Thursday, August 26, 2010

Setting a Different Tone

I was switching channels on a rainy morning while on vacation and came across The Apartment on one of the HBO channels.  I love The Apartment.  It’s one of my all-time favorite movies.  Even though I own the DVD and have seen it countless times, I watched from where I tuned in until the end.

If you don’t know about The Apartment, it was written and directed by the great Billy Wilder.  That’s the Billy Wilder who also directed and wrote Some Like it Hot, Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity and The Fortune Cookie, to name just a few of his other incredible films.

The Apartment came out in 1960 and won an Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay.  Deservedly so.  Given the subject matter, it was ahead of its time and, in my opinion, still holds up 50 years later.  Of course, as with any movie from an earlier era, you have to watch it with the time period in mind and from that perspective.

However, what struck me this time was something I had never considered before.  Namely, it appears to me that The Apartment contains all of the necessary beats of a romantic comedy, although it is most definitely not that.  Most critics and scholars label The Apartment a “dramedy”, that hybrid genre that is clearly defined by that simple and succinct term.

I say that it meets the simple requirements of a romantic comedy because the main character C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) wants Miss Kubelik (Shirley McLaine) and has to overcome a great big obstacle in order to get her: she happens to be sleeping with Baxter’s boss Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) and doing so at Baxter’s apartment which he has agreed to let the executives at his insurance company use for their trysts, in exchange for a promotion.

Without giving away the rest of the story, Baxter and Miss Kubelik do end up together, just as in the vast majority of romantic comedies.  And the movie is most certainly funny.  So why isn’t it considered a “romantic comedy”?  Good question.

I think the simple answer is “tone”.  It’s not what happens or how it happens.  It’s the tone with which all of that is delivered.  “Tone” equals genre, or at least it helps us to determine it.  In The Apartment, Wilder manages to give us both romance and comedy, without sacrificing the mordant tone he wants to convey.

You will probably agree that most romantic comedies made in the last twenty years or so have been less than classic.  Certainly not classic the way The Apartment is a classic.  And none have won an Academy Award, nor should they have.

Why is that?  I think it is because in recent romantic comedies, there is too much emphasis on “comedy”, which most often translates into some sort of slapstick or goofball brand thereof.  (See The Bounty Hunter. Actually don’t.  Please.  Don’t.)  Those types of romantic comedies underestimate their audience.  Something The Apartment never does.  So why do I bring this up?

Simple.  If you’re writing a romantic comedy that you hope to sell to Hollywood, you have quite a challenge before you.  Hollywood has seen everything in that genre.  They want to make them, but they’re afraid of making another box office dud, like most of those of the past 20 years.  They buy few and make even fewer.

So let me make a suggestion for setting yours apart.  Keep the same idea.  Use all the same beats, if possible.  Just change the “tone”.  Make the characters have “real” feelings with “real” problems.  Use pathos instead of slapstick to go along with your one-liners.  For a primer on how to do that, just pop in a DVD of The Apartment and study the master Billy Wilder.

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