Wednesday Review: The Hangover and Movies in Reverse

The Hangover is funny. It’s pretty raunchy (and there is a pretty healthy dose of male nudity in the film, a healthy dose of female nudity in the credits), there is a lot of swearing, but there is also a pretty surprisingly strong storyline to the film.

I don’t think I’m going to be giving anything critical away regarding this one, but consider this your spoiler warning.

The film begins fairly close to the film’s end, with Bradley Cooper’s Phil Wenneck calling his best friend’s fiance to tell her that they will not be making their way back from Las Vegas for her wedding that afternoon. They have lost the groom in the course of a bachelor’s weekend and don’t think they’ll be finding him anytime soon. Immediately after, the film jumps back in time to show the setup for the wedding and the bachelor party weekend. We’re introduced to the characters and walked slowly into their weekend. Thanks to Zack Galifianakis’ truly odd Alan Garner, the evening begins to get progressively weirder and edgier… and then stops. The camera cuts and we get to see none of their adventures. It’s bummer for a moment… but just for a moment.

The next thing you see are Phil, Alan and Stu Price (the ever-increasingly more brilliant Ed Helms) waking up in the disaster zone that their incredibly lavish suite has become. The rest of the film chronicles the three men as they attempt to unravel just what the hell happened to them the night before which they, for various reasons, cannot  recall in the slightest.

The Hangover really worked for me. My wife liked it as well, but not quite as enthusiastically as I did. I think it’s the sort of film that really benefits from a crowded theater. The energy of the crowd would no doubt be really infectious. Similarly, rent this and watch with a crowd of buddies for maximum effect. But I liked it for more than the comedy, I liked it because it’s a movie in reverse.

The way the story in The Hangover is told is really conducive to ensuring a tightly structured and quick moving screenplay. Before the screenwriters could figure out how the three men unravel their adventures the night before, they had to figure out what those adventures were, and then going backwards figure out how the men sleuth out the solution and what new adventures they would get into along the way. There are essentially two stories here and both of them need to be fully realized for the film to work.

In the entirely opposite end of the film spectrum, we have Memento, which explores the same idea. Memento is a noir thriller that deals with a man who has no short term memory. He forgets what he was doing every few moments. This leads to some truly excellent moments such as forgetting, in the middle of a chase, if the main character is running after or away from another man. But in order for the film to make sense going “backwards”, the film had to be written so that it made just as much sense in reverse as well. Try watching another film in reverse… the cause and effect are out of wack. The linear nature of most scripts cannot support this. Memento shatters that convention and in the process presents us with an ironclad screenplay. The story had to be structured so carefully that the script is just flawless.

I’m not making the statement that The Hangover is the same caliber of film that Memento is, but the lesson that can be learned by both is the same. A story should have many angles. There should be action that is both seen and unseen. An excellent way to explore this concept is to mess with the time of your film. If you tried to tell it in reverse, could you? Could you start it near the end, jump to the start, and still make sense? Check out Pulp Fiction or Kill Bill or Reservoir Dogs to see this in action as well. Tarantino loves to play with the timeline in his films. By taking moments out of their normal flow and dropping them around, you’re forced to look hard at what makes sense and what stands alone in your screenplay. Your scenes will begin to support themselves and be strong independent of the rest of your script.

So start thinking of your screenplay from more than one angle. Think about what happens in between the scenes and before them. Think about how you can jumble your timeline, and see if you’ve got the chops to make it all work afterwards. And see The Hangover, because it was pretty awesome.

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