Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Comedy, Drama, and Everything Else

One of my absolute favorite films of the year so far is the brilliant (yes, brilliant) Hot Fuzz. As with their previous collaboration, Shaun of the Dead, director Edgar Wright and actor Simon Pegg have once again made a film with such care for its images, style, and characters that it transcends the boundaries the buddy movie formula as well as the somewhat predictable formulas of parodies and/or satires of them. Hot Fuzz doesn't fit comfortably within either mold, yet it shamelessly embodies traits of both.

Since buddy cop movies, action movies, and parodic comedies tend to strictly adhere to narrative and stylistic conventions of their respective genres, Hot Fuzz shows how a film can dance between these established norms and practices while maintaining an fresh exuberance in its own creation and pompousness. Structurally, the film follows a familiar mold. Simon Pegg plays police officer Nicholas Angel, a by-the-numbers law enforcer who takes his job very seriously and believes in the power of the law. In fact, his serious approach to the law prevents him from participating in meaningful relationships with those around him; he is unable to proverbally "switch off". At the onset of the film, we see his hard work paying off (or so we and he think) as he receives a promotion. The downside is that he must relocate away from London and to the the trappings of small-town England, which he is naturally unhappy about.

This makes for a solid premise to any drama, with the protagonist being plucked from his desired familiar surroundings and being placed unwillingly in an unfamiliar place. While the film maps these plot points, action movie cliches run rampant in the most mundane of scene transitions and cuts. Every time a door is opened, every time a change of location takes place, we are treated to a loud, rapidly cut montage of close-ups that are now typical by contemporary murder drama/action movie standards. There are small touches of visual humor peppered throughout the proceedings, but the movie keeps a straight face -- mostly through Pegg's earnest performance -- even as it stoops to the most pendantic of visual gags. Such contrasts are the foundation for a narrative that never overtly establishes itself with any kind of consistency when it comes to genre placement. Rather than haphazardly surveying a patchwork pastiche of movie conventions as many other directors might, Wright instead opts to use this aura of stylistic and narrative inconsistency to his advantage by building the drama, action, and comedy of the film around it.

Wright takes his time familiarizing the viewer with the film's strangeness, building visual references that come in handy later in the film while also introducing new characters into the mix in a structurally sound but dramatically honest fashion. Rather than making a mockery out of the town and its inhabitants, the film presents the townspeople as real individuals and allows their quircky details to supply the subtle bits of comedy. Important to note is that the film's visual trademarks of intense audio-visual stimulation during transitions and dramatic beats also contrast with the mundaneness of the proceedings. The funny thing is that Angel doesn't see law enforcement as a buddy cop movie, which clearly the movie itself embodies. He takes his profession very seriously, unlike his partner, Danny Butterman (Nick Frost), who spends most of his free time watching and quoting movies such as Bad Boys II and Point Break.

Hot Fuzz works so brilliantly because it steadily progresses the story from small-town simplicity -- with Angel hunting down shoplifters and elusive swans -- to a utter preposterousness in the form of a rather graphic murder mystery. While we're prepared to laugh at the movie's contrast of intense visual style and mundane events, it continues to move in unexpected directions, despite employing every predictable convention it can do so. Meanwhile, underneath its topical pastiche of movie conventions and comedy, it's building real relationships and real characters that we care about. Thus, when inexplicably violent or downright silly situations begin happening, the viewer is cued to recognize the stark constrasts but the reactions she or he is supposed to have to it is never really layed out. Therefore, the movie works on various levels of comedy and drama in strange ways; which works to perfection when the comedy and drama contionue to ratch up

While these contrasts make for much of the movie's conflict, comedy, and drama through the first two acts, melding together various conventions and styles to execute a less-than-ordinary plot, Wright establishes a narrative and stylistic flow which runs amoothly alongside the progressions of plot and character development. These constrasts and conflicting styles eventually come together to coincide with Angel's character progressions. When he and his partner decide to take down the villains at the beginning of the third act, Angel finally embraces those very hyped-up Bad Boys II-like impulses that the movie all along embodied. In this synthesis of Angel's embrace of his inner action hero and the film's visual and stylistic rhythms, everything towards which the film was building in the previous acts -- which initially seemed like a patchwork of parody -- is unleashed in a perfectly executed third act that is equally hilarious and exciting. This structural cohesiveness works on all levels, including character and visual style, which is why the film emerges as reflexively as embodying both a mockery of movie convention and a massive proponent of them. The movie is as much an actioner as all the movies it takes its cues from; it knows it, and it loves them for it. The third act is an unleashing of action and comedy the likes of which I cannot recall in any action film or comedy in quite some time. But it intwines excitement and humor in uproarious visual manners.

The movie is only so effective, however, due to the earnestness with which it executes its proceedings. Wright and Pegg clearly love the old movie cliches that they parody and embody in the film. They don't mercilessly rip these conventions apart or assert their own cleverness by comedically regurgitating conventional images. They instead infuse the film with wit, intelligence, drama, and comedy, which is more a difficult task than it may seem. It requires a deep knowledge and care of visual motifs and cinematic convention, which Wright demonstrates in every setup and edit and the depth. This film could very easily have been a disaster in the hands of a less-informed filmmaker. Its constrasts and comedic setups are complex and subtle, even if what we see on the screen appears simple. Comedy, after all, is incredibly hard to create in cinematic terms. But when it's done right, it comes off so smooth and can hit the right spot. Add drama, character, and a love of police procedurals, buddy comedies, and action movies into the mix and you've got an extremely difficult task of bringing them all together, which Wright aptly does. Also, the film holds together also because of Simon Pegg's masterful performance, which hits all the right notes as a comedic and action lead role. There is real richness to the character, interestingly enough, and none of the film's tones of humor or seriousness would have melded so effectively were it not for Pegg's wonderful performance.

For as all-over-the-place as the movie might seem, it's consistent in its inconsistency inasmuch that the idiosyncrasies of the characters, plot, and visual style all interact together to form a greater whole of a film that finds its own comedic and dramatic niche by letting elements of both exist at the same moment. Aren't terms like "comedy", "drama" and other cinematic labels just terms for us to limit our interpretations of movies and package them simply? Certainly, some are made with this in mind, and Edgar Wright's film certainly points this out through its references to the stylistic norms of movies that have placed themselves in such boxes. But by having these run up against each other in strange ways, Hot Fuzz explores the potential of cinema as a complex medium of moving images because it is not so easy to place so cleanly into a genre or style box. It covers a whole spectrum of affect both in its own witty references and how their juxtapositions form strange visual cues and relationships. The film is so genuine and original not for its inifinite number of clever incorporations of various established genre conventions and styles, but how it locates its own creative core from which a delightfully strange story emerges. Wright and Pegg seem to intuitively understand how, where, and why comedy manifests itself in cinematic terms and real-life interactions. That is what makes Hot Fuzz such a uniquely reflexive work of stylistic and generic contrast.

1 comment:

Linda said...
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