Thursday, July 16, 2009

Case study: "There's something about Mary"

Just to get started, here's a quick look at the film's main characters:

Mary Jensen (Cameron Diaz) - Miami based, beautiful, kind and compassioned orthopedic surgeon who men tend to fall in love with.
Ted Stroehmann (Ben Stiller) - awkward and naive man who's been in love with Mary since high school.
Pat Healy (Matt Dillon) - sleazy private detective who's sent by Ted to find Mary, falls in love with her and tries to keep her for himself.
Dom "Woogie" Woganowski (Chris Elliott) - Ted's best friend, who later turns out to be Mary's creepy stalker from college.
Tucker (Lee Evans) - Mary's disabled British architect close friend who later turns out to be a pizza delivery boy who fell in love with Mary and created this persona to woo her.

I already mentioned "There's something about Mary" (1998) as a primary inspiration for my screenplay – not in terms of story, but in terms of comic voice. I love this movie's approach to comedy:

- Memorable slapstick scenes: Ted getting his dick caught in his zipper; Mary's hair standing up; Healy trying to wake a dog from a coma.

- Distinct physical characteristics: Ted's hair and braces in high school; Tucker's exaggerated limp; Woogy's face rashes.

- Surprising, exaggerated and unlikely turn of events. I'm not talking here about "crazy" situations like the dog being in a coma, or the dog being on speed. I'm more interested in formalistic exaggerations such as: After Ted's dick is caught in a zipper and Mary's parents try to help him, suddenly a cop enters through the window, joined later by a fireman – just to make the scene more ridiculous; Ted not knowing his married best friend is obsessed with Mary too; Tucker making up that false persona for so long and winning Mary's trust.
About Mary's trust: I remember after watching the movie for the first time, years ago, I noted to myself how comic Mary's character. She might not be a "crazy funny" character, but her reactions to whatever happens around her have a big part in making this movie funny (I've argued before that she's a reincarnation of Sugar from "Some like it hot").

"There's something about Mary" structure analysis:

Like in my previous case study, I watched "There's something about Mary" and broke it down to a list of all the movie's scenes - just actions, not dialogue. Then I started analyzing it.

First, I looked for the movie's "inciting Incident". An inciting incident is basically what gets the story started. It's an event that (usually) happens at the beginning of a movie and (usually) turns the protagonist's world upside down, creating a certain desire, and triggering him to embark on a journey, at the end of which he will hopefully fulfill that desire. Other simple way to describe it, is an event that disrupts the balance in the protagonist's life, forcing him to actively bring the balance back. Every screenwriting manual will tell you it's a crucial part in every (mainstream) movie.

On "Meet the Fockers" there was no inciting Incident, but since it's a sequel, it seems understandable: It relies on the first movie's inciting Incident. On "Meet the parents", the inciting Incident was Gaylord finding out that he needs his girlfriend's dad's approval if he wants to marry her, which makes him abort his planned proposal operation, and go on a "make her dad like me" mission. On the sequel, Gaylord is still on that same mission, only now it's extended: "make her dad like my parents" – and in fact, as I argued, the actual mission is reduced back to the original "make her dad like me".

Examining "Mary", I found that (surprise!) there's no prominent inciting Incident. There's an 18 minutes long setup of Todd and Mary's high school failed romance, and then cut to the present (13 years later): It was actually a memory Ted was telling his shrink. But the shrink wasn't really listening. Ted then tells his best friend that Mary was his only love and that he can't forget her. His friend tells him – why don't you look her up? So Ted goes looking her up.

The only thing resembling an inciting Incident can be found in what Ted tells his shrink. The shrink is out of the room during Ted's entire story about meeting Mary, going to pick her up to the prom, getting his dick caught in his zipper, missing the prom, never seeing Mary again. Ted doesn't notice he's gone, because he sits with his back to the shrink. When the shrink gets back to the room, this is their conversation:

Anyway, it's not something you exactly
forget about, but I guess I must've blocked
it out of my head. Then about a week ago
I'm driving on the highway and I got to
thinking about Mary and suddenly I couldn't
breathe...I couldn't keep up with the flow
of traffic anymore I felt like I was
going to die. I pulled into a rest area,
parked the car, and just started shaking.

You areas are homosexual

So apparently Ted forgot all about Mary until suddenly, one day while driving, he got to thinking about it and got a panic attack. So the panic attack is the inciting Incident - except it's hardly noticeable. It is never shown on screen - it is just told about, and then completely ignored by the shrink. It's the movie's way to show (once again) how naive and clueless Ted is (he has no idea that the shrink left the room), but it's also the movie's way of saying - fuck the inciting Incident. Ted is going to look for Mary. Why now? Because we're filming now.
Now that we've established that, let's look at the entire picture. Here are the main plot's turning points:

What happens: Ted (reportedly) gets a panic attack when he thinks about Mary for the first time in years.
Consequence: This is the inciting Incident, after which Ted is going out on a journey to find Mary and win her love again.

What happens: The private detective tells Ted that Mary is a fat wheelchaired single woman, who has 4 children from 3 different fathers.
Consequence: Ted lets go of his dream of finding Mary.

What happens: Ted's friend tells him he saw Mary a few months earlier, and that she was hot.
Consequence: Ted understands the detective was lying. He decides to continue looking for Mary.

What happens: Ted finds out that Mary got involved with the detective.
Consequence: He will have to compete over Mary's heart.

What happens: After she's already dating Ted, Mary gets an anonymous letter telling her he send that private detective to watch her.
Consequence: Mary loses her trust in Ted. She doesn't want to see him again. How will he get her back?
If we put aside the unconventional lack of proper inciting Incident, the rest of the film's structure is pretty conservative. I'm not sure that I have much to say about it, except that it's easier for me to do these technical exercises than actually work on my screenplay.

I switched my deadlines around so I did one case study after another, instead of mixing them with my writing assignments. So now I'm left with only writing assignments until the end of the month.

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