(SPOILERS: The Hangover)
As promised, I’m going to start my in-depth look at The Hangover (written by Jon Lucas & Scott Moore). The first thing I want to talk about are the characters. Since this is an ensemble piece, it presents an interesting structural question: who is the main character?
Traditional three act structure dictates that there is only one main character. In an ensemble, you typically pick one of the group to be the structural main character. They make the major decisions that drive the story. Even though the other characters may be involved, everything hangs on that one main character. But one thing that’s pretty unique about The Hangover is that once the gang heads to Vegas, our three main guys – Phil, Stu and Alan – are always together. Always.
They also all have the same overall want – to find Doug. Since they discuss all their decisions and are acting in unison, you could easily argue that they are all the main character in combination. And if you were the writer you could probably write the story this way without much problem.
If I was determined to identify the single main character, though, I would say it’s Stu. Phil might seem the obvious choice since he’s more take-charge and since Bradley Cooper is the top billed actor. However Stu is the only one who has added stakes in unraveling the adventure – he’s gotten married to a stripper and given her his grandmother’s ring. For him it’s more than just finding Doug, he’s also got to fix a horrible mistake that affects his own life. And he’s the only character with an arc (Phil pretty much stays the same from beginning to end.) Finally and perhaps most importantly, Stu’s the one who ultimately figures out where Doug is.
So Stu’s want is to find Doug. What he needs is to stand up for himself. This arc is dramatized in his submissive and humiliating relationship with his girlfriend. Throughout the story as Stu starts to assert himself more and more, the guys get closer and closer to solving their problem. Look how he takes over the situation when they’re handing off the money to Mr. Chow. It’s Stu that insists on seeing Doug before tossing over the money. At the beginning of the movie he would not have had the guts for something like that. And at the end Stu dumps his cruel girlfriend. The story has materially improved his life in a way that isn’t true for the others.
As I’ve said, want drives the external story – here it’s the race to find Doug. Need drives the internal story. Occasionally you find a movie where the character wants and needs the same thing, but making these two things different adds depth, as it does in The Hangover. In this case, the depth it adds is heart. I don’t know if we really care what happens to Phil or Alan that much, but we definitely care about poor Stu. The movie could be just as funny without this element, but it would feel much more disposable.
If you think about it, you could almost do the whole story with Stu by himself. Stu could be taking his best friend to Vegas for one last night of fun. Obviously Phil and Alan add a lot of humor, but from a story standpoint Stu is the critical one. (You would have to figure out a different mechanism to get them drugged, though.)
So what does the movie gain with the ensemble? Well, most obviously, it allows the characters to talk to each other. We know what they’re thinking and how they feel about the events. It’s tough to do a story like this with a single character. And we also get more opportunities for humor by having three very different characters to react to the situations.
Which brings me to a very important point about the characters in this movie. All three of our guys are different. Stu is meek and dorky, Phil is confident and full of swagger, and Alan is a socially inept man-child. And they are all fairly extreme versions of these types.
Consider the simple scene of checking in. Cool and carefree Phil wants to upgrade to an expensive suite. Stu is concerned about the cost and that his girlfriend will see his credit card statement. Alan wants to know if the hotel is pager friendly and if this is where the real Caesar lived. Three different personalities, three different reactions, three different ways to mine humor from a mundane situation.
I think this is the key tool to creating good character driven comedy. If you give your characters strong attitudes, and put those attitudes in conflict, then the jokes write themselves. If you don’t have characters with strong points of view then you are reliant on your ability to craft one-liners. Few writers are good enough to sustain a feature that way.