Forgetting Sarah Marshall and the Hollywood formula

I saw Forgetting Sarah Marshall this weekend and enjoyed it, in spite of the fact that it’s not my typical cinema fare. It follows the romantic comedy formula to the letter, yet somehow remains fresh and entertaining—Judd Apatow seems to have a gift for turning high-concept would-be crap into witty, character-driven gold, and he cultivates that talent in his stable of writers and actors.

It got me thinking about the Hollywood Formula, so I Googled around. I found surprisingly little information about it. I took a film class in my undergrad years that talked about the Hollywood formula like it was common knowledge, and in a way I suppose it is. Even if there isn’t much discourse out there about it, most people I know have seen probably hundreds of movies that fit the formula. I’m not a film expert, nor is my knowledge by any means exhaustive, but I want to take a whack at what defines a formulaic Hollywood film, using Forgetting Sarah Marshall (and possibly other Apatow-produced movies) as an example.

Let me preface this by briefly defining the Hollywood formula as I understand it: it’s a set of rules followed by most big-budget Hollywood productions that more or less insures appeal to a wide audience, and thus increases the chances of a film profiting. I also want to point out that there are always exceptions to every rule. Not every Hollywood movie will contain all of these elements, although the vast majority will contain most of them.

#1. A heterosexual romance

Forgetting Sarah Marshall has this in spades. Most of the main characters are entangled in heterosexual romances. As in most romantic comedies, they are the main focus. What I enjoyed about Forgetting Sarah Marshall is that, unlike many movies, the characters don’t fall into nicely stereotypable (is that word?) categories. Kristen Bell refuses to play the bitchy ex-girlfriend with no redeeming qualities, Jason Segel takes a character that in most movies would be relegated to the effeminate, possibly gay sidekick to the male protagonist, and makes him the leading man. And that brings us to #2.

#2. A sidekick

Or in extreme cases, a buddy. Mel Gibson had Danny Glover, Steve Carell in The 40 Year Old Virgin had Paul Rudd. In Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Jason Segel has Bill Hader—although he appears mostly on the screen of a laptop. The sidekick typically provides a sounding board for the main character’s inner dialogue, offers comic relief, and usually has a heterosexual romance subplot of their own.

#3. A happy ending

Kind of goes without saying, doesn’t it? How many big-budget, wide-release Hollywood movies have you seen lately that ended with death, pain, or heartbreak? I’m guessing not many. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying that the main character of Forgetting Sarah Marshall gets over his ex, pulls his life together, and winds up with a new girl. Happy ending!

#4. Continuity editing

This is a slightly more technical term used in film classes. Basically it means that the film more or less adheres to a style of editing popular in Hollywood for decades. Continuity editing is designed to keep the focus on the story rather than the craft of the filmmakers—conversations are usually filmed with two cameras from an over the shoulder perspective with the characters at matching eye-lines, there aren’t a lot of jump cuts (and if they are they arise naturally from the dialogue or scene), focus is kept on the characters and their interactions, etc. The one place Forgetting Sarah Marshall deviates from this is in a few flashback scenes that make use of rapid jump cuts to show a particular character trait in action—certainly not experimental filmmaking by any means, but not straight continuity editing either.

#5. Focus on male-centered heterosexual narratives

Forgetting Sarah Marshall is all about a man getting over a woman who broke his heart. Even in so called “chick-flicks,” the focus is often on the decisions, actions, or inactions of men as opposed to women. Film scholars have a lot to say about the male gaze—how women are photographed in an objectifying fashion—but I’m going to spare you the discussion. Forgetting Sarah Marshall certainly has its long shots that focus on Kristen Bell’s body. Judd Apatow’s work in general seems to prefer a male perspective—he reuses the same male cast members over and over, while rarely forming long working relationships with women.

#6. Comic relief characters

Comic relief characters are often a minority in one way or another. How many romantic comedies have you seen where the gay guy is played for laughs? How about the black guy? In The 40 Year Old Virgin the comic relief is the creepy Indian (?) guy in the store. In Forgetting Sarah Marshall it’s kind of a toss-up between the fat Hawaiian guy and Paul Rudd’s stoner surfer.

I know this isn’t an exhaustive list—I haven’t really touched on the plot structure (and oh, do I have a lot to say about that), but as far as constitutive elements go, how am I doing? Can you think of any other qualities shared by a large number of movies?

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~ by Ian D. on April 29, 2008.

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