Sunday, July 02, 2006

Weak Characters in Comedies

Dinner with friends. So what’s next? Are we playing poker? “Actually, we rented the new Pink Panther movie.” Oh. Hey, look at the time. I really must be going. I’m supposed to, uhh, be somewhere. “Where do you have to be?” Anywhere that isn’t playing the new Panther movie. “Oh, come on, it’ll be fun. I heard it’s hilarious.” Have you read the reviews? I seriously doubt it. “Stay with us. Pleeeaase...” Hey, look, the dinner was great. You guys enjoy the wine I brought…

“Emily Mortimer’s in it.”

(long pause)

Really? Emily Mortimer?

(long pause)

I had no idea she was in this.

(long pause)

Sigh… Okay, I’ll stay.

So we watch this travesty of comedy unravel in front of us. We had all the conveniences of modern technology, the big tv, the surround sound system, (and the good wine I brought), and nobody laughed. This movie lingered in the room like a bad fart.

And let me tell you, this movie did not fail simply because it “wasn’t that funny” or because Steve Martin could not live up to the genius of Peter Sellers. This story betrayed the very soul of comedy itself. Steve Martin was done-in by all that is wrong in contemporary thinking about arcs and “weak characters in comedies.”

Imagine with me, before they ever went into production, all the writers and studio execs are sitting around a table trying to drum up a story, and somebody (probably the studio guy) says, “Ya know, I always thought Clouseau’s character was weak. I mean, gee, I’m watching Peter Sellers, and like, all he’s doing is being stupid for two hours. We need to give Clouseau some depth.” “Yeah!” “He needs to have an arc.” “Oh, go on! You’re brilliant! Let’s do it!”


Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, WRONG.

This comedy was D.O.A. before they even started writing it.

The most you can hope for in slapstick comedies like these are characters who have “blind obsessions,” individuals who fail to see their own flaws or the dangers of their own ridiculous fixations. Got that? Blind obsessions. Ridiculous fixations. Moliere’s life-long career in the theatre was built on that one fundamental, lampooning the ridiculous fixations of the social elite. (And the actors would always play those characters seriously, as if they had no clue they were being ridiculous, and that had us rolling in the aisles.)

Consider the comedy-gold combination of the money-fixated Max Bialystock and the producer-fixated Leopold Bloom. Or Oscar Madison living with the germ-obsessed Felix Ungar. Or the war-fixated General “Buck” Turgidson in Dr. Strangelove. Or the sex-obsessed teens in countless movies. Or any of a number of Woody Allen characters. And yes, Inspector Clouseau was obsessed about being the greatest detective in the world but it never occurred to him that he was always the dumbest man in the room. He fumbled his way into foiling the plans of countless bad guys without ever realizing what actually happened. Then he’d get decorated with honors for his brilliance, and that, my friends, was the big cosmic joke. The moment truth gets revealed, the moment Clouseau realizes he has flaws in his personality and that he needs to change (thereby giving his character an “arc”) will be the very same moment the comedy will die.

And thus, in the latest Panther incarnation, Inspector Clouseau gets outed in the media as the bumbling idiot he always was, he actually REALIZES that he IS a bumbling idiot, he APOLOGIZES to different people if he made them look silly, and then he SOLVES the big case thereby proving to the world that he is, in fact, a brilliant detective.


But ya know… Emily Mortimer was worth all the torture. If I had been that lucky tennis instructor in Match Point, I wouldn’t have given one damn about Scarlett Johansson.


Mystery Man said...

Oh my God, what a brilliant article! Hehehe... I just wanted to see if this thing worked.

Anonymous said...

I heard that PP was supposed to be more adult oriented humour and they hired Steve to dumb it down with a new screenplay version... and they are doing a sequel? Ay yay yie

bestoffrm said...

thanks for sharing
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