a good response re: "angry comedies."

The Cable Guy is an interesting case though. It's not a comfortable movie to watch (the others you listed are more or less harmless) and the whole time you're waiting for the other shoe to drop - how much worse can Carrey make it for Broderick - and I don't like that feeling. Oddly enough, I do think the movie is slightly underrated and I was the only one of my friends who liked it at the time. Seeing it again, knowing everything turns out okay, lessens the burden, I guess.

I suppose it all goes back to characters. I know I've said on BH that having a likable character with whom the audience can identify is NOT a prerequisite for a good movie (There Will Be Blood, for example) but it can certainly help.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Talk it through. What are you thinking? What was I "on to"? What part do you think you agree with or think you disagree with?

I agree that a movie does not necessarily need a character that you like for it to succeed. BUT those are almost always dramas, and they usually (though not always) end up with the character "getting his comeuppance" at the end.

The few times that I can think of a comedy with characters that you really dislike and that aren't redeemed, the movies have not been a success -- like The Cable Guy or War of the Roses. These usually fall into the category of "black comedies" and they play by slightly different rules. They're more like dramas populated by idiots (like Burn After Reading), and the humor is really nasty and it's aimed directly at the characters themselves. And generally, these films require that the characters suffer at the end, rather than go through redemption.

ScottDS said...

PART I

Talk about picking the old brain. :-)

"They work on the principle of schadenfreude -- that is, they work because the audience derives joy from seeing the character suffer. [...] There is a price to pay for basing humor on schadenfreude. Before an audience will find it funny that a particular character suffers, the audience must feel that the punishment is warranted."

I simply don’t believe that’s true. Sure some filmmakers resort to shock for the sake of it but you have to look at intent, too. And in a comedy, I think the audience lets it slide a little bit because we can all identify with being embarrassed or feeling as if we’re being punished when we don’t deserve it.

"That means that the director must fill the movie with nasty people doing nasty things to each other just so they can become the butt of various jokes. Otherwise, the movie feels mean spirited, if innocent characters suffer. It is exceedingly difficult to lose oneself in a film when one doesn’t like the characters."

Innocent characters suffer all the time – I feel what’s more important is how they manage to get back on their feet. I know it’s not totally black and white but many movies have good characters that suffer, only to fight back in act III and plenty of movies have mean-spirited characters: sometimes they get redeemed in the end, sometimes they don’t, sometimes it’s strictly done for comic relief or contrast.

As for me, I’ve written part of a teen comedy and I even have a sequel in mind where the lead goes off to college and gets ripped to shreds (metaphorically) by some unfriendly neighbors in the dorm. Does the lead deserve such treatment? I don’t think so – he hasn’t done anything to them. But it happens, and again, I think the audience can identify with wanton cruelty whether the person on the receiving end deserves it or not.

ScottDS said...

PART II

"And since the point of gross out/angry comedies is to generate shock at the punishments inflicted, either because of how painful they appear or how gross they are, the filmmakers really cannot make the punishments fit the crime. They must instead make the “crime” fit the punishment."

I think this is more of a case of bad storytelling and the need to out-shock the next movie. Jason Biggs gets caught schtupping a pie: does he deserve to get caught? I don’t know – but it’s funny when he does. Again, the audience can identify with the embarrassment and the awkwardness, especially when parents are involved.

"The angry/gross out comedies, on the other hand, cannot do this because the audience never sympathizes with the characters, because the characters must be seen to be assholes so that the audience does not object to the periodic punishments. This prevents us from ever seeing our own experiences being played out by the characters because we don’t associate ourselves with the jerks we see on the screen."

This is what I think you were hitting on and it all goes back to characters that the audience can relate to. And by that, I mean characters that you expect to act in a more or less realistic way. Sure some of the characters in Rat Race are a little out there but take The Cable Guy for example. If you’re Matthew Broderick’s character, wouldn’t you have kicked this nutjob cable guy out of your apartment? But Broderick can’t because then there would be no movie. This -kind of- applies to Apatow’s movies (I think he produced The Cable Guy). Many of these people don’t act in ways you or I would. Someone pointed out that the most unrealistic scene in Knocked Up is when Heigl tells Rogen that she’s pregnant and Rogen curses up a storm – they’re in a restaurant and no one shushes him nor does a waiter ask him to lower his voice. These are things you’d expect to happen in real life or to realistic characters.

"Moreover, since we can sympathize with the Rat Race characters, we can put ourselves into their plight."

I think this is more a function of simply seeing someone on the big screen – we naturally want to put ourselves into the plights of the characters whether it’s a farm boy from outer space or a club owner with a chip on his shoulder. I sure as hell could identify with Broderick’s character in The Cable Guy (feeling as if the world is coming apart for no good reason, being tormented when I don’t deserve it, etc.).

"Thus the joke, rather than being based on our own experiences, is based on the ability of the actor to amuse us with their ranting."

Some movies and TV shows manage to do both – Seinfeld for instance. Those characters misbehaved but we could still identify with them and we were amused by their ranting. And sometimes you just want to live vicariously through the characters and when they get away with something, sometimes you think you could too.

ScottDS said...

EPILOGUE

I found this Jerry Zucker interview from the time the film was released:

http://www.popmatters.com/film/interviews/zucker-jerry.shtml

PM: Yes. And I thought about how reality tv shows tend to showcase humiliation, as much as competition, for entertainment. Where do you see your film in relation to this?

JZ: In this case, you feel for the characters. They're everyman in a way, they're representative of parts of all of us. And again, the actors are not doing exaggerations. There is an element of reality to these characters. So, the Cody brothers [played by Seth Green and Vince Vielhuf in Rat Race] are like real brothers, where Cheech and Chong were comics, like Rodney Dangerfield doing a movie. And the further you get out into that place, the less believable you get. And if you get a writer or director who loathes the characters, not the actors, but the characters, that can affect the outcome, make it condescending. Here, I love all these characters, and the actors each found a little bit of themselves in their characters.

PM: There are many set-piece or sight gag moments in the film, like the Lucys all crying, or the flying cow. So how do you get the characters into those scenes, which are less about characters than they are about gags?

JZ: I think they have to blend. In this movie, it all first comes from characters, and if you don't do it that way, you're doing sketch material. There are some movies that do sketch successfully. Like Austin Powers -- there you don't have a real character, but Mike Meyers has created a world and a guy, so it's not sketch. You accept it because he's done it so well and so fully. And so, in Airplane! and The Naked Gun, we had actors' recreations of characters from movies rather than sketch. Nobody was saying, "Aren't I funny?" Or an example in Rat Race is Rowan Atkinson, who plays what is certainly the broadest character in the film. But as played by Rowan Atkinson, Pollini is like Austin Powers: he's a guy in a situation. The actor is gone.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, thanks for the Epilogue. I'm working on a response to the rest. . . it's been a busy Saturday.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott,

Before I respond, let me make it clear (because tone is difficult to get right in print), I’m not attacking your points or saying you’re wrong. You’ve made some thoughtful points (and I’m glad you responded) though I don’t agree. I stand by my analysis, BUT I’m certainly open to being proved wrong. So tell me more after you’ve had a chance to read my response:

1. At the outset, let me say that there are no absolutes. Few films do only one thing to the exclusion of all others. Also, I’m talking about general rules here, not absolute rules. There are films, I’m sure, that have broken these rules. Thus, as with all general rules, the existence of one or two counter examples does not disprove a general rule -- though a flood of counter examples might.

2. That said, I don’t see the counter examples. I’ve tried to come up with nasty characters in a comedy (don’t confuse comedy and drama, they play by different rules -- so sayeth the ancient Greeks and so has it remained) who are not punished or redeemed by the end of the movie, and I can’t come up with any (except maybe a throwaway character who is only on screen for a few moments). Can you come up with some?

AndrewPrice said...

3. Innocent characters being punished unjustly happens all the time in comedies. But that is the flip side of the nasty character/punishment coin. These characters need to be “made whole” by the end of the film, either by receiving revenge against those who have wronged them or by being compensated somehow for their suffering (like the guy at the end of Ocean’s Thirteen who gets the jackpot). Excluding throwaway characters (like a bank clerk you might see for five seconds) can you name for me any innocent characters in a comedy that are punished but not “made whole” by the end of the movie?

4. I think these two general rules can be broken, but the filmmakers do so at their own peril -- and they better have good writing to distract the audience from the sense of unfairness.

You can write a story any way you want (obviously), but I think that to get the audience’s approval, you must satisfy certain basic principles or desires. This goes back to the ancient Greeks, who came up with the idea that a drama is about a great man humbled and a comedy is about an average man lifted up. It’s not that simple, obviously, but many of those same principles infect everything we still do culturally. There are things that we believe (and they aren’t always the things we profess to believe -- “like might makes right”), and if you violate those believes in a story, people will feel disquieted by the story. Cosmic justice (karma) is one of those things.

AndrewPrice said...

5. I think you will find that few people can accept wanton cruelty, especially in a comedy. We barely accept it in drama. And what you may think of as wanton cruelty is almost always “softened” in stories through a variety of means. Even shows that supposedly trade in wanton cruelty (like Dexter) “humanize” the character very quickly to make them palatable.

6. You forget about Biggs that it’s not just the pie and being caught. The pie is the set up for being caught, but he’s being punished for taking/participating in taking pictures of a girl without her knowledge -- which pictures are then broadcast over the net. In that regard, getting caught masturbating with the pie is perfectly symmetrical punishment.

7. Realistic responses are part of what make a movie believable. We accept the unbelievable (provided it’s not too unbelievable -- suspension of disbelief) for the sake of having a movie. But the more disbelief we have to suspend, the greater the likelihood that we fall out of the world created by the movie.

8. “I think this is more a function of simply seeing someone on the big screen – we naturally want to put ourselves into the plights of the characters” -- I don’t think that’s true. I think we look in movies to find people that we want to associate with. Ask your female friends and you will see that they don’t see themselves as Luke, they see themselves as Leia. At the same time, take Devils Advocate, you probably have no desire to put myself into the shoes of anyone other than Reeves.

9. Sure, sometimes you just want to live vicariously through the characters, that’s what film is about. But by and large, you still need to follow the rules that we lay out for ourselves, and that’s what I’m talking in the article. Even the Seinfeld crew rarely got away with what they did, and never with anything truly nasty -- in fact, most of the shows were about them doing something stupid, worrying about getting caught, getting caught, and things blowing up in their faces. Cosmic justice.

ScottDS said...

I'm addressing some of your points and adding onto some of my previous ones:

"I’ve written part of a teen comedy and I even have a sequel in mind where the lead goes off to college and gets ripped to shreds (metaphorically) by some unfriendly neighbors in the dorm."

I probably should have mentioned that the lead character does get back at the neighbors in the end. It is, after all, a comedy and it wouldn't be very satisfying if the film ended with his defeat and no hope for the future.

"I think you will find that few people can accept wanton cruelty, especially in a comedy. We barely accept it in drama. And what you may think of as wanton cruelty is almost always “softened” in stories through a variety of means."

I probably should have rephrased the "wanton" part. I suppose what I was trying to get at was the worse our lead character is treated (assuming he doesn't deserve it), the greater the satisfaction when he gets the upper hand in the end. But of course, he needs to get that upper hand.

"You forget about Biggs that it’s not just the pie and being caught. [...] In that regard, getting caught masturbating with the pie is perfectly symmetrical punishment."

I never thought about it quite like that :-) It would be interesting to map a movie like Pie on a board - peaks and valleys, setups and payoffs, etc. I don't know if the filmmakers think about it in the same terms you do (crime and punishment) or if it's simply a need to cram in as many set pieces as possible.** Part of that is I think basic storytelling: if your character is up, drag him down; if he's down, get him up.

"I think we look in movies to find people that we want to associate with. Ask your female friends and you will see that they don’t see themselves as Luke, they see themselves as Leia."

I figured that would be self-explanatory. :-) I used Luke as my example but the same logic applies for Leia, Han, et al.

Seinfeld and cosmic justice - I couldn't have put it any better.

That's all I've got! :-D A lot of filmmaking 101 seeps in through osmosis - you are right that the audience expects certain things re: payoffs, karma, etc. It's simply part of our collective consciousness.

** Re: set pieces, this is somewhat off-topic but I read a great review of this crappy Clerks-style comedy called Waiting. A lot of comedies suffer from this:

http://www.dvdmg.com/waiting.shtml

The reviewer talked about the "Noonan elements" - named after Danny Noonan in Caddyshack - "Caddyshack works when it concentrates on the abundance of comedic talent it possesses, but it drags when it focuses on the lesser lights."

Pie suffers from this. Ten years later people remember the big set pieces and gags but do they remember the other stuff? The Chris Klein business in the band, for instance? I doubt it.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I can't speak for all filmmakers, but script writers have a whole bunch of rules that they tend to follow. I suspect that a lot of the rest is just innate in how we think.

Many filmmakers are very detail oriented and they've balanced their movies carefully. Consider for example The Matrix, which is a thesis or religion, with each scene carefully put together to give you precise meaning.

Many of the rest, I think just follow the formulas, which tend to track audience expectations.

I agree with you that the greater the injury, the greater the payoff needs to be -- that's what I've been calling proportionality.

It would be interesting to map out some films to see how they work. That's something I'd like to do more of in these columns, I just haven't had the time yet.

If you want to know a film that no one really remember, but they all think they do -- consider 2001. As anyone and they will tell you it was a good sci-fi movie. In reality, it's 20 minutes of ape-creatures jerking off, 20 minutes of sci-fi, and an hour of special effects.

AndrewPrice said...

P.S. I think you're right about the Noonan effect. A lot of movies seem to suffer from that. They have great stories or great characters, but they make them secondary to the completely not-compelling part of the story.

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