(SPOILERS: The Hangover)
The concept for The Hangover (written by Jon Lucas & Scott Moore) is pretty straightforward, so it’s interesting that the structure is a bit unusual.
The Dramatic Question of the movie is “Will the guys get Doug to his wedding on time?” You might first assume that it’s “Will they find Doug?” but that’s really only the question of the second act. Finding him is a big goal, certainly, but the key is to get him to the wedding. This is nice because the wedding provides a strong ticking clock to the story.
From a plot standpoint, the catalyst is when the guys discover Doug is missing. But this comes late in the movie – about a fourth of the way in. Normally it would be tough to sustain audience interest for that long without revealing what the crux of the movie is. However, this plot catalyst isn’t actually where the audience is made aware of the dramatic question. That comes just a few minutes into the movie during a flash forward when Phil calls the bride and tells her the wedding “ain’t gonna happen.” We then go back two days for the set up.
Now, in linear form this phone call actually takes place late in the story. But from an audience perspective it becomes, in effect, the catalyst. We have some characters – though we don’t really know who they are yet – and a dilemma – the wedding may not happen. The context of the phone call is vague so we don’t know that it’s from late in the plot. But we do understand what the movie will be about, and thus this becomes the catalyst.
The next question I would ask is “does this help the movie?” I think it does. It allows the filmmakers to then unroll a lengthy status quo period where we get to know the groomsmen. Then when the true catalyst comes about twenty-five minutes into a movie that only runs ninety-six minutes, we haven’t lost interest. We know right off the bat what the conflict of the movie will be.
From here the three-act structure is pretty straightforward. The end of act one is only a few minutes later when the guys go to breakfast and decide they have to assemble the clues of their lost night to find Doug. The midpoint is when they get the car back – a seeming high point with an added complication in the form of naked Mr. Chow.
The end of act two is when they discover that the hostage they’ve just ransomed back is not the Doug they’re looking for. All the clues have come to a dead end. Phil prepares to make the fateful phone call to declare the wedding is off.
The epiphany comes very quickly after that – before the phone call is completed. It’s when Stu realizes where Doug actually is. This is a bit unusual. More often we have a period of extended aftermath after the act two turning point. But The Hangover doesn’t seem to suffer because we know how devastating this development is. The whole movie has prepared us for it. The resolution, of course, comes when they get Doug to the wedding in the nick of time.
There’s another structural construct that the Hangover takes advantage of – a mystery. Just like any regular detective mystery, the guys follow a series of clues, from one to the next, trying to unravel what happened. This is a great device because it pulls us forward through the comic set-pieces without a lot of plot manipulation on the part of the writers and without it becoming episodic.
The key to making this work is that one clue really does lead to the next. They know Phil was in the hospital so they start there. The doctor is able to point them to the wedding chapel. From there they learn about Jade and get her address. And so on. Each stop along the trail allows an opportunity for a comedic set piece. The irony is that all these clues end up being red herrings. The one real clue that solves the mystery is the mattress.
Actually, I don’t really like how Stu comes up with the solution: he hears the word “roof” and it jars something in his memory. That seems like one of those movie devices that don’t happen in real life. But since this is not a movie relying on its mystery, but a raucous comedy using the mystery to pull us forward through comedic set pieces, we don’t really mind that the solution isn’t very satisfying.
Though the structure of The Hangover is not particularly radical, it does demonstrate how you can manipulate standard three act concepts to serve the particular story you’re telling. As I often repeat, these concepts are not “rules” to fence you in, but tools to help keep your story focused and dramatic. In other words, structure serves story, not the other way around!