Friday, August 28, 2015

Bridesmaids 5 – Set Pieces

(Spoilers: Bridesmaids)

I’ll complete my in-depth analysis of Bridesmaids (written by Kristen Wiig & Annie Mumolo) this week by looking at the set pieces. “Set pieces” are the big scenes that pay off the genre of the film – the action scenes in action movies, scary scenes in horror films, and comedic scenes in comedies. Good set pieces are important to the success of the film. Audiences go to action movies to see action – if you don’t give it to them, they will be dissatisfied no matter how good the other aspects of the character and story are.

Bridesmaids is a comedy with a raunchy tone and lots of physical humor. As expected, the set pieces contain a lot of raunch and slapstick. This may seem like easy humor to pull off, but it’s not. In weaker scripts of this type, the set pieces often contain physical or gross-out humor that doesn’t really relate to the action of the scene. Irrelevant physical humor usually doesn’t work because it feels forced and random. As Krusty the Clown noted in The Simpsons, a guy getting hit in the face with a pie is only humorous if the guy has some reason to be dignified. So if you just throw something like that into the background of a scene, you get the physical but not the humor.

The key is to use the physical challenges as obstacles to a character’s goal. That simple approach suddenly makes the slapstick humor relevant and thus much funnier. With all this in mind, let’s examine how a couple of the best set pieces in Bridesmaids work.

One of the scenes that gets the biggest laughs is the food poisoning in the bridal shop. But it’s not simply the vomit and diarrhea that make us laugh. It’s the fact that Annie doesn’t want to admit to her rival Helen that the bridesmaids got sick at the lunch Annie arranged. So, though Annie is clearly in physical distress, she’s determined not to admit it. The food poisoning is an obstacle to Annie’s character goal.

There are, of course, gags in that scene not related to Annie, and these mostly come out of the classy setting. So the women are trying to be dignified, but their bodies betray them. If, instead of the bridal shop, we saw the women go their separate ways and then get sick in their own homes, it would be unpleasant instead of funny.

The beginning of this scene sets the situation to get the maximum effect out of both sources of humor. At first, the women are denied admittance because Annie didn’t know the shop required reservations. But it turns out Helen knows the manager and gets them in. Helen has upstaged Annie, putting Annie on the defensive. This also emphasizes how high-end the shop is, which will make the gross out events to come all the more incongruous, and therefore funnier.

Once the food poisoning kicks in, the scene intercuts between gross out bodily fluid gags with the supporting characters, while Annie tries desperately to prove she’s not sick by eating a Jordan almond. That almond is what makes the scene. It ties the physical comedy to Annie and Helen’s rivalry, adding emotional weight to the humor. It also provides counterbalance to the outrageousness that culminates in Lillian, in her bridal gown, defecating in the middle of the street.

Also notice how this scene has two escalations: The first part is about poor Annie’s discomfort with the elegance and expense of the store. Then the food poisoning starts, adding in the gross out humor. Finally, the Jordan almond escalates again, as Annie goes from simply denying her discomfort to actually having to prove her lie. Escalations are key to good set pieces.

The scene on the airplane is another good example of escalation. Once again we set up Annie’s inferiority – she’s the only one who has to fly coach while the others are in first class. The comedy escalates first when Annie’s fear of flying kicks in – and her seatmate makes it worse by being even more paranoid! This leads to Annie taking drugs Helen gives her, escalating the scene again when a stoned Annie tries to repeatedly sneak into first class against the orders of the flight attendant. The final escalation comes when Annie starts hallucinating and grabs the intercom – leading to the women getting kicked off the plane.

Another great thing this set piece does is intercut between multiple storylines. In addition to Annie’s growing meltdown, we have Becca and Rita discussing their unsatisfying sex lives – the verbal wit a nice counterpoint to the physical humor with Annie. Then we have Megan’s aggressive, nutty attempts to seduce Jon, another type of broad, character based humor. That storyline then dovetails nicely with Annie’s storyline when Jon turns out to be an Air Marshal. The intercutting of these three stories allows the writers to pile jokes on top of jokes, building the intensity and insanity of the scene to the big payoff.

And again, we have a scene where the humor grows out of character goals and rivalries. Some of the jokes are zany, but they all come out of the characters pursuing their goals. For example, Annie’s hallucination of a woman churning butter is the ultimate result of her attempt to go along with the Vegas trip despite her fear of flying. Megan’s description of how to hide a gun comes from her desire to connect with Jon, who she has correctly identified as an Air Marshal despite his denials.

These two scenes are probably what most of the audience will remember long after the movie is done. That’s the power of a good set piece. It’s important that we all strive for those kinds of memorable scenes (whatever genre you’re working in) in our screenplays. When building your set pieces, consider what we can learn from the escalations and intercutting in Bridesmaids. And if you’re doing broad comedy, be sure to tie physical humor to the characters’ goals and obstacles to those goals.

Want to read the Bridesmaids screenplay? It’s online here.


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