(SPOILERS: The Hangover)
Last time I discussed how the mystery structure and the “ticking clock” of the impending wedding helps pull you through what could be viewed as a rather episodic series of comedy situations in The Hangover (written by Jon Lucas & Scott Moore). There are a couple of other techniques I notice that the movie uses to help maintain forward momentum.
The first is advertising. Advertising is a technique we use to keep the audience looking forward in the story and to build up the big set piece scenes. It’s not much more complex than that – let the audience know something important is coming. The wedding is an obvious example of that in The Hangover.
Each time the heroes call the bride or talk about their roles as groomsmen, it’s a reminder that a wedding is planned. It builds anticipation – what will happen when the time for the wedding arrives? Of course we wonder whether the guys will find Doug and get back to L.A. in time. But whether they succeed or fail, we expect some kind of big payoff scene. The only thing that would be disappointing is if we never actually got a scene at the wedding!
Another example is Mr. Chow demanding the return of his purse for Doug, whom the characters (and we) believe he is holding hostage. He gives a deadline and a location for the exchange. Now we have something to look forward to as the characters set about trying to come up with the money that is supposed to be in the purse.
In a way, many of the clues in the room advertise future events. We know that certain ones will need to be explained – the baby and the tiger, obviously, must be dealt with. This again gives us things to look forward to. And as the guys follow the trail, many scenes advertise the next scene. For example, the doctor tells the guys they came from a wedding. We’re interested – who got married? When we learn it’s Stu and see pictures of him with his wife, we wonder what will happen when he meets her - the next scene.
The clues and their eventual explanation are also examples of planting and payoff. This technique helps tie the pieces of the movie together. For example, the ring belonging to Stu’s grandmother is planted in Act One when he tells the guys his proposal plan. It’s paid off when he sees it on the stripper’s finger. And then paid off again when she gives it back to him. This kind of connection running through the movie knits the scenes together so they feel like part of a coherent whole.
Planting and payoff also helps with believability. We see Alan reading a book on card counting in Act One when the guys are driving to Vegas. It’s emphasized because Doug has been warned not to let Alan gamble. Then when the guys decide to count cards to raise the money they need for the ransom, we don’t question their ability to do it. It was planted way back in the beginning.
The mystery structure, ticking clock, and advertising give The Hangover a sense of energy and momentum. The various plants and payoffs knit everything together. Then the writers are free to throw in all kinds of wacky shenanigans without losing story focus.
I’ll continue my analysis of The Hangover next time by discussing set pieces.