Believe Care Invest: Bridesmaids

I might be posting seven days a week for the next few months. Hmm, I wonder why...?  No telling!

Why Annie Might Be Hard to Identify With:
  • We debated on the podcast whether having sex helped us identify with a character. I said that it doesn’t, because everybody in the world is basically sexually unsatisfied, either in terms of quality or quantity. In this case, our heroine gets to have sex with Jon Hamm. She’s living the dream! How could anyone identify with that? 
  • …but the saving grace is that he’s a terrible lover, and she understandably doesn’t enjoy it. But c’mon, it’s Jon Hamm, so we can see why she would pretend to. 
  • When she has breakfast with Lillian, one of her complaints is “He calls me ‘dude’ a lot,” which is nicely relatable.
  • Later, her boss at the jewelry store says to her, “The whole reason you have this job is because your mom’s my sponsor in AA and I’m doing you a favor”, which is nicely oddly specific.
  • Jon Hamm says, “Wow, this is so awkward, I really want you to leave, but I don’t know how to say it without sounding like a dick.” She then has to climb over his gate to get out. Lillian tells her, “You hate yourself after you see him”
  • She has to walk by her shuttered bakery.
  • She’s losing her best friend. 
  • We really come to BCI all at one time when she wakes up the next morning, sneaks out of bed to do her hair and make-up, then sneaks back in and pretends to wake up. Very resourceful and adorable. (Other than that she’s a fairly hapless characters, so it’s a bit hard to invest in her.)
Five Es
  • Eat: She and Lillian have a happy breakfast. 
  • Exercise: She has energetic sex. She climbs over his gate. She and Lillian hide behind a tree to do sit-ups while listening to a personal trainer they didn’t pay for, then have to run away when he catches them.
  • Economic Activity: The personal trainer (Terry Crews) complains, “C’mon, it’s only 12 bucks.” She passes by her shuttered store: “I’m the genius who opened a bakery during the recession.” She now works at a jewelry store.
  • Enjoy: She and Annie are very funny and relaxed together, pretending to have horrible teeth, etc.
  • Emulate: Pretends to be a “cool girl”, telling Hamm, “I’m not looking for a relationship now either.” Her jewelry boss asks her to put on a “love is eternal” face.
Rise above
  • She says “I don’t want to go to work today.” At work, she tells a couple buying rings that love doesn’t last, putting her emotional need to vent over her professional duties.
High five a black guy
  • Her best friend is biracial, and a fully realized character, so it doesn’t apply.

New Checklist and Rulebook Casefile: Empathy for All in Bridesmaids

I’ve updated the Checklist roadtest for Bridesmaids and you can check it out here. Now let’s look at one of the new answers in more depth:

Another new question on the checklist asks if the dialogue shows empathy for every character and this is something Bridesmaids excels at, as shown by the scene where Annie has an awkward lunch with her “nemesis”, Helen.

Many writers think that their hero has to “save the cat” in the first scene and continually save the cat throughout the entire story, but this just isn’t true. The scary truth is that your audience will give you about ten pages before they decide whether or not they like your hero.  If they haven’t identified with the hero by then, they never will, but the upside is that once they’re onboard they will follow your hero anywhere.

Especially in a comedy, this is the point where you want to stop writing scenes that play up your heroes’ rightness and start yanking their certainties out from underneath them. This will test their self-image, and since we’ve chosen to identify with the hero, it will also test our own self-image, causing us to sweat along with the hero.

This is why you need to demonstrate empathy for all. Sacrificing the other characters, turning them into hypocrites or sniveling caricatures, does your hero no favors. If the initial certainties that your hero and audience formed turn out to be true, then they can both coast through the story smugly, untouched by events. But you do want to touch them: not all comedies need to touch our hearts, but they do at least have to poke us in the ribs. We laugh when we feel vulnerable.

Showing empathy for villains will always make your story more meaningful. This scene is funny, but it also makes Helen into a much stronger antagonist, because it makes it harder for Annie, and the audience, to dismiss her. Seeing this side of Helen also makes us understand more why Lillian would like both of these women, and might genuinely choose Helen over Annie, which amps up the jeopardy.

Instead of saying, “Ugh, we hate trophy wives, so we’ll show the world how terrible they are,” the writers of this movies said, “Sure, Helen’s terrible, but have you ever thought how much it would suck to be a trophy wife, attempting to be at-least-somewhat-maternal to kids who see you as an interloping vamp?”

Straying From the Party Line: Separate Subplots and Passive Protagonist in Bridesmaids

Welcome to a new regular feature! First we’ll run a movie through the Ultimate Story Checklist, and then I’ll return the following day to look at where it “broke the rules” of classical storytelling, and try to figure out whether or not that’s really a problem.

Bridesmaids is one of the best comedies of the last ten years, and it seems on first glance like a classically constructed story, but the checklist we ran yesterday shows some interesting deviations. Let’s look at two:
  • Deviation #1: The strands of the movie don’t come together at the end. 
  • The Potential Problem: It’s really weird that the main plots never really intertwine—Yes, Helen briefly meets the cop, but he has little affect on the main story (Annie’s relationship with Lillian) and he doesn’t even attend the wedding. 
  • Does the Movie Get Away With It? Eh, it bugged me a little bit. I would have like to see his storyline interwoven into the movie a little better. I kept wondering as I watched the movie, “Was this whole storyline added in post-production?” I’m still wondering. I love both storylines, but I think that they’re two great tastes that would have tasted great together. 
 But let’s move on to something that seems, on first blush, like a much bigger issue:
  • Deviation #2: On paper, Annie seems like a fairly uninspiring protagonist. 
  • The Potential Problem: Let’s look at all the character ‘no’s on the checklist: She’s not good or clever at her job. She doesn’t have a strong self-image, or three rules she lives by. She’s largely buffeted by events and reacts as anyone would. She doesn’t just fail once at the mid-point—she suffers nine disasters in a row and becomes horribly depressed, which seems like a little much.  She never becomes proactive: even when she pitches in to help at the end, she does so only because Helen asks her to. She never takes charge of the situation or gets out in front of her troubles.
  • Does the Movie Get Away With It? Surprisingly, it does. True, the third quarter is a downer, but the movie earns it by rooting Annie’s crisis to real-world pain: Annie extraordinary suffering is tied to America’s extraordinary suffering… Robert Kirkman famously created “The Walking Dead” to explore what happens after most zombie movies end. Likewise, Bridesmaids shows what happens after most romantic comedies end: she’s already had the traditional happy ending: her boyfriend helped her start her own business doing what she loved to do! But what happens when the economy crashes, the business fails and the boyfriend leaves? That horrible situation, reflecting the grim economic reality of so many Americans right now, fuels this movie, and allows it to go much darker than most romantic comedies dare to go. Ultimately, we are able to root for Annie throughout, despite her passivity and almost-bottomless depression. In fact, we totally love her, but the movie is walking a dangerous line, and it could have easily lost us.

The Ultimate Story Checklist: Bridesmaids

Updated to the sixth and final version of the Checklist!

Annie Walker is a failed bakery-owner whose best friend Lillian is getting married to a man in another city. Annie is devastated, but agrees to be her maid of honor, only to find herself in competition with Lillian’s new friend, a brittle trophy wife named Helen. Annie’s whole life falls apart, but she attempts a new romance with a charming cop, and eventually makes friends with fellow bridesmaids Becca, Rita, and especially Megan, which gets her past her depression.

PART #1: CONCEPT 17/19
The Pitch: Does this concept excite everyone who hears about it?
Is the one sentence description uniquely appealing?
 A broke and broken-down bridesmaid gets into an epic feud with a wealthy rival who wants to steal the position of maid of honor.
Does the concept contain an intriguing ironic contradiction?
 The bridesmaids are not maidenly. An attempt to plan a happy celebration becomes a nasty conflict.
Is this a story anyone can identify with, projected onto a bigger canvas, with higher stakes?
 The stakes are only slightly higher than real life, but a rivalry over a friendship results in plane being forced down, for instance.
Story Fundamentals: Will this concept generate a strong story?
Is the concept simple enough to spend more time on character than plot?
 We all know the steps leading up to a wedding, so there’s almost no time spent on setting up plot, it’s all character.
Is there one character that the audience will choose to be their “hero”?
Does the story follow the progress of the hero’s problem, not the hero’s daily life? 
 Yes, though this one problem eventually spirals out to encompass most of her life.
Does the story present a unique relationship?
 Rivals for the title of maid of honor.
Is at least one actual human being opposed to what the hero is doing?
Does this challenge represent the hero’s greatest hope and/or greatest fear and/or an ironic answer to the hero’s question?
 Greatest fear: losing her friend. Ironic answer: she wants to get married, but has to help someone else do it.
Does something inside the hero have a particularly volatile reaction to the challenge?
 It triggers her suppressed rage and self-loathing.
Does this challenge become something that is the not just hard for the hero to do (an obstacle) but hard for the hero to want to do (a conflict)?
 She doesn’t want to give up on her handsome but uncaring lover, doesn’t want her friend to get married. Also, she’s afraid of flying.
In the end, is the hero the only one who can solve the problem?
 Sort of.  Unlike in most movies, the hero is not working the hardest to solve the problem, Helen is. Annie’s remarkably passive. Helen needs her help because only Annie can talk to Lillian. And only Annie has the cop connection.
Does the hero permanently transform the situation and vice versa?
Transform the situation: Only slightly. Annie talks Lillian into going ahead with the wedding, but we’re not sure if she was really needed, or, for that matter, if she herself wasn’t really the problem in the first place. Transform the hero: She decides to be less depressed, more active, date new guy, let go of friend.
The Hook: Will this be marketable and generate word of mouth?
Does the story satisfy the basic human urges that get people to buy and recommend this genre?
 Lots of raunchy laughs.
Does this story show us at least one image we haven’t seen before (that can be used to promote the final product)?
 An unhappy bridal party with attitude.
Is there at least one “Holy Crap!” scene (to create word of mouth)?
 The vomit and diarrhea-filled dress-fitting scene.
Does the story contain a surprise that is not obvious from the beginning?
Is the story marketable without revealing the surprise?
Is the conflict compelling and ironic both before and after the surprise?
Believe: Do we recognize the hero as a human being?
Does the hero have a moment of humanity early on? (A funny, or kind, or oddball, or out-of-character, or comically vain, or unique-but-universal “I thought I was the only one who did that!” moment?)
 Bad sex, making herself up before pretending to wake up, getting kicked out of the park, her penis impression, putting food on her teeth when talking to her friend.
Is the hero defined by ongoing actions and attitudes, not by backstory?
 Mostly, though her backstory with the bakery looms large.
Does the hero have a well-defined public identity?
 A funny baker with a hot boyfriend.
Does the surface characterization ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?
 A depressed, lonely person who no longer bakes.
Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?
 Childhood: “Look at me, I’m [the other person]”
Does the hero have a default personality trait?
 She’s an eye roller.
Does the hero have a default argument tactic?
 But not a good one. She gets brittle and defensive, lies badly, makes promises she can’t keep. She also likes to put up a false front.
Is the hero’s primary motivation for tackling this challenge strong, simple, and revealed early on?
 She wants to do a good job to keep Lillian as a friend.
Care: Do we feel for the hero?
Does the hero start out with a shortsighted or wrongheaded philosophy (or accept a false piece of advice early on)?
 “I’m not looking for a relationship right now.” About being a bridesmaid: “I’m more than happy to do it and it’s not too much.”
Does the hero have a false or shortsighted goal in the first half?
 Complete her maid of honor duties without anyone knowing how broke or depressed she is.
Does the hero have an open fear or anxiety about his or her future, as well as a hidden, private fear?
 Never getting married, that she’s going to lose her friend.
Is the hero physically and emotionally vulnerable?
 Very much so.
Does the hero have at least one untenable great flaw we empathize with? (but…)
 She’s depressed, broke, and won’t let things go.
Invest: Can we trust the hero to tackle this challenge?
…Is that great flaw (ironically) the natural flip-side of a great strength we admire?
 The flip side of all three: She’s funny in a self-deprecating way, a good improviser, and loyal.
Is the hero curious?
 She wants to find out about Helen, wants to come up with creative solutions to problems.
Is the hero generally resourceful?
 She neaks out of bed in the morning to freshen up, then pretends to wake up looking great. Climbs over gate.
Does the hero have rules he or she lives by (either stated or implied)?
 Not really. She doesn’t really have much of a self-image, or self-esteem, or set of principles. Maybe: “I deserve better.” (The most self-destructive rule one can have)
Is the hero surrounded by people who sorely lack his or her most valuable quality?
 She’s got more perspective about life, more self-awareness. It’s like no one else can hear themselves talk.
…And is the hero willing to let them know that, subtly or directly?
 Yes, in a petulant-mumbled-aside kind of way.
Is the hero already doing something active when we first meet him or her?
Yes, having sex, then working out in the park.
Does the hero have (or claim) decision-making authority?
 She’s in charge of the bridal party.
Does the hero use pre-established special skills from his or her past to solve problems (rather than doing what anybody would do)?
 Uses baking skills to get her man.
PART #3: STRUCTURE (If the story is about the solving of a large problem) 18/21
1st Quarter: Is the challenge laid out in the first quarter?
When the story begins, is the hero becoming increasingly irritated about his or her longstanding social problem (while still in denial about an internal flaw)?
 Doesn’t get to see enough of Lillian, gets no respect from lover.
Does this problem become undeniable due to a social humiliation at the beginning of the story?
 Finds out Annie is getting married, fears that she’ll lose her.
Does the hero discover an intimidating opportunity to fix the problem?
 Gets offered the job of maid of honor, a chance to secure her friendship.
Does the hero hesitate until the stakes are raised?
 She vacillates as she accepts the job.
Does the hero commit to pursuing the opportunity by the end of the first quarter?
2nd Quarter: Does the hero try the easy way in the second quarter?
Does the hero’s pursuit of the opportunity quickly lead to an unforeseen conflict with another person?
 It turns out that there’s a rival for the position: Helen.
Does the hero try the easy way throughout the second quarter?
 Takes them to a cheap restaurant, insist on cheap dresses.
Does the hero have a little fun and get excited about the possibility of success?
 Bridesmaids bond somewhat, she tries to get excited about Vegas trip.
Does the easy way lead to a big crash around the midpoint, resulting in the loss of a safe space and/or sheltering relationship?
 The most epic lowest point ever: Gets everyone kicked off the flight to Vegas, gets the bachelorette party cancelled, gets
fired as maid of honor, screws things up with the nice guy, gets fired from job, gets kicked out of her apartment, disinvited from wedding, car is wrecked, and loses handsome lover!
3rd Quarter: Does the hero try the hard way in the third quarter?
Does the hero try the hard way from this point on?
 Barely. She mostly quits and cocoons, except a half-hearted attempt to bake for the cop.
Does the hero find out who his or her real friends and real enemies are?
 Finds out Helen isn’t so bad, Megan is a good friend.
Do the stakes, pace, and motivation all escalate at this point?
 Not at this point. The wedding is approaching but she’s not going so it doesn’t matter. It’s only when finds out Lillian needs her and there’s only a day left that this kicks in.
Does the hero learn from mistakes in a painful way?
 Very much so.
Does a further setback lead to a spiritual crisis?
 Megan stops by and set her straight.
4th Quarter: Does the challenge climax in the fourth quarter?
Does the hero adopt a corrected philosophy after the spiritual crisis?
 “I’m not okay.” “Things are going to change but they’ll be better.”
After that crisis, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal, which still seems far away?
 Fix everything.
Before the final quarter of the story begins, (if not long before) has your hero switched to being proactive, instead of reactive?
 Somewhat, she still has to be asked to help find Lillian, and doesn’t have any influence on the final wedding.
Despite these proactive steps, is the timeline unexpectedly moved up, forcing the hero to improvise for the finale?
 Sort of, Lillian disappears, forcing a last-minute crisis.
Do all strands of the story and most of the characters come together for the climactic confrontation?
 Not really.  The cop isn’t at the wedding, which is weird.
Does the hero’s inner struggle climax shortly after (or possible at the same time as) his or her outer struggle?
Is there an epilogue/ aftermath/ denouement in which the challenge is finally resolved (or succumbed to), and we see how much the hero has changed (possibly through reversible behavior)
 She enjoys the wedding, bonds with Lillian, accepts the cop’s love.
PART #4: SCENEWORK 19/20 (Sample scene: Annie is driving angry after feuding with Helen when she gets pulled over by a cute cop, who gives her his number under the pretense of recommending a place to get her tail light fixed.)
The Set-Up: Does this scene begin with the essential elements it needs?
Were tense and/or hopeful (and usually false) expectations for this interaction established beforehand?
 We see her look pissed when she’s pulled over, expecting a hassle.
Does the scene eliminate small talk and repeated beats by cutting out the beginning (or possibly even the middle)?
 It jumps from being pulled over to the middle of the DUI test.
Is this an intimidating setting that keeps characters active?
 It’s a traffic stop, which is inherently scary, it’s on the side of the road, which is unsafe, and he’s making her walk the line.
Is one of the scene partners not planning to have this conversation (and quite possibly has something better to do)?
 She just wants to get home.
Is there at least one non-plot element complicating the scene?
 The fact that the mechanic’s name is Bill Cosby.
Does the scene establish its own mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious anticipation)?
 Can she talk him out of it before he puts the ticket in the system?
The Conflict: Do the conflicts play out in a lively manner?
Does this scene both advance the plot and reveal character through emotional reactions?
 She’s too involved in her own pain to realize that she’s meeting a guy. He’s smitten, she’s depressed to be reminded about her bakery.
Does the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may sometimes shift)?
 It shifts: first we’re rooting for her to beat the ticket, then we’re rooting for him to get her to go out with him.
Are two agendas genuinely clashing (rather than merely two personalities)?
 She wants out of there, he wants a date.
Does the scene have both a surface conflict and a suppressed conflict (one of which is the primary conflict in this scene)?
 Surface: will her give her a ticket? Suppressed: will she go out with him, will she learn to feel again?
Is the suppressed conflict (which may or may not come to the surface) implied through subtext (and/or called out by the other character)?
 Debate about whether she’ll bake again, baking = feeling.
Are the characters cagy (or in denial) about their own feelings?
 He won’t admit he’s asking her out, she won’t admit her pain about losing the bakery.
Do characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct confrontation?
 He uses the tail-lights as an excuse to give her his number. She at first tries charm, then pity to get out of the ticket.
Is there re-blocking, including literal push and pull between the scene partners (often resulting in just one touch)?
 She gets out of the car, back in, she tries to flirt by dancing back and forth along the line. They don’t quite touch, but they exchange pieces of paper.
Are objects given or taken, representing larger values?
 She gives him her license, which forms a bond, he tears up the ticket to show his affection, he gives her a card that doubles as giving her his number.
The Outcome: Does this scene change the story going forward?
As a result of this scene, does at least one of the scene partners end up doing something that he or she didn’t intend to do when the scene began?
 He is convinced to tear up the ticket, she is convinced to take his number.
Does the outcome of the scene ironically reverse (and/or ironically fulfill) the original intention?
 Being pulled over by a cop turns out to be a good thing.
Are previously-asked questions answered and new questions posed?
 Who was her ex-boyfriend? What happened to him? Will she call him? Will she get her tail-lights fixed?
Does the scene cut out early, on a question (possibly to be answered instantly by the circumstances of the next scene)?
 No, plays out awkwardly to the end, moves on to scene of emotional fallout, as she arrives home and looks at evidence of her bakery.
Is the audience left with a growing hope and/or fear for what might happen next? (Not just in the next scene, but generally)
 Yes, we’re happy to finally have a bit of a light at the end of the tunnel, now that a new guy has appeared.  But we’re also wary of the likelihood that she will mess it up.
Empathetic: Is the dialogue true to human nature?
Does the writing demonstrate empathy for all of the characters?
 Very much so, even Helen, when we wince to see how her stepkids treat her.
Does each of the characters, including the hero, have a limited perspective?
 Very much so.
Do the characters consciously and unconsciously prioritize their own wants, rather than the wants of others?
 There are two exceptions, but they justify themselves. The cop becomes selflessly invested in cheering up Annie, but it begins with a believable urge for sex and baked goods, then blossoms into a more selfless level of concern.  Likewise when Megan selflessly reaches out to cheer up Annie near the end, it’s clearly shown to be a personal oddity that she can’t stand to have depressed acquaintances.
Are the characters resistant to openly admitting their feelings (to others and even to themselves)?
Do the characters avoid saying things they wouldn’t say and doing things they wouldn’t do?
 Until external influences cause them to blurt it out.
Do the characters interrupt each other often?
 Yes. Lillian doesn’t hear that Annie doesn’t want to do it, etc.
Specific: Is the dialogue specific to this world and each personality?
Does the dialogue capture the jargon and tradecraft of the profession and/or setting?
Not really
Are there additional characters with distinct metaphor families, default personality traits, and default argument strategies from the hero’s?
 Metaphor family: Megan: macho man, Helen: wealth, etc., Default personality trait: Lillian: Brittle, Megan: boisterous, Rita: weary, negative, etc., Argument strategy: Lillian: Shutting you down with fact from past, Helen: passive aggressive, etc.
Heightened: Is the dialogue more pointed and dynamic than real talk?
Is the dialogue more concise than real talk?
Does the dialogue have more personality than real talk?
Are there minimal commas in the dialogue (the lines are not prefaced with Yes, No, Well, Look, or the other character’s name)?
Do non-professor characters speak without dependent clauses, conditionals, or parallel construction?
Are the non-3-dimensional characters impartially polarized into head, heart and gut?
 Annie and Helen are competing heads. Heart: Lillian and Becca. Gut: Megan. Crotch: Rita.
Strategic: Are certain dialogue scenes withheld until necessary?
Does the hero have at least one big “I understand you” moment with a love interest or primary emotional partner?
Yes, with Lillian.
Is exposition withheld until the hero and the audience are both demanding to know it?
 The story of the bakery comes out slowly.
Is there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters really lay into each other?
 Very much so, at the shower.
PART #6: TONE 9/10
Genre: Does the story tap into pre-established expectations?
Is the story limited to one genre (or multiple genres that are merged from the beginning?)
 Raunchy comedy
Is the story limited to sub-genres that are compatible with each other, without mixing metaphors?
 The wedding comedy.
Does the ending satisfy most of the expectations of the genre, and defy a few others?
 Happy wedding, she gets guy, but he doesn’t save the day and the villain is befriended instead of getting comeuppance.
Separate from the genre, is a consistent mood (goofy, grim, ‘fairy tale’, etc.) established early and maintained throughout?
 Snarky, wistful, melancholic, heartfelt-yet-raunchy.
Framing: Does the story set, reset, upset and ultimately exceed its own expectations?
Is there a dramatic question posed early on, which will establish in the audience’s mind which moment will mark the end of the story?
 Will the wedding go well?
Does the story use framing devices to establish genre, mood and expectations?
 Nope, we jump right in.
Are there characters whose situations prefigure various fates that might await the hero?
 The rest of the bridal party provide examples of her concerns: one is unhappily married, one married naively, one is a trophy wife, etc.
Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?
 Somewhat.  We know that she’s bad on planes, see her rage building at the shower, etc.
Are reversible behaviors used to foreshadow and then confirm change?
 She finally bakes again.
Is the dramatic question answered at the very end of the story?
 The story ends very quickly after the wedding comes off well.
PART 7: THEME 14/14
Difficult: Is the meaning of the story derived from a fundamental moral dilemma?
Can the overall theme be stated in the form of an irreconcilable good vs. good (or evil vs. evil) dilemma?
 Friendship vs. romantic love
Is a thematic question asked out loud (or clearly implied) in the first half, and left open?
 Implied by “I don’t want to lose you.”  Will Annie lose Lillian?
Do the characters consistently have to choose between goods, or between evils, instead of choosing between good and evil?
 Fun vs. fiscal responsibility, for instance.
Grounded: Do the stakes ring true to the world of the audience?
Does the story reflect the way the world works?
 Very much so. Economic realities loom large. Feelings are painful. Nothing is easy.
Does the story have something authentic to say about this type of setting (Is it based more on observations of this type of setting than ideas about it)?
 A nice sense of Milwaukee vs. Chicago.  Lots of “I thought I was the only one who noticed that” moments, about weddings, flights, jobs, roommates, etc.
Does the story include twinges of real life national pain?
 The economic collapse of 2008 is everywhere.
Are these issues and the overall dilemma addressed in a way that avoids moral hypocrisy?
 The economic and emotional pain is very real.
Do all of the actions have real consequences?
Subtle: Is the theme interwoven throughout so that it need not be discussed often?
Do many small details throughout subtly and/or ironically tie into the thematic dilemma?
 Each woman’s problems speaks to each of the others.
Are one or more objects representing larger ideas exchanged throughout the story, growing in meaning each time?
 Bill Cosby’s card, the baked goods, the shower gifts, the nice dress.
Untidy: Is the dilemma ultimately irresolvable?
Does the ending tip towards one side of the thematic dilemma without resolving it entirely?
 It’s ultimately probably better to prioritize finding a romantic life partner over holding onto a long-distance friendship.
Does the story’s outcome ironically contrast with the initial goal?
 Helen helps Annie see that she’s the problem, rather than vice versa. Her archenemy helps her get her guy.
In the end, is the plot not entirely tidy (some small plot threads left unresolved, some answers left vague)?
 Somewhat. The romance certainly isn’t tied up with a bow.
Do the characters refuse (or fail) to synthesize the meaning of the story, forcing the audience to do that?
 There is no analysis of what she’s learned after the wedding.

Final Score: 113 out of 122

Best Hollywood Movies of 2011, #4: Bridesmaids

The Story: Like you don’t know! Broke former bakery-owner Kristin Wiig signs up to be the maid of honor for her best friend, Maya Rudolph, but can’t compete with a wealthy fellow bridesmaid who schemes to take over the planning. A series of meltdowns finally convinces Wiig that she has to get her life back on track.

Why This One: I haven’t watched SNL in years, but after I saw Wiig in two scenes in Knocked Up, I thought, “Wow, she could go far.” How nice that things actually worked out that way! Co-writing with Annie Mumolo under the direction of Paul Feig, Wiig created a shockingly authentic character in the middle of a broadly farcical plot.

Rules it Drove Home:
  1. Begin With A Self-Contained Interaction That Encapsulates the Theme: We meet Wiig and Rudolph as they do sit-ups in the park while hiding behind a tree, in an attempt to take advantage of a hardcore personal trainer’s class without paying him. We like them right away: they’re clever, resourceful, and engaged in physical exertion! But after he catches them and chases them away, a funny thing happens: he gets the most pitiful look on his face and whimpers: “It’s only five bucks!” Surprisingly, our sympathy shifts to him! This pre-figures the arc of the movie, as we go from rooting for Wiig to “win” to rooting for her to take responsibility for her life.
  2. Know Why Their Friends Like Them: Now let’s go to the second scene, as our heroines flee to a diner. This is one of the most likeably-goofy friendship scenes I’ve ever seen. Too many rom-coms sacrifice the friend on the altar of the lead’s likability. The friend is usually shrill, or air-headed, or super-slutty, in order to make the lead seem better by comparison. Wiig knows better, since the friendship is the heart of this movie, and this scene really sells that.
  3. Screw-Ups Don’t Screw Up All Day Long: In the comments sections recently, we’ve talked about how hard it is to make an audience care about self-loathing heroes, but Wiig’s character is an example of how to do it right. She hapless, but not hopeless: She’s sleeping with Jon Hamm, fer chissakes! That makes it clear that yes, she has pretty-good options in life, but she’s just hit a ceiling that she can’t get past. We want her to have more self-respect, because we think she deserves more self-respect.

Storyteller’s Rulebook #101: Funniest Isn’t Always Best

One of the reasons that writing comedy is so hard is that you have to serve two sometimes-opposing goals: You want everything to be as funny as possible, but you also want everybody to stay in character. You quickly realize that you can’t always use the funniest possible line or show the funniest possible action. Instead, you have to limit yourself to the funniest line or action that this character would say or do in this situation.

On “How I Met Your Mother”, if the writers comes up with a funny Barney joke, but he’s not in the scene, they have to resist the temptation to just give that line to Ted, who wouldn’t naturally say it. The worst possible solution is when writers give a Barney-type line to a Ted-type character, and then cover their asses by having Ted say something like, “Sorry, Barney’s not here and somebody had to say it!” Ugh. Do not do this.

This is even worse: one thing that happens all the time in kids’ books is that the author will mention early on that the kid has a word-a-day calendar, then every time the kid uses a word that no kid would know, they simply have the kid explain, “I just learned that word from my calendar”. Double-Ugh.
Bridesmaids had a wonderful ensemble of actresses and the script was able to come up with strong character arcs for four of the six ladies in the bridal party. Ellie Kemper and Wendi McLendon-Covey, on the other hand, each had a lot of funny lines , but didn’t really get storylines of their own.

The proof that the moviemakers weren’t sure what to do with them is in the airplane scene. They have a funny conversation about their very different marriages, but the writers didn’t seem to know how to end it, so they have the two women suddenly kiss. It gets a big laugh, but it really doesn’t come from character and it doesn’t get paid off later.
In an otherwise rock-solid movie, it’s an example of choosing a quick laugh over character building, which isn’t the best choice. You can’t ask, “What’s the funniest thing they could do?”, you have to ask, “What’s the funniest thing they would do?”