Monday, October 26, 2009

Screenplays I love: Four Weddings and a Funeral

I don't know if this will become a regular feature or not, but I find myself wanting to say a few things about Four Weddings and a Funeral, one of my favorite movies/screenplays of all time. Paradoxically, Richard Curtis's script breaks many conventions of cinematic storytelling while, at the same time, exemplifying a story that could only be told as a movie. (It was beaten at the Oscars by a screenplay to which similar praise could be ascribed: Pulp Fiction.) The strict limitations it imposes on itself work so perfectly that they end up seeming like advantages, and the result is a highly accurate, endlessly satisfying portrayal of the hazards of love and romance.

Charles (Hugh Grant) is one of the most memorable protagonists in the history of romantic comedies. Much like John Cusack's portrayal of Lloyd Dobler in Say Anything, the role came to define not only what we expect from a Hugh Grant movie, but what we expect from Hugh Grant as a human being. And yet for the most part, the screenplay tells us shockingly little about this character. We don't know what his job is, what his typical day is like, or even his last name. Up until the final minutes of the film, we only see him in the context of -- more to the point, in the shadow of -- other people's formal social events. (The one sequence in the movie that isn't a wedding or a funeral centers around shopping for one.)

To many writers, this kind of structure would be an uphill battle in terms of effectively setting up a character, but they'd deal with it as best they could -- seizing upon every possible opportunity to smoothly inject some exposition into the proceedings. Weddings, they might reason, are occasions where people are always introducing themselves and discussing their outside lives with strangers and rarely-seen acquaintances. But Curtis refuses to take advantage of any such loophole; Charles practically never talks about himself, and steers most conversations away from personal details. The few tidbits he drops here and there (saying that he could never get married, or that "[m]ost of the time I don't think at all. I just potter along" in relationships) are telling but vague.

So how does it work? How does Richard Curtis get away with all this? How does a vaguely defined protagonist walking through the same situation over and over add up to a great movie?

Well, first of all, it's a situation we all understand: not merely the experience of going to a wedding, but the period in our lives where it seems like everyone we know is getting married left and right. (Curtis himself apparently went to 72 weddings in ten years, so he knew whereof he spoke.) And as much as we might trivialize them as boring, useless social obligations, all weddings are powerful events that heighten our emotions. Even the wedding of someone we barely know (or wish we barely knew) is bound to serve as an occasion for some serious pondering of our life choices to that point. Attending multiple weddings in a short span amplifies those feelings. The writer knows this, the movie knows it, and the audience knows it -- without needing to be told. The same universal relevance applies when Charles falls in love with Carrie (quite literally at first sight) and deals with the difficulties, many of them hilarious, that their short-term romance entails.

Second, the structure of the screenplay gives it the kind of temporal scope that isn't typically feasible in a romantic comedy. Profound changes in characters' lives -- engagement, divorce -- happen offscreen between chapters, continually altering Charles's experience and perspective as time goes on. Months go by between Charles's first and second encounters with Carrie, though only minutes have passed on screen. He's still in love with her, but now she's engaged to a wealthy old Scot. Hope and joy immediately turns to heartbreak and painful rumination: a classic dramatic reversal made possible, again, by the film's atypical structure. By the third sequence, wherein Charles runs into Carrie while shopping for a wedding gift, enough time has passed that he's ready to let his feelings burst forth in a famously awkward confession... but it's both too late and too early for anything to come of it. Juxtaposing these scenes in a conventional script would never work; the drama would feel arbitrary and manufactured. But the film earns these compelling transitions by pinning its structure to the events that surround life changes, rather than the changes themselves.

Finally, the incredible cast of supporting characters serves to take some of the pressure off Charles without turning the film into an outright ensemble piece. (Curtis did attempt the latter in Love Actually, and the result, like many multistory ensemble films, was thinner and less memorable.) Even if we never completely know who Charles is, we're constantly presented with examples of who he isn't; thus, we form an impression based on the visible differences between him and his friends (and acquaintances, and strangers he bumps into, and so forth) and his reactions to their behavior. We also get occasional commentary from them on Charles's personality and life choices. Yet, they never seem to exist simply to fill these needs in the script; Curtis draws each one so vividly and specifically that they all feel like protagonists of their own individual movies -- an object lesson in writing secondary roles.

Four Weddings and a Funeral has aged well in the 15 years since its release, especially compared with the swath of wedding-porn embarrassments that the studios have churned out of late. It's clever, insightful, funny, and touching without trying too hard to achieve any of those characteristics. And best of all, it proves that screenwriting rules were made to be broken.

1 comment:

Philip S. Night said...

Hey, I have a question for you. I had seen one your comments on John August's blog, part of it being in screenplay format, the same way John sometimes posts. How do you get it to appear like that? Code of some sort I'm assuming? Hope you can help.

-Phil