Tuesday, July 19, 2005

The Formula: Wedding Crashers and the Ralph Bellamy Character

A lot of the time, I'm perfectly willing to enjoy formulaic Hollywood movies, but while watching Wedding Crashers I may have reached my tipping point, because I found its paint-by-numbers romantic comedy formula depressingly lame.

To give the movie its due, I laughed a lot, mainly at Vince Vaughn, who has become one of my favorite comic actors. He's perfected his semi-sleazy insincere fast-talker shtick. And, as far as shtick goes, I find this a lot funnier than that of most of his contemporaries. He doesn't have much range--although he was an effective straight man in Dodgeball and he can at least do "laid back"--but comic actors like Vaughn don't really need all that much range. They're funny because they do the same thing, regardless of the situation.

But, aside from Vaughn's performance, nothing much in the movie was that enjoyable. As I watched it, I couldn't help thinking that even with all the time, effort, and thought that goes into making them, we're still left with movies that follow--almost exactly--the same formulas that filmmakers perfected over half a century ago.

Wedding Crashers is a screwball romantic comedy. Specifically, it's the kind of screwball romantic comedy where two characters fall in love, even though one character is lying to the other character throughout most of the movie. In real life, relationships founded on elaborate deceptions almost always end badly, but in the movies they often work out okay. The classic example is The Lady Eve.

Now, one of the reasons that this kind of plot works in The Lady Eve is that the movie is obviously taking place in a highly-stylized, semi-made-up world: the kind of place where beautiful street smart con-artists fall in love and live happily ever after with good-hearted but naive millionaires. And it helps that Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda are both playing larger-than-life iconic types.

Wedding Crashers, on the other hand, has the standard sitcom-naturalistic style of most contemporary romantic comedies, and, while Owen Wilson is playing a kind of broad comic character, Rachel McAdams, as his love interest, is doing a serious, basically realistic, "cute nice girl" thing. This makes it a little harder to accept Wilson's character's outrageous behavior as just another convention of the genre. We're meant to find him charming and we're supposed to root for him to get together with McAdams's character, even though, by any objective standard, he's a near-sociopathic sexual predator.

Vaughn's character is also completely sleazy, but it's easier to root for him because Isla Fisher plays his love interest as a broad comic type: the deranged but innocent-seeming nymphomaniac. Even though the screenplay actually doesn't do a very good job of dramatizing it, it makes sense, in a screwball kind of way, that these characters would get together. It doesn't make sense that McAdams's sensible nice girl character would be willing to forgive someone who had behaved so abominably towards her. Trying to fit the movie's concept into the standard boy-gets-the-girl formula just doesn't work very well.

The movie's romantic comedy formula also turns sour in its handling of what I call "The Ralph Bellamy Character".

In movies from the early 1930s, like John Ford's Airmail, Ralph Bellamy played the kind of rough but suave leading man roles that were Harrison Ford's specialty in the 1980s. But Bellamy will go down in film history as the guy who kept losing his women to Cary Grant. Grant takes Irene Dunn away from him in The Awful Truth and steals Rosalind Russell from him in His Girl Friday.

"The Ralph Bellamy Character" (or RBC, for short) is the character in a romantic comedy who is the lead character's rival and who we know is not meant to end up with the girl (or guy, as the case may be). Sometimes there are even two RBCs, as in Noel Coward's Private Lives.

Now, in the past, the RBC may have been figures of fun, but they were hardly ever presented as bad people. The point isn't that Bruce Baldwin--Bellamy's character in His Girl Friday--is an awful person, but rather that he just isn't a very good match for Rosalind Russell's Hildy. George Kittredge--the RBC in The Philadelphia Story--is kind of a pompous ass, but he's not a terrible guy: his big flaw is that he doesn't really know how to appreciate Katherine Hepburn's real virtues.

Bradley Cooper plays the RBC in Wedding Crashers, which unfortunately follows the more recent trend of making the RBC an awful, hateful, mean-spirited person. I'm not sure exactly why or when this trend started, but my guess is that audiences today don't respond as well to the more subtle idea that the RBC shouldn't get the girl/guy because they just don't make a very good match. The audience needs to be hit over the head with the idea that the RBC shouldn't get the girl/guy because he/she is a completely horrible human being who doesn't deserve anything good at all.

When Cooper first shows up in Wedding Crashers, I thought he was going to play a WASP version of Ben Stiller's over-the-top neurotics, but the filmmakers don't waste much time before they reveal him as the now standard Evil RBC. They quickly make the points that (1) he's a womanizing creep, (2) he's a horrible snob, and (3) he doesn't really care about the woman he's supposed to be in love with. The writers and director couldn't have been less subtle if the had given him a Sidney Whiplash moustache to twirl as he plotted his next infidelity. Now, maybe it's just because I'm a fan of Cooper's work on television, but it was a real bummer for me to watch this appealing actor play a one-dimensional heel. (I also have to wonder if McAdams's character was really that desperate that her only choice was between two pretty despicable guys.)

Depicting the RBC as an unrepentant jerk has become one of my biggest pet peeves with contemporary romantic comedies. It's especially depressing because in the 1990s there were a few movies that bucked the trend. In My Best Friend's Wedding, for example, the RBC, played by Cameron Diaz, is more appealing than the heroine, played by Julia Roberts. Roberts tries to steal Dermot Mulroney away from Diaz, but she gives up in the end when she realizes that Diaz and Mulroney are truly meant for each other. Of course, ending a moving with the heroine not getting the guy was probably not very satisfying for audiences, but it was a nice change from the usual formula.

Depicting the RBC as a decent and even appealing person makes for a more interesting story, because when the hero/heroine makes the choice to leave the RBC we know that it was a tough choice. And the tough ones are always more dramatic than the no-brainers.


David Fiore said...

good point about the metamorphosis of the RBC into a jerk... that whole semi-mystical belief in perfect romantic "attunedness" is definitely far less in evidence in recent romantic comedies, which tend to advance the logic that, once you get together with a "hot" guy or gal, you stick with them until you just can't stand them anymore... this is one of the things that really bugs me about Andrew Bergman's It Could Happen To You (which I still sort of enjoy as Capra-lite, but which is marred by the monstrous "others" portrayed by Rosie Perez and Stanley Tucci)... Sleepless in Seattle, on the other hand, which I don't like much at all, did, at least, manage to keep the RBC flame alive, in the person of Bill Pullman (the Ralph Bellamy of the nineties, when he isn't playing psycho killers)

Jon Hastings said...

Good point about Sleepless in Seattle. The RBCs in Nora Ephron's You've Got Mail--Parker Posey and Greg Kinnear--are pretty decent, too, but in that movie the problem is that the leads seem to have more chemistry with the RBCs than they do with each other.

David Fiore said...

yeah--and in Sleepless we don't even get a chance to find out if they have any chemistry, because they don't meet until the curtain comes down... it's like she's saying: remember how much fun Cary Grant & Katharine Hepburn had together? well--these two are in for the same kind of ride, but I'm not up to staging it for ya!

it's even odder because Hanks and Ryan are great together in Joe Vs. The Volcano


The Derelict said...

The problem, as you pointed out, is that the male lead is often so utterly disgusting that it wouldn't make sense for the female lead to dump a decent, if bland, RBC for him.

The RBC worked so well because the two main leads existed in the zany, highly-stylized world, whereas the RBC was just too normal, and so therefore out of place as a romantic interest. "There's Something About Mary" is a film with a true RBC, and main characters who are both doing the same "thing" stylistically in their acting. The RBC, in fact, is so real/normal that he's a guy basically playing himself (Bret Favre).

Udolpho said...

Wedding Crashers is hampered by so many problems--one joke characters, a plodding story, Walken given nothing to do, an RBC who seems seriously psychotic and violent, and a female lead who looks ten years Owen Wilson's junior--that I found it amazing how often I laughed, mostly at Vaughn and in the third act Ferrell.

Definitely a major problem is that Wilson seems to have no real obstacles to overcome. From the moment the movie beats us over the head with what a jerk he is, it is never even slightly in doubt how things will turn out. Ho hum, let's get on to the final scene and the big speech and the moistened expressions of true love.

By the way, what was up with the cameos of James Carville and John McCain? Did this serve any purpose whatsoever other than to swell the egos of both these camera hogs? It's almost as if the filmmakers felt they had to have a celebrity cameo and these were the only two guys who showed up for the casting call. Depressing.

Glaivester said...

As I recall, the Ralph Bellamy Character in Splendor (1999) was a pretty okay guy. Of course, this may not fall into the typical Grant/Bellamy paradigm, as in Splendor, two guys share the Grant role and a third takes the Bellamy role (i.e. the woman is choosing between a menage a trois with two boyfriends or a normal relationship with a third guy).

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