(SPOILERS: The Hangover)
So here’s what I’ve learned by my in-depth analysis of The Hangover (written by Jon Lucas & Scott Moore):
First and most surprisingly, the movie uses far more character based humor than broad raunchy comedy. It’s definitely a hard-R comedy, with graphic nudity, drugs and “adult situations.” And it delivers on the outrageousness of the premise. This is no small thing. You are promising the audience something with your hook, so you better deliver. I’ve seen many disappointing movies and even more disappointing scripts that don’t live up to the promise of their premise.
The central concept of The Hangover – three groomsmen lose the groom after a wild bachelor party in Vegas – promises that the events of the bachelor party will be wild. If it was just a normal drunken bachelor party we would be disappointed. But the movie delivers: marriage to a stripper, stealing a tiger and a police car, throwing a gangster naked into the trunk of a car, date rape drugs, Mike Tyson, a baby in the closet, a missing tooth… definitely not your average bachelor party.
Yet most of the laughs come from the characters’ reactions to these events. The core of the humor is three very different guys reacting to the wild situations in very different ways.
Stu’s uptight dentist character is a great source of comedy. Craziness happening to a crazy guy is expected; when it happens to a mild mannered guy it’s hilarious. Add to that Alan’s man-child with his bizarre but emotionally vulnerable view of each situation and you get more humor. (Phil is less funny. His role is to provide an element of “cool” so the group doesn’t come off as a bunch of losers… he’s the straight man that makes them relatable.)
My second big observation is that the movie spends a lot of time making us care about these guys. I think this is a key reason why The Hangover rose above so many raunchy comedies – even ones that had more outrageous humor – and found love from a broad, mainstream audience. And it probably also explains why a completely uninspired sequel also succeeded.
The way The Hangover gets us to care about the guys is no mystery: strong dimensional characters, clever character introductions, and ample scenes of preparation and aftermath to let us check in with the guys’ emotions.
The movie’s structure was more interesting, particularly creating an early catalyst to keep the audience hooked during a long status quo section. This allowed for unusually deep character development.
Also, the use of a mystery structure (and advertising, planting and payoff) to move us through an episodic concept was an inspired technique. The movie would not have been nearly as enjoyable if we followed the guys through their wild night in a more traditional way. The amnesia effect of the drug allows us to see the characters’ reactions as they find out what’s happened to them. And in a way, not seeing the events allows us to imagine something even more crazy than anything actually shown. It’s a bit like Jaws – the shark is scarier when we don’t see it.
So that wraps up my analysis of The Hangover. I’d like to also let you know that my sister, young adult novelist Chris Eboch, has published a book on plotting. It includes a tool she uses for identifying and fixing plotting problems in the rewrite or outline stages, as well as essays and articles on plotting from a variety of other writers – including one on three act structure from yours truly! It’s designed for novelists, but if you replace the word “chapter” with the word “scene” it’s also useful for screenwriters.
It’s called Advanced Plotting. It costs $9.99 in paperback but until September 1st is available for a mere 99 cents as an eBook.