Mar 24, 2011

Contrivances and Rom-Coms

When you're writing a story, it's important to fulfill the promise of your premise. You need to fully explore your concept, you need to make every event spring from that central idea and enhance that concept. You can't get distracted or side-tracked. To maintain unity, you should always stick to your premise.

Except of course when you shouldn't.
The Ultralight
Some of the best comedies succeed by using a very light-weight, very natural premise. With very little plot to follow, it makes comic digressions and set-pieces easy to integrate. Nothing feels like a side-track if there's no main path. This freedom lets the characters lead the way, lets the comedy spring from common human thoughts and experiences.

A simple premise keeps the comedy grounded.

Christmas Vacation
Some successful examples might include The Hangover, Grown Upsor Christmas Vacation. There's also When Harry Met Sally. It has almost no plot whatsoever, but rather, a question - can men and women ever be friends? Bridget Jones's Diary is essentially about a woman living her life and keeping a diary (which cleverly puts that diary at the center of the story's resolution). The Odd Couple is about two divorced men who move in together.

These movies aren't universally good, but they all allow the story to focus on the characters and their relationships, instead of complicated plot mechanics.
The Jumbo Jet
But Hollywood loves a hook. Hollywood loves contrivance. Perhaps it started with Pretty Woman. Perhaps it goes all the way back to It Happened One Night. Hell, perhaps it goes back to Taming of the Shrew.

Particularly in romantic comedies, the stories too often spring from unlikely situations that pile on arbitrary rules to build artificial barriers and provide external goals for the players, all so the story needn't focus on those darn characters, their difficult-to-express internal lives, and their confusing relationships.

How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days is about a bet - an intersecting pair of bets! Leap Year is about an obscure Irish tradition and an unlucky plane landing. Never Been Kissed is about a woman going undercover in high-school.

The Apartment
Don't get me wrong. There are movies with great hooks, with great contrivances, like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, about a procedure that removes a memory, like the painful memory of an ex-lover. Or The Apartment, which is about a low-level office-worker who loans his apartment keys to his bosses so they have a place to take their floozies without their wives finding out. You might be surprised that I also admire 50 First Dates.

What makes these movies work is that by focusing on those unusual or even outlandish premises, somehow, naturally, universal truths emerge. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is about how people take on a life of their own in our memories, about the way we play out the same roles in our relationships. The Apartment asks whether we are defined by our jobs or by the people we love, and what it means to be a mench, a human being. 50 First Dates is not only about the euphoria of falling in love for the first time, and what makes it happen, but about mental illness and chronic disease and the way that love and family can survive them.

But that's not always possible. It has to come when you cook the meat. Every offbeat premise doesn't necessarily have truth to offer, and you can't force it. That's the territory of blood and not getting it from stones.

Good Luck Chuck is about a repulsive guy who, if a woman sleeps with him, the next man she dates will ask her to marry him. The only "truth" exposed by focusing on that gimmick is the rotten chestnut that women will do anything to get married, and men will do anything to get laid. Does that feel like a surprising truth? Does that even feel true?

And not to pick on Dane Cook unfairly, but to pick on Dane Cook quite fairly - how about My Best Friend's Girl? It's about a repulsive guy who sells a service: he'll date your ex-girlfriend for you, and when she sees how awful Dane Cook is, she'll come running back to you. Is this how people work? If so, where? And why haven't we bombed that place?

Seriously, the best part.
How about Failure to Launch? It's about a woman who sells a service: she'll date your immature son who refuses to get his own place, and with her sexuality, she'll push him to leave the nest.

The more you focus on these premises, the further you get from relatable human behavior. They're good sketch premises, sure. But they're too elaborate to feel real when you crank them up to 90 minutes long.
The Bait and Switch
Hollywood recently offered us Just Go With It, a remake of a much better movie, Cactus Flower, which was based on a play, and featured a screenplay by I.A.L. Diamond, the writer of Some Like It Hot. Both Cactus Flower and Some Like It Hot have pretty elaborate, offbeat premises. In one, a dentist recruits his assistant to pretend to be his estranged wife, so he can divorce her and reassure his girlfriend of his honesty and moral-standing. In the other, two guys witness a mob murder and have to go into hiding as women in a band to avoid the mob.

Somehow, they work and Just Go With It does not. Why?

less sex, yet sexier
For one thing, I think Just GoWith It took a premise that was carefully contained in Cactus Flower, a premise that was kept low-key and modulated with care, and EXPLODED IT into HUGE HOLLYWOOD ZANNINESS. Cactus Flower works because it's small and fights hard to be plausible and human whenever possible - awkward dinners, difficult conversations. The characters are flawed but well-meaning. Meanwhile, Just Go With It is broad and big and silly. 

But that's not the only reason.

I think, more importantly, Just Go With It is too interested in the sham, and not interested enough in the people perpetrating the sham. Cactus Flower is about his assistant's sadness, and the dentist's blind fixation on this ditzy, well-meaning girlfriend of his. Just Go With It is interested in all the ways it can make this charade difficult and kooky. It's too much about its premise. And it didn't have to be.

An example? The Proposal is an imperfect but enjoyable movie. It works. Sure, it's full of contrivance. It has a hook that makes it easy to sell, a concept with a clear structure. The surface conflict is easy to explain. But how many people have agreed to marry their boss for a promotion, so she can stay in the country? How does The Proposal succeed where Just Go With It failed? It does it by bait and switch.

It starts off being about the deal the characters make, about the charade... but it becomes about the characters who are perpetrating the charade. It becomes about the boss's visit to her fake-fiance's family home.

I wish this were the real plot.
Stories that work despite their absurd premises do so by not focusing on the premise. The ones that work use the premise to hook the audience in, to give the audience a beginning and a sense of an ending that they're heading toward - but then those stories become about something relatable. The Proposal is about someone who feels proud and independent and strong who goes home to meet her boyfriend's parents and feels inferior and vulnerable and small. That's something most people feel at some time in their lives. That's something everyone can relate to on some level.

So, if your premise is contrived, if your hook is implausible - maybe it's best if you don't fulfill the promise of your premise...