Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Writing Week (Vol. 5) part 242 - Thoughts on Structure

I spent last weekend at the beach (finally) with some friends from college. As most beach weekends do, the days in the sun with the sand between our toes and salty air in our nostrils faded into nights spent around tables with platters covered in seafood and glasses filled with wine. At the end of the night, when people were tired but didn't want to abandon the fun altogether for bed, we popped a DVD into the player and settled in for a few more drinks and some laughs. The selection? Bridesmaids.

I saw Bridesmaids in theaters and enjoyed it a lot. It's worth a ton of genuine laughs and seems - despite some scatological hilarity - is brainier than many comedies tend to be. As we watched it, I found myself studying the film more than I was simply observing and enjoying it. And I found that Bridesmaids is actually a very strong example of multiple plots and layers of story, which are structured extremely well. You might disagree with me, but the script has an Oscar nomination to back it up. Let's take a look at it. 

SPOILER ALERT if you haven't seen the movie yet.

When the film opens, we're treated to a raunchy and roaring glimpse of Kristen Wiig (Annie) and her sex buddy, played wonderfully by Jon Hamm. This scene represents a portion of the really pretty sad status quo of Annie's life at the moment. We're soon then also exposed to both her work and her living situations. Let's just say, we wouldn't want either. Intermingled with all of that, we get to know Maya Rudolph's Lillian, the bride-to-be and Annie's best friend. Soon, Annie and Lillian find their relationship strained by a new alpha female in Annie's life (Helen), and when things are starting to slip for Annie, she gets pulled over by an endearing cop, Rhodes. 

Annie's hookup buddy. Annie's job. Annie's undesirable roommates and living situation. Annie's fraying friendship with Lillian and  correlating distaste for Helen. Annie's relationship with Rhodes. That amounts to five thing - five - that are going on in the movie. You can further break them down if you want, but they can get lumped into those general categories. Annie's employment woes and difficulty making rent (and subsequent need to live with the odd English siblings) are due to a failed baking business that she put all of her money into. She had a serious relationship, but that dissolved when the business did, and now she's left with the douche she's sleeping with. Lillian and she go back a long way, but Lillian is moving on, and Annie is stuck in a rut. Annie is afraid to let her self open to people again; she is also afraid of flying (which plays out brilliantly later). In short, Annie has a lot of issues.

The script is masterful in its handling of all these seemingly disparate elements. For one, we can see why they all exist at this time in her life, for the reasons above. One thing led to another, which led to another, which splintered her existence. Furthermore, when things get bad for Annie, they don't get singularly bad; all things converge on her at the same time. When Annie hits rock bottom at the end of Act Two, she is really down in the dumps. Her hookup buddy has downgraded her from "sex buddy number three;" she has lost her job at the jewelry store; she's lost the apartment she didn't like and is back at home with her mom; Lillian not only demoted Annie from maid-of-honor but doesn't want her at her wedding; and Rhodes has called things off with Annie. Five concurrent plots that have all bashed together in the terrible train-wreck that is Annie's life. And these things did not happen independently of one another. Rhodes stopped seeing her, because he was frustrated with her antics and disgusted when he met Hamm's character. Annie's increasing loneliness and dejection related to Lillian caused her to act up at work, which cost her her job and meant she couldn't afford rent. Everything comes together wonderfully.

While I was watching Bridesmaids, I kept thinking to myself, "there are five levels to this story, and they're all working so well. Some are small, but they all seem to fit and all warrant screen time. How many layers do I tend to have?" I was dismayed to accept that I often have two at best. Sometimes, shamefully, it's closer to one. Subplots are pivotal in making a screenplay successful. Too many can clutter the structure or slow the pacing, but too few will leave you with nowhere to turn when you need an interlude. 

There are many other successful films out there, but if you haven't seen it, or haven't seen it recently, I suggest going back and rewatching Bridesmaids. It has its structure down pat.