A lesson in comedy-movie making

Or, what was wrong with 30 Minutes or Less.

Depending on how familiar you are with improv and/or sketch comedy, you may be aware that all scene comedy is based on “games”. As a stand-up, these games didn’t have much to do with my act, but knowing them and being good at them definitely made me a better comedy writer (especially “the rule of three” and “topper”, which you can see applied to my writing all over this blog). These games are basically formulas for creating a scene and the problem with knowing the formula for anything is once you know how to make something, all you ever see is the formula, not the end product. Which means that something has to be really, really good in order to transcend the formula.

When it comes to comedies, there are two games—formulas—at work. One is “topper”, or “one-up”, and the other is “yes, and”. Toppers build on a foundation of competition—recent examples include Zoolander, Anchorman, Blades of Glory, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers, Bridesmaids, and my favorite comedy of the year so far, The Trip. A classic topper scene is Monty Python’s “Four Yorkshiremen”, in which the guys one-up each other on their childhood hardships. Yes, and is much less competitive, instead functioning as an ever-escalating series of declarations. The goal is to never deny your scene partner anything and to add to the previous statement by literally saying, “Yes, and…” Some recent yes, and movies are The Hangover, Superbad, The 40 Year Old Virgin, Pineapple Express and Attack the Block. Monty Python’s “Nudge Nudge” sketch is a good example of yes, and, made funnier because the squire doesn’t really know what he’s agreeing with.

What’s the point to all this? Comedies work best when they’re one or the other. That doesn’t mean that a movie can’t have elements of both. Take Pineapple Express (one of the best comedies of the last 10 years). It’s built on yes, and—“I’m a stoner/yes, and I’m your dealer/yes, and I’m buying pot/yes, and I’m selling this rare variety/yes, and I saw a murder/yes, and that was my supplier/yes, and they’re going to kill us/yes, and we must outrun them”. That’s the whole plot in 8 moves. Thrown into that is Red (Danny McBride), who suffers an ever-escalating series of life-threatening injuries (playing on the action movie standard of people suffering catastrophic injury yet continuing to fight). It’s an interior game of topper, not the driving narrative device but a construct of Red’s storyline.

30 Minutes or Less tries to be both, equally, and it suffers for it. It’s slow-starting as it establishes its objective. Yes, and scenarios almost always result in a goal or objective which must be completed, but you have to be careful with that as a filmmaker because it requires solid storytelling. You can’t just throw out characters and say, “Here are these people, this is what they’re doing.” You have to give us, the audience, a reason to care about these people and to root for them to succeed in whatever their goal may be. This doesn’t mean everyone has to be likeable, we just have to be on their side (almost no one in Tropic Thunder is likeable yet we want them to get out of the jungle). 30 Minutes or Less skimps a bit too much on characterization and you never end up caring about anyone.

The basic plot revolves around Nick (Jesse Eisenberg), a mid-twenties pizza delivery boy who is scraping by in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His boss is a jerk and he spends his days at the mercy of asshole kids, whom he rips off when they try to stiff him. Nick’s best friend is Chet (Aziz Ansari, Parks & Recreation), an elementary school teacher. One night on a pizza run, Nick is jumped by a couple of thugs (Danny McBride and Nick Swardson, Reno 911) who strap him into a bomb vest and give him ten hours to come up with a hundred thousand dollars. Solution? Rob a bank. It’s a solid comic premise (although there is a real-life case that bears striking resemblance and ended in tragedy), and it’s set up as a yes, and scenario. Problem? It should be a game of topper.

Director Ruben Fleischer made Zombieland, which was a really good comedy, so the guy knows how to frame comic bits. And he’s got two top-notch comics (McBride and Swardson) in his cast, along with Ansari, who drives me fucking nuts as a stand-up but is a capable scene performer, and Eisenberg, who may not be a natural comedian but he’s such a good actor that he can do literally anything. Given all these components, I’m not sure how 30 Minutes got so badly misjudged. McBride must have smelled the blood in the water because he’s particularly disengaged, doing a toned-down version of Kenny Powers. Thrown into the first-act setup is a round of topper between Nick and Chet about who has been the worst friend over the years—it results in the only good laugh of the first twenty minutes. This is what the whole movie should have been—Nick and Chet trying to out-awful-friend each other as the criminals continue to up the ante for Nick and the bomb vest.

Unfortunately, we’re stuck with this movie trying to have a point. It’s not a total loss—some bits land really well. I wish the scene with Nick and Chet shopping for robbery supplies was longer, and the bank robbery scene was hilarious and very well staged. But whenever 30 Minutes headed back into “having a real plot” territory, it slowed down and got kinda boring. I’ve noted this before—sometimes the best comedies aren’t the best-made movies. A lot of great comedy comes from breaking the rules (Monty Python’s “Dead Parrot” is a brilliant subversion of yes, and by supplying a scene partner who refuses to say yes), and sometimes that means going against what you know to be “good filmmaking” just to get a laugh (see also: pretty much every movie with Will Ferrell in it). I wish Fleischer had committed to making a less-good movie in favor of going for more laughs.

Still, once 30 Minutes or Less gets going, it does deliver. I have a feeling I’ll grow to like this movie more over time—I hated Zoolander the first time I saw it and now I think it’s genius comedy. I’ll revisit 30 Minutes when it comes out on DVD and see how I feel about it in a few months. One stand-out element is Michael Pena (The Lincoln Lawyer), who steals every scene as a hitman. He makes the most of his small part, and he gets the best line in the movie. Had 30 Minutes just been a topper scenario, there would have been a lot more time for Pena. 30 Minutes or Less wasn’t terrible and when it did make me laugh, it made me laugh a lot. It was just built on the wrong comic premise.

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One thought on “A lesson in comedy-movie making

  1. tsnfan

    This was a huge disappointment. You would think that someone as smart as Jesse would’ve gotten a clue of how bad this movie was going to be when he read the script or when they started filming but no!!! Expected more from Ruben too but he can thank his lucky stars he’s got the upcoming “The Gangster Squad” to prove himself. As for Jesse, since this was inarguably one of this summer’s bombs, his next films should be a hit with the critics or at the box office, otherwise it’s buh-bye to a thriving film career.

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