Monday, October 31, 2011

Broad villains in comedies

Derek asks:

Hi Zuul, 

First, thanks for all of the knowledge you've passed down via the site. I've picked up a lot of stuff from it and I appreciate your efforts.

I'm writing a comedy, and the antagonist is an aggressive, serious, overconfident man, kind of like Bradley Cooper's character in Wedding Crashers. A typical d-bag, if you will. I can't help wondering if the script would be funnier if the bad guy was more over-the-top, the way the bad guys Will Ferrell plays are (Zoolander's Mugato is a good example). Seems like it's more meaningful if the bad guy really is just a terrible human being, someone we hate, someone we want to see defeated by the good guy. At the same time, lots of comedies these days go with the over-the-top, likable bad guy to cash in on as many laughs as possible, often at the expense of meaningful conflict. What do you think?

It's funny you should bring this up because I was recently thinking about villains in 80s comedies and how often they were treated much more seriously than modern comedy villains.  In fact, if you made some of those comedies today, they might not even have their "serious" bad guys and instead focus more on the high concept premise.

Consider Three Men & A Baby.  In that film, three bachelor roommates are saddled with an infant fathered by one of the men.  The comedy comes from the men awkwardly embracing fatherhood, only to bond with the infant and then be faced with losing her when the mother comes back into the picture.

Oh, and there's also a subplot about a couple drug dealers trying to get their hands on a package of drugs that was sent to one of the main characters on the same day that the baby was left on the doorstep.

Wait, what?

And then there's Twins.  Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny Devito are twin brothers engineered in an experiement who find each other in adulthood.  Not only are the two of different physiques, but also different temperments and lifestyles.  There's instant comedy conflict.

Oh, and in the middle of this film there's a subplot about the brothers having crossed a contract delivery man/killer who murders in cold blood anyone who sees his face.  (I'm vastly oversimplifying, but I don't want to get too much into that unnecessarily convoluted plot.)

I don't know exactly when the shift happened, but my point is that there was a time when even the most fluffy and escapist of premises seemed obligated to include bad guys willing to shoot our heroes dead if needed.  And then thing is, I wouldn't call the antagonists of either of those films "pretty well-developed."  It's not as if the gun-toting killers brought meaningful conflict.  The best I can figure is that those movies were a product of the times.

With regard to your specific question, I think that today, there's a stronger sense of matching the bad guy to the tone of the film.  You bring up Mugatu from Zoolander as an example of the over-the-top bad guy as contrasted with Bradley Cooper in Wedding Crashers.  First, I thought Cooper was pretty much one-dimensional in that film (but that might be because I've never, ever warmed to that actor).  But I think the more cogent point is, you couldn't put Mugatu into Wedding Crashers and have that movie work in the same way.  He doesn't fit in that reality at all.

Yet the other examples I cited would suggest that you can put a "serious" bad guy into an inherently light premise and not disrupt reality as much.  For your specific story, I think the answer probably lies in how elastic your reality is.  In a film like There's Something About Mary, there's enough latitude to go relatively broad with the antagonists without either making them cartoons or threatening the integrity of the film.

But this is probably a topic that could generate a lot of discussion, so what do you say, folks?

1 comment:

  1. Over the top characters only work for me in Mel Brooks' movies. In anything else, they just don't work for me. Maybe it's the way they're written or played, I don't know. Maybe there's a subtly to Brooks' villains (and good guys) that even when they're over the top, they're not.

    I'm not explaining this well, am I?

    I couldn't even watch Wedding Crashers or Zoolander because I just find those types of characters repugnant.

    I'm likely in the minority and as a non-writer, you probably don't care what I have to say, but I am a movie watcher and I prefer my villains to not be over the top evil the way they're written now adays. I prefer the villains you'd see in live action 60s Disney movies. They're still cartoonishly evil, but not nearly as bad as now adays. Give me the kind of bad guys you'd see in Condorman (staring a young Michael Crawford) or That Darn Cat. Heck, even Batman with Adam West! But no Will Ferral types, please!