Forgetting Sarah Marshall and the Hollywood formula part two

I’ve been thinking about typical plot structure in Hollywood movies ever since I posted about Forgetting Sarah Marshall last night, and I think it’s worth some writing about. Most screenplays, this helpful website informs me, follow the three-act structure. Act one comprises the first quarter or so of the movie, and introduces us to the characters, the setting, and the plot. Act two comprises the next two quarters, and contains confrontations, conflict, and a general escalation of tension. Act three is usually the last quarter or so of the movie, and contains a final confrontation and a brief denouement (we’ve got to get that happy ending in there).

Forgetting Sarah Marshall follows the three-act structure to the letter. Within the first ten minutes we’re introduced to Peter, Sarah, and their relationship, mostly through shots of their apartment to establish their disgustingly cute coupleness (pictures everywhere, magnets on the fridge, mugs with their faces on them, etc.) and a segment of Access Hollywood about their careers. Shortly after that we get the set-up—Sarah breaks up with Peter, leaving him an emotional wreck. A bit less than half an hour into the movie, he decides to take a vacation in Hawaii, and act one ends.

Act two has all the funny business in Hawaii. Peter meets a new girl, makes friends with the comic relief, and gets into conflicts with Sarah and her new rockstar boyfriend—who just so happen to be vacationing at the same resort. The end of act two or the beginning of act three usually contains a moment I like to call the “It’s-always-darkest-before-the-dawn-Hollywood-plot-point,” the point in the story where it seems the protagonist faces insurmountable odds and the story/relationship/battle/whatever will end in disaster. In romantic comedies it’s usually a break-up or a vow that the lovers will never work together. In action movies it’s usually the death of a minor character (possibly a mentor to the hero), or evidence that the coming battle will be lost.

The “It’s-always-darkest-before-the-dawn-Hollywood-plot-point” is always followed by the reversal, in which the hero miraculously beats the odds and saves the day. What bothers me about this structure is that Hollywood has ingested it so well that movies do it without thinking about it, without questioning if what is depicted is at all real, or even true to the world of the film. This is what accounts for all those stupid endings, like “Oh, they broke up and got on different planes, but then he realized the error of his ways and raced through the airport and caught her plane just in time and now they live happily ever after. How cute!” I hate these endings because they’re fake, they’re obligatory.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall does a good job with its “It’s-always-darkest-before-the-dawn-Hollywood-plot-point” and subsequent reversal, because it downplays the buildup of conflict. Peter leaves Hawaii still heartbroken over Sarah, and dumped by the new girl. He’s depressed—we see him trying to write music for the show he’s working on, but he can’t. Then, though montage, we see him start to get over it. He cleans his apartment, starts composing, works out, and manages to put on the musical he’s had in his head for years. In the end, the new girl gives him a second chance, the musical is a hit, and everyone lives happily ever after. Yes, it’s the obligatory Hollywood ending, but it feels less fake because it doesn’t rely on a sudden reversal or improbable crisis to achieve the effect. Instead, Peter just gets over it, like people do. No running through the airport, no tearful reunions.

As a writer, I’m always trying to learn something when I read a story or watch a movie. The Hollywood formula is so ingrained I’m pretty sure I could shit out a blockbuster, and that scares me a little. The quality of most writing in the mainstream media is so low (don’t get me started on TV) that examining it is kind of depressing. “All these movies work the exact same way!” I want to yell in the movie theater. But then every once in a while there’s a movie like Forgetting Sarah Marshall, that sticks to the formula but manages, through intelligent writing, to rise above its genre in so many ways. Michael Chabon wrote that the best genre writers are the ones who don’t adhere to every convention but don’t flout them all either. The best genre writers are the ones who set up a play between expectation and delivery, conventional and unconventional, the old and the new. If you’re writing in a genre as stifled as the Hollywood romantic comedy, why shoot for less?


~ by Ian D. on April 29, 2008.

One Response to “Forgetting Sarah Marshall and the Hollywood formula part two”

  1. My friend and I came up with a teen sex comedy called HARD TIME in which two dudes get mistakenly incarcerated in a women’s prison.

    I think if we actually wrote the screenplay we would be millionaires.

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