(SPOILERS: The Hangover)
The term Set Piece is generally used in the film business to mean elaborate action scenes or elaborate comedic scenes. I believe you can extend the idea to all genres. I define set pieces as the scenes that pay off whatever genre you’re in – the scary scenes in horror movies, the emotional scenes in dramas, the romantic scenes in romances.
The Hangover (written by Jon Lucas & Scott Moore) is a fairly broad, raunchy comedy. Often these types of movies rely on five to eight wild set pieces. Much of the rest of the movie is devoted to building up to these scenes – and to the character’s emotional storyline, of course. The big, hilarious set pieces are what really give the movies their impact.
For example, Bridesmaids (written by Kristen Wiig & Annie Mumolo) has the wedding shop set piece and the bridal shower set piece among others. There’s Something About Mary (story by Ed Decter & John J. Strauss, screenplay by Ed Decter & John J. Strauss and Peter & Bobby Farrelly) has the hair gel set piece and the pork and beans set piece among others. These are what we talk about with our friends after the movie.
Thus I was surprised to find that The Hangover doesn’t have the same kind of elaborate, contained set pieces. It tends to operate more like a softer romantic comedy or buddy comedy, mining most of its humor from the character interactions. Considering the rather outlandish premise and how funny the movie is, I wasn’t expecting that.
The Hangover does have set pieces. But rather than build into escalating physical comedy like I anticipated, they tend to move quickly from concept to concept, getting a few gags from the characters in each situation.
Here are the scenes I identify as comedic set pieces, in order: Waking up in the morning, the wedding chapel, the police station, Mr. Chow in the trunk (short but hilarious), taking the tiger to Tyson, Mr. Chow arriving with the hostage, and the race back to L.A. That’s seven set pieces, in line with my general feeling that movies need from five to eight.
So let’s examine one of the bigger ones in more detail: the police station. This consists of several connected scenes. First, we get the guys handcuffed in the lobby. Phil makes a call to the bride and lies to her so they can stay another day. Meanwhile a group of kids are being given a tour and warned not to end up like our heroes. Humiliation and lying – comedy staples.
Next we go into the interrogation room with a couple of nutty cops, and Phil tries to talk their way out by pointing out how embarrassing it will be for the cops that they lost their patrol car. This leads to a twist where they are freed in return for being part of a Taser demonstration. These kinds of twists are critical to effective set pieces.
The whole sequence builds nicely to a physical comedy climax. The final scene itself escalates from Stu getting shocked (the surprise reveal of what the demonstration is), then Phil getting shocked in the groin, then finally Alan getting shocked in the face and then needing a second shock before he goes down.
We also get a nice call back (a type of plant-and-payoff) – the kid who shocks Alan is the one who took a picture of him in the lobby, and whose camera phone Alan kicked out of his hand. That moment shows the value of suspense in comedy. We’ve seen the effect of the Taser on the other guys so we’re afraid of what will happen to Alan. As the kid walks slowly forward, steely eyed, and the cop narrates the intensity, the delay helps build anticipation that leads to a big laugh when the Taser finally hits.
See what I mean about the set piece moving quickly from situation to situation? Rather than develop the interrogation, for example, into a long scene, the writers glide quickly from the waiting room to the interrogation room to the classroom, landing a handful of gags at each stop and moving on.
Other set pieces demonstrate some different comedic techniques. For example at the end of the wedding chapel scene, Stu takes a call from his girlfriend who he’s lied to, saying the guys are in wine country. As he tries to maintain this lie, a couple of thugs come out of nowhere and begin beating the car with bats. The creative lie is a comedy staple and the key is to throw increasing obstacles and increasing elaboration. Layering the phone call over the bat attack increases the hilarity of both. The Hangover comes back to Stu's lie repeatedly for comedic payoff.
As I mentioned, The Hangover gets a lot of its comedy from the differing character reactions. So in the scene where they’re drugging the tiger, we get Stu’s anxiety because he lost the rock-paper-scissors contest and Alan’s funny bit about how tigers like pepper but hate cinnamon.
That sequence also demonstrates a couple of good examples of preparation in opposition. They’ve drugged the tiger so of course it must wake up (a twist). We probably anticipate that, but to make it work they have Alan ask a stupid question about Haley’s comet. We’re chuckling at Phil and Stu’s reaction when the tiger sits up behind them – and that contrast gives us the big laugh.
We see that again when they’re watching the security footage at Tyson’s. Phil is trying to smooth things over by talking about how majestic the tiger is, and right then on the security tape we see him simulate sex with the animal. That visual is amusing on its own, hilarious when set up by his pretentious speech.
It’s a little dangerous to over analyze humor. People try to create a formula for funny all the time, and it never seems to work. You have to go with your gut and hope your gut is funny. However, understanding things like preparation-in-opposition and plant-and-payoff as general writing techniques can help you strengthen your innate sense of humor by integrating the jokes more artfully into your story line.
The Tyson/tiger set piece also has a nice scene of preparation/aftermath in the middle. You need these kinds of scenes to build up the set pieces. I’ll take a look at how The Hangover uses preparation and aftermath in my next post.