Adventures in Cultural Consumption: Let's Watch Some Movies We've Already Seen Edition

Four Weddings and a Funeral
Mean Girls

Scott Fitzgerald once said there are no second acts in American life. As if to prove the point, the line has served as easy lede copy for every magazine and newspaper story about individual comebacks since it was written. The line makes rather more sense about 'second acts' in the sense of Act II of a play: Americans like a good origin and establishment of conflict, and love the climax of conflict and its resolution, but are often quite unable to do the work of a second act of a five-(or even three-)act play. In that space the plot generally moves more slowly but themes and motifs are developed, depth can be added to characters, time taken to reflect on the situation, important counterpoints to the main action established. It's not that this cannot happen, or does not happen, but it frequently happens that all the pieces, none of them bad in themselves, do not quite naturally integrate.

Like everyone else, I love Mean Girls, but it's emblematic of a problem in a number of movies that are in the 1:30-1:40 range. The first hour proceeds with one general idea and conceit, there's a shift, and the remaining 30 or 40 minutes are tonally quite different. It's a funny high school movie about the dynamics of being a girl, up until the point when Cady throws a party in her house. After that, it gets meaner, the jokes are fewer, it stops for fifteen or so minutes to conduct a town hall about the issues teen girls face, it shoehorns in an extensive side plot about the math team--barely mentioned in the first hour--in which (as I hate) the main character explicitly says one of the morals of the movie, and ends with everyone being happy with each other. It's not bad, but it's haphazardly organized, and devotes a lot of screen time to making sure its point has been sufficiently underlined, and the tone veers as it attempts to signal both the difficulty of issues teen girls face and to resolve in the manner all high school movies must resolve themselves.

Four Weddings and a Funeral, by contrast, makes its construction quite clear: A Movie in Five Acts. The structure allows it to be significantly more winning than anything else in its general description would lead one to believe. Because it works with the conventions of a (long) play and the running time of a (reasonably short) film, any individual character or scene has to do very little work. The characters are all well-defined quickly, with additional quirks and excellent small periodic monologues, a few notable exceptions aside (is it still raining? I hadn't noticed). None has too much weight to carry, since there are so many of them and so many scenes to establish, and this also allows a certain amount to remain unsaid, an inexhaustibly wonderful quality for a movie to have. It's also--and this is, too, quite rare--a movie that allows everyone to have their dignity even as it passes them through embarrassing situations.

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