Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Straying From the Party Line: Gentle Scenework in "The 40 Year Old Virgin"

A while ago, I proposed the idea of the “five levels of scenework”, from weakest to strongest. In the comments on this non-post, commenter “A.D.” floated the possibility that comedies tend to score lower on the scale. Once again, here’s the scale
  1. The Listen-and-Accept Scene: Two characters listen to each other and accept each other’s information. They may be surprised or upset, but they don’t reject what they’re hearing as untrue. There’s no conflict, nobody does anything they didn’t intend to do, and nobody is clever.
  2. The Listen-and-Dispute Scene: Two characters tell each other things, but one or both of them rejects the other’s statement, so they argue, and then leave. There’s conflict, but nobody does anything they didn’t intend to do and nobody is clever.
  3. The Extract-Information-or-Action-Directly Scene: Same as above, but one of them directly convinces the other that they’re wrong and gets the other one to give them what they want. There’s conflict and one person does something they didn’t intend to do, but nobody is clever.
  4. The Extract-Information-or-Action-Through-Tricks-And-Traps Scene: Same as above, but one of them tricks or traps the other one into giving up something unintentionally. There’s conflict, one person does something they didn’t intend to do, and one person is clever.
  5. The Both-Try-to-Trick-Each-Other Scene: This is as tricky as it gets. There’s conflict, at least one character does something they didn’t intend to do, and both are clever. 
So let’s evaluate every dialogue scene in The 40 Year Old Virgin on this scale:
As Andy leaves his apartment with his bike, the retired black couple on their porch upstairs teases that he should get a car.
1: They have a friendly conversation (but we hear that they think he’s a loser)
Andy and Cal chat about their weekend: Cal saw a donkey sex show, Andy made an egg salad sandwich.
1: They have a friendly conversation (but we see that Cal thinks he’s a loser)
Cal, David and Jay debate asking Andy to their poker game. They ask him to play that night in the store in store. 
1: They talk themselves into asking him, he’s happy to do it. 
At the poker game, Andy cleans up, but when the talk turns to sex stories, the others realize that he’s a virgin. 
5 He tries to deceive them, but they trap him into admitting that he’s a virgin. 
Everybody at work wants to talk about it.
2: They all mock him, he accepts it, until he rejects it.
Andy flees.  David chases him, corners him, convinces Andy to come to a coffee shop and talk it over…
3: David finally convinces Andy to come to a coffee shop.
In the coffee shop, David asks how this could have not happened.  Andy agrees to go out with them.
3: David finally convinces Andy to come out with them.
They get ready to go out.  His shirt is too yellow.
2: They disagree about his shirt choice, but agree to disagree.
At the club.  Jay tells him that he has to hook up with drunk bitches.  They join a wedding party. Andy meets a frisky girl who grabs his pants and then kisses him.
1: They flirt and they’re both into it.
They drive away.  She’s drunk.  They wreck.  She throws up on him. “I’ll still have sex with you, if you want.”
3/5: He implores her to drive better, she tries to trick him affirming her insecurities in various ways.
He tells the guys about it the next day as they smash florescent bulbs.  Jay tells him he’s putting the pussy on a pedestal.  Andy won’t say pussy anymore.  You said you wouldn’t pressure.
2: They implore him to stay at it, but he rejects that advice.
Andy is told to sell to Trish. She works at the “we sell your stuff on eBay store.”
4: She traps him into accepting her number. 
He gets waxed. 
2: They directly goad him into doing it, he finally rejects the whole thing.
He and Cal take out a TV.  Cal tells him that he has to just ask questions.
1: He briefly rejects, then accepts the advice. 
Andy hits on Elizabeth Banks by just asking questions.  It works well.  Cal tells him to follow up later. 
4: He lures her in using a trick.
David brings over his box of porn, suggests masturbation.
2: Andy rejects David’s advice.
At work, they invite him out to lunch.  “We brought you a shirt.”
2: He resists them but caves.
They arrive at Date-a-Palooza. Andy tries the ask questions method again.
5: He tries to use his questions trick again and fails.  Various people lay various traps for each other.
Jay’s girlfriend Jill comes in, she found his speed-dating card. Andy picks on Jay’s hint and convinces Jill that it’s his. Later, Andy is sent out on the floor, but won’t talk to any women, so they all agree to a new plan.
5: Andy and Jill are trying to trick each other.  He succeeds.  The others agree to lay a trap for Andy.
Andy shows up for the party.  It’s just a transvestite prostitute.
4: Andy is tricked into it, sees through it instantly and leaves.
They all sit around watching Jason Bourne.  Andy tells them that’s it.  
4: He traps them into no longer setting him up by threatening to let the boss know they’re stealing CDs.
Andy goes across the street to hit on Trish.  “Do you wanna go out sometime?”
1: He asks, she accepts. 
Andy calls Trish and arranges a date.
1: He asks, she accepts.
Cal and David are at his house. They say that the action figures might be a problem.
3: They confront him and force him to change his behavior.
Trish knocks at the door.  His apartment is empty.  “I’m having new carpet put in tomorrow.”
4: He tricks her out of investigating.
Andy and Trish are at Benihana. She has them sing Happy Birthday for Andy.  She kisses him on the cheek. 
4: She lures him into relaxing having a good time with the birthday song.
That night, they’re fooling around.  He doesn’t know how to put on a condom, which means that he goes through a whole pile. Trish’s daughter Marla and a boyfriend come in, see the pile of discarded condoms and says, “Dude, teach me.”
1: Just a big misunderstanding.  The arrival of the daughter keeps him from doing what he wanted to do, but nobody intentionally changes anybody else’s behavior.
Paula hits on him. He’s not interested.  He tells Cal and Jay that Trish has a kid. “You don’t want any baby-daddy drama.”
2: He rejects her pass, they reject his defense of Trish.
They eat at a nice restaurant.  She reveals she’s actually a grandmother. They agree to 20 dates without sex.
4: He tricks her into extending the number of sexless dates.
They’re making out when her daughters Marla and Julia come in.  He uses magic on Julia, rips off her hear.  Marla rolls her eyes.
4: He literally uses (magic) tricks to win Julia over, and even Marla to a certain extent. 
Andy calls Cal and says she’s a grandmother.
1: Peaceable exchange of info.
Paula tells him that he’s being promoted to floor manager.  “The doors always open, so to speak. I’m very discreet.  But I’ll haunt your dreams.”
1: Peaceable exchange of info.
Jay talks to Kevin Hart, who wants a  “brother discount.” Andy is sent in to break it up.
3: Andy makes Hart back down.
Andy talks to Jay in the back room.  Jill broke up with him. “Why’d you cheat on her?” “Because I’m insecure, you can’t tell?”
3: I guess technically Andy gets Jay to do something he didn’t want to do (confess insecurity), but it took no effort.
Andy and Trish talk. He admits that he’s thinking about starting his own stereo store. 
1: Peaceable exchange of info.
Andy is called in to help Trish: Marla wants permission to have sex and she’s locked herself in the bathroom:
3: All three confront each other until Andy coaxes Marla out.
Andy takes Marla to a sex clinic.  Marla is made fun of for being a virgin.  Andy sticks up for her by telling them that he’s a virgin too.
4: Andy feels trapped into admitting that he’s a virgin by the group.
Marla drives him home.  “I made that all up.” “Uh, no you didn’t.”
3: She confronts him and forces him to re-affirm it.
Jay shows off his ultrasound video.
2: They deny his claims about his fetus’s penis size.
Trish and Andy finish selling his stuff.  It’s the 20th date.  Andy still refuses sex and they fight.
2: Each disputes the other, but neither changes his/her mind.
Jay and Jill’s party. Andy drinks.  He runs into the bookstore girl who invites him to her place.  “Hope you have a big trunk, because I’m putting my bike in it.
1: Peaceable exchange of info.
Marla comes home to Trish and finds out they had a big fight.  She convinces her mom to seek Andy out. 
3: She confronts her mom about making this work.
Andy and bookstore girl undress in her bedroom.
1: Peaceable exchange of info.
In the bathroom, bookstore girl pretends to whip him with a belt. “Wow, this is awkward.”
1: Peaceable exchange of info.
Andy leaves the bathroom.  The guys are there in the apartment. They convince him to go make it work with Trish.  Cal stays. 
3: They confront him and convince him to leave.
Andy arrives home.  Trish is there. She’s freaked out about the box of porn.  She runs out. 
2: They each dispute what the other has to say, neither is convinced.
He crashes into her car. He instantly confesses that he’s a virgin. 
1: Peaceable exchange of info.
They get married under a gazebo.
1: Peaceable exchange of info.
They go to consummate at the hotel.  A guy is buffing the floor. Andy orders him out. They finally do it. One minute later title card.  Wanna do it again?  Two hours later title card. 
3: Andy convinces the buffer to leave.  She convinces Andy to try it again.

So wow, A.D. was onto something. That’s a lot of 1s and 2s in this movie and very few 4s and 5s. In fact, it’s pretty astounding how gentle this movie is. A lot of the conflict that you would expect to find just isn’t there.

For one thing, outside of the speed dating scene, nobody ever turns Andy down (and even there he bats over 500). The rejection that he’s expecting simply fails to materialize. You would expect that each of his friend’s advice would result in a failed pass, causing him to move on to the next one, but that doesn’t happen.
  • First, he tries Jay’s way (hit on drunk girls), and it works, but he backs out of the deal after she vomits on him (even though she then says “We can still have sex if you want”).
  • Then he tries Cal’s way (ask questions), and that works too, but he doesn’t follow up right away with the bookstore girl.
  • Then he tries what is essentially David’s way, pursuing a real relationship with Trish, and that works too. (Although, as with the previous two, he eventually gets scared off.) In the end, he has a smorgasbord awaiting him of three successful methods.
This is a movie in which the hero is his own worst enemy, and that’s fine, but it’s weird that that’s really the only source of antagonism that he encounters. Trish’s daughter Marla briefly shows some antagonism, but Andy doesn’t have to work very hard to win her over as well.

So why isn’t this more of a problem? Apatow does the remarkable: he gets us to laugh at a gentle world without any hard edges. We’re mostly laughing with and rarely laughing at. Even the biggest “laughing at” scene, the chest waxing, is notable for its benevolence. The traditional way to do this would be to amp up the harshness, so that we identify only with Andy and share his isolated suffering, but the three guys and even the waxer herself are wincing in pain for Andy with every pull. Even when the waxer finally starts giggling as she winces, it seems like she’s laughing with Andy’s imaginative swears, not at them.

Mel Brooks famously said, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die,” but that’s not Apatow’s philosophy. Instead, he gets us to say “I want to be there. I want to hang out with those guys. I wish those were my friends.” There’s still pain, awkwardness and humiliation, but never cruelty.  He isn’t cruel to his own characters and they’re never cruel to each other.  It turns out that you can be good at humor and still be good humored.


A.D. said...

That must've taken a while... good work! I'd love to see more of these. They're more eye-opening than the checklist road tests, IMO, because they reveal the micro-flow of the story and not just the bones.

Joel W. said...

God Matt is a machine!!

I wonder whether "feel-good", earnest movies tend to have fewer 5 and 4 scenes. It's less stressful to watch, and if you get the viewer to stay by other means they'll enjoy the movie. Perhaps with likable cuteness à la dog movies (or maybe those movies do indeed have many '5' scenes). Or, as j.s. (hope j.s. is okay!) might have put, watching the hero figure out solutions like in ALL IS LOST (which I haven't scene, so these thoughts are merely untested hypotheses, although I doubt the ocean will use tricks-and-traps more than direct confrontation. Either way, the hero in ALL IS LOST, if I'm not mistaken, would use action tricks/traps to survive, not dialogue ones.). Also, ALL IS LOST is not a "feel-good" movie I suppose.

Aug 30 2019