Wedding Crashers & the Comic Mode

The term comedy doesn’t necessarily mean “ha ha” funny—it also describes a basic plot structure. Comedy as a structure deals with “the integration of society, which usually takes the form of incorporating a central character into it” (Frye).  Man is a social creature, but tension always exists between individual wills and social demands. Comedies revolve around the fact that at some point, to some extent, we all have to get along to get along. Something like teenage rebellion is natural, even healthy, but the resolution of most comic works comes when the angsty young adult finds a way to fit back into society—a society which is strengthened and changed for the better through the young person’s rebellion and return.

Comedies often end with weddings because marriage may be the ultimate example of figuring out how to get along. Weddings signify a bond between man and woman, honor the bond between parents and children (parents giving their blessing to marry, family names passed on, dowries or inheritances acquired, the father walking his daughter down the aisle), they involve family and friends, and they suggest the bringing-forth of new life and so the continuation of society.

But comedies begin with rebellion: a rejection of social norms, a challenging of parental authority, a breaking of some social standard. Aristophanes’ Lysistrata and the women of Greece refuse to sleep with their husbands. Shakespeare’s Hermia disobeys her father’s order to marry Demetrius. And in the opening scene of Wedding Crashers, John Beckwith and Jeremy Gray tell a couple going through a nasty divorce that:

Guys, the real enemy here is the institution of marriage. It’s not realistic, it’s crazy! Hey, don’t do this for the other person. It’s about saying yes to yourself, and saying yes to your future. And have some opportunities for yourself . . .

I’d like to focus on this opening scene for a bit, so here it is if you need a quick refresher:

First we hear the bickering couple—a shrill and petty cacophony. Next we see the two main characters (John and Jeremy), both bachelors, literally in the middle of the marriage fight. John and Jeremy don’t have to say anything in these first few seconds—their silent expressions suggest to the audience that the two bachelors are the only sane ones in the bunch. The divorcing couple hurls insults back and forth while their impotent attorneys (literal representatives of society’s laws) sit by, unable to take any meaningful action. Finally Jeremy steps in with the first authoritative words of the movie, and John and Jeremy succeed in calming the couple down by shifting blame away from the individuals and onto the social institution of marriage. Classic comic rebellion! And we’re only three minutes in.

John and Jeremy appeal to individual will and desire over all else. Don’t do this for the other person. Say yes to yourself. The problem is the institution of marriage. Look at us bachelors—we’re the calm ones, we’ve got everything under control, we’ve successfully avoided the unrealistic demand of marriage that society forces on young adults and which ends inevitably in a battle of the sexes. It’s not too far a cry from the poo-pooing of marriage done by Beatrice and Benedick in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing (watch Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh act out some of those lines here).

Through this short opening scene, we get to know two main characters who have (so far) successfully escaped the institution and responsibilities of marriage. And they’ve done more than escape—they actively mock marriage and make their money in the divorce business. However, to a degree, their rejection of the social institution of marriage puts John and Jeremy on the fringes of society. As bachelors, they cannot fully participate in the family life and child rearing that actually perpetuates society. This parallels their fringe participation in the weddings they crash; though they appear to be the life of the party, John and Jeremy never participate as their true selves. They never participate as true guests—they only ever play pretend. It’s all rather funny and rather impressive, but we get the feeling that John and Jeremy won’t get to ride this wave forever. When Owen Wilson’s character hints that maybe this wave isn’t one he wants to ride forever anyway, I’d bet that most of the audience sympathizes more with Owen Wilson than Vince Vaughan at this moment:

A shift is occuring, but we’re not out of the comic mode just yet. The next post will review the imagery that Frye found associated with the comic mode, and look at how a shift in imagery in Wedding Crashers accompanies a shift in the story’s mode.

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