ALLIGATORS IN A HELICOPTER

a pro script reader ponders movies, reading, writing and the occasional personal flashback

Monday, April 30, 2007

Plot Plot Plot

So a couple of weeks ago, a guy who hired me to read his script told me that because it was a comedy, plot wasn't important; in fact, he felt that the minimal amount of plot he'd added was going beyond what was necessary.

Yikes.

Plot is everything in movies; you really can't make a funny movie without plot. All those Marx Brothers movies? Plot. Charlie Chaplin? Plot. The 40-Year-Old Virgin? The plot doesn't do a lot of real heavy lifting, but it is there.

Too many "comedies" make the mistake of having a dumb plot, that is barely there. This past weekend's "Kickin' It Old Skool" is an example. A guy wakes up after 20 years in a coma, and still wants to breakdance. That's not a plot, it's a premise, and a flimsy one at that.

The best comedies are built on a very solid structure, that does all the heavy lifting, so that the laughs don't have to.

This was brought home to me last night when I watched the Chevy Chase comedy "Fletch", a special edition DVD for my DVD-reviewing gig. (An aside -- for a special edition DVD, it has crappy bonus features. Don't bother).

Fletch is an amusing comedy, but what works about it is that it borrowed a surprisingly solid investigative storyline from the novel of the same name (which was much more darkly-comic, and very different in tone). It's a plot that easily could have carried a more serious movie -- reporter Fletch investigates drug dealing on the beach, as well as trying to figure out why a guy has hired Fletch to kill him -- and uses it to drive the script, while all the funny stuff can be worked in along the way.

And it works. And it's the kind of thing that was done a lot more in the 1980s -- the best examples of this meld of solid detective storyline and comedy are Beverly Hills Cop and the Billy Crystal/Gregory Hines movie Running Scared (which is a personal fave).

But recently, this kind of thing has fallen out of favor, the idea of letting a comedian have fun in the constraints of what could have been a dramatic investigative storyline. I guess the Rush Hour movies do it (but even then, that's going back a decade). There really isn't anything that comes to mind recently that has made use of this genre.

Maybe the blame goes to the Beverly Hills Cop and Fletch sequels, which pretty much blew the idea, though that may have been because the plots got dumber and less convincing in those films. You don't need a big bad guy or huge amusement park setpieces, all you need is a solid enough central plot that the main character can have fun around.

Laughs are important too. But having a good plot makes it all a lot easier.

Can anyone else think of examples of this kind of story, that works or didn't work, particularly recently? Any theories as to why this kind of film fell out of popularity?

17 Comments:

At 1:46 PM, Blogger Murph said...

Big Lebowski, one of my favorite films. There's tons of plot, but it never gets in the way of the sparkling dialogue or the fantastically funny characters.

 
At 2:37 PM, Anonymous Gina said...

Steve Martin Pink Panther remake and Harrison Ford Hollywood Homicide, couple weak movies from that genre, may have scared money away. Or the genre may have morped into low star quality "Larry Health Inspector", big action detective "Men in Black". Surprising someone doesn't put Adam Sandler in a detective suit. Then that is all about the actor. The adventure hero may still be replacing the comedy cop for a few more years.

 
At 3:40 PM, Blogger James said...

I'm not sure I comepletely agree.

What was the plot of BEVERLY HILLS COP?

You know the premise. But do you know the actual events that led him to BH, and that gets him in trouble there, and eventually gets him out? I do. I just think most people remember the gags.

What was the plot of LETHAL WEAPON?

Sure, it's a buddy cop comedy, but how'd they get teamed up and why?

Plot of ANCHORMAN? WEDDING CRASHERS? DODGEBALL? FERRIS BUELLER'S DAY OFF?

Again, I think everyone can name the premise. But would have a hard time pointing out the plot.

Using KICKIN' IT OLD SKOOL, as an example of why you need plot doesn't really fly because the premise itself is piss poor.

I guarantee there is more plot in that movie than in ANCHORMAN. And yet ANCHORMAN was a huge success.

I believe comedy as a genre, is more about cashing in on the premise than really making an ironclad plot. Afterall people go to comedies to laugh. Not because someone killed Eddie Murphy's best friend and he is out seeking revenge.

P.S. BEVERLY HILLS COP was to originally star Sylvestor Stallone. And was much more of a Revenge flick. Could you imagine what a pile of turd that could have been by elminating the comedy and upping plot?

 
At 3:59 PM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

Beverly Hills Cop has a lot of plot. It's pretty much all plot. There isn't a sequence that doesn't advance the story in some way, even if it's funny.

When you are watching Beverly Hills Cop, I assure you you are well aware of what the plot is.

These kind of detective tales, whether cops or reporters, are sort of out of fashion in movies, because TV shows pretty much own the genre. But in a lot of cases, one can take a serious investigative tale that isn't substantial enough for movies, and use it as the basis of a comedy, as those films did.

I guess that's sort of my point.

As for Anchorman, yeesh. I don't know how "successful" that really is. It made a lot of money because Will Ferrell was in it and hot at that time, but I don't know anyone who actually considers it a very good movie, much less has a copy of the DVD on their shelf.

I think it would have been a much better movie had it had more of a plot ;-)

 
At 4:33 PM, Blogger Steve Peterson said...

Have to say I'm not so sure about plots in comedies -- often it gets in the way of laughs.

Some of my absolute favorites are Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Life of Brain, Airplane -- and those barely have anything even resembling a plot -- just events strung together in something vaguely resembling a causal order.

 
At 4:57 PM, Blogger Averyslave said...

I can see it either way. The Edgar Wright/Simon Pegg comedies are made that much better by having very solid stories to hang all the humor and the characters on. I'm genuinely interested in how the story is going to turn out, with or without the laughs. It's why "Shaun of the Dead" works as a zombie movie at the end, even as the jokes dry up a bit.

But, *ahem*, I _do_ like Anchorman and do own a copy. I couldn't care less about the story in that one. It's absurd. I just think the dynamic between the news crew is funny, Steve Carrel steals all his scenes, and the street fight is so silly and surreal that I'm smiling now just thinking about it.

I agree that most comedies need good plots to hold them together (another Will Ferrell movie, Blades of Glory, doesn't work in the least on any level, so a plot might have gotten them further), but if you have the right cast and funny enough gags, you COULD get along just fine. At a script level, though, it's a big risk. I wouldn't try to shop a script without one.

 
At 9:25 PM, Blogger Patrick J. Rodio said...

Most comedies coming out now are just about the concept. I've got tons of ideas but all my agent is asking me for are my "high concept" ideas.

 
At 9:56 PM, Anonymous Tommy said...

Speaking of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, I almost started to think that this post was going to eventually be about 'Hot Fuzz' as a perfect example of what you just described.

Clear Comedy Premise: Over-achiever cop goes to town with no crime.

Clear plot: No murder in 20 years, but fatal accidents occur daily: there's actually a serial killer on the loose but nobody's realized it.

All of that could be used for a very serious dramatic thriller, but instead they use the situations to create jokes. While I don't think it mixes genres as well as Shaun of the Dead, I do believe it's the kind of film you're talking about.

 
At 12:55 AM, Blogger wcmartell said...

Even in farce comedies, it's the difference between AIRPLANE or SHAUN or FUZZ and those DATE MOVIE movies.

The thing about BEVERLY HILLS COP is that it began as a straight action movie, not a comedy. Same thing with FLETCH (which is a favorite movie of mine... and I read the books first. Different version of Fletch than the books - but they kept the danged story - FLETCH 2 just sucked). They had a solid story and then added the gags.

I think today they start with the gags and try to wrap a story around them.

- Bill

 
At 8:32 AM, Blogger Dante Kleinberg said...

In fairness, when I was talking to a friend Saturday about what movies to see, I mentioned Kickin' it Old Skool. He said he'd never heard of it, and what was it about? When I explained the thing about a breakdancer wakes up from a coma and wants to keep breakdancing, he thought it sounded hilarious.

Of course we didn't see it. I mean Metacritic had the average review as like 18 out of 100 or something. But it would be a funny Saturday Night Live sketch.

 
At 11:36 AM, Blogger E.C. Henry said...

Sure, plot is important -- to a point, but in a comedy or romantic comedy people come expecting to laugh and maybe see a guy and girl involved in some sort of relationship.

"40 Year Old Virgin" IS the posterboy for the best mix of humor AND plot in modern film. Study it boyz and gurlz, and I think you'll find it's rock solid on both fronts.

That said I whole heartedly disagree with the notion that you have to have a creditible plot to have a great comedy. And that's cuz great comedy is predicated on having great/memorible SET PEICES, and lines/reactions/actor's ability to transcend a scene -- like Vince Vaughn in "Be Cool."

Movies like "The Naked Gun" and the Monty Python movies of the 70s and 80s are known for funny momments, gags -- not their plots.

My point is: audiences view comedy in bits and peices, not as a whole. Be funny enough and people will overlook plot deficiencies.

Now romance is a trickier bird. When it comes to romance, which is often interwoven with comedy, plot is critical. With romance, your building chemistry/reasons why these two people belong together (wish Billy Mernit would bail me out at this point) which is tied to plot. So just having two good looking people pawing at each other for a couple hours isn't enough to hold an audience's imagination.

Anyway, GREAT thought provoking post, Scott. Who'da thunk you could get that from considering a film like, "Kickin' It Old Skool." Love the way your mind works, my friend.

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

 
At 12:19 PM, Anonymous Craig said...

Two words: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

 
At 6:27 PM, Blogger James said...

I love Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. And I sited Lethal Weapon. :p Shane Black can do plot and comedy.

But no one remembers the plot. They remember Riggs jumping off a building with a guy handcuffed to him. Or Robert Downing Jr. losing a finger. Or Gay Perry.

Again, if plot is so important to a comedy, why is it so many people forget what the movie is actually about?

I'm not arguing against plot in comedies. My point was it is not always a neccessity.

Scott, I think you missed what I was saying about Beverly Hills Cop. It does have plot. Most people don't know what that plot is. They just know Eddie, a Detroit Cop, is a fish out of water in Beverly Hills.

The premise is a comedic premise. Regardless, of Sly or Eddie Murphy starring in it. The difference is, Eddie Murphy made it a franchise. Sly would have made it another TANGO AND CASH.

 
At 2:56 AM, Blogger Spanish Prisoner said...

The question is "what kind of comedy?" and "how good is the execution of the comedy?".

if it is bad, you better have an interesting or worthwile plot.

Slapstick comedy or more of a satire?

 
At 2:08 AM, Blogger wcmartell said...

One of my favorite FLETCH books is AND THE WIDOW BRADLEY, just for that big Perry Mason moment when Fletch asks the Widow why she married a rug.

Fascinating thing about the Fletch books is that they were written out of order - so the first book published happens about halfway through the chronology - and that first book mentions things in Fletch's past that wouldn't be covered in books until years later. Either McDonald planned a dozen books head, or he did what Terry & Ted did and found the kernals in the first story to create the rest.

I think it's oddly short sighted to *not* buy the sequel novel to FLETCH to make a sequel film.

- Bill

 
At 5:59 AM, Blogger The Moviequill said...

wait a minute, Lethal Weopan wasn't a comedy... only Mel laughed his way to the bank

 
At 4:00 AM, Blogger Chuck said...

A plot doesn't have to be momorable to be important. Sometimes it just sets up expectations to be twisted- making jokes funnier than they would be out of context. And it also gives structure and pacing.

The best we to see the importance of plot in comedy is to compare AIRPLANE! and TOP SECRET! Airplane! had a plot, while Top Secret was basically a bunch of jokes and sketches with the same characters sewn together.

As for plot-dependent movies of the last 10 years, how about Galaxy Quest. Tim Allen is actually a great example of a comedian who needs plot. If he has it, he can be funny. If he doesn't, well...

 

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