Wedding Crashers (2005) vs. Midnight (1939)

We finally got around to seeing Wedding Crashers. I wasn’t much interested in the film when it opened in theaters last summer, but people keep telling me how clever it is and how it’s not just another dumb comedy and how the writing is much better than you would expect. Hell, my little brother thinks it should have won an Oscar for Best Screenplay, but then he also seems to have a fixation with Rachel McAdams.
What struck me about Wedding Crashers was how much it reminded me, in structure, of romantic comedies from the 1930s. I was expecting something more like Anchorman, but Wedding Crashers is an old-fashioned romantic comedy that appeals to modern moviegoers with up-to-date humorous dialogue and physical comedy. Not grossly physical, most of the time — it doesn’t resort to Farrelly brothers-style humor. But underneath all the Vince Vaughn/Owen Wilson banter is a storyline closely related to It Happened One Night (1934) or even more apt, Midnight (1939).

Here’s the plot of Midnight: Claudette Colbert is a poor little golddigger who arrives in Paris with nothing but the gorgeous gold dress on her back. Despite a fast friendship with a taxi driver (Don Ameche) that could blossom into a romance, she decides instead to seek her fortune by crashing a fancy-dress concert party. With help from John Barrymore, she poses as the wife of a Hungarian count and ends up with a lavish hotel room, trunks full of clothes, and a rich admirer (Francis Lederer). She ends up spending a weekend at a large house party with her rich new friends. You know Colbert is going to end up with Ameche, but you don’t know how long Colbert will be able to sustain the deception.
Compare this with the plot of Wedding Crashers: Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson crash elaborate weddings to get free booze and crab cakes, have a fabulous time overall, and then take home sexy wedding-struck women for the night. When they decide to crash the fanciest wedding in town, Wilson goes after one sister of the bride (Rachel McAdams) and Vaughn goes after the other. Wilson turns out to be interested in more than just a one-night stand, and he and Vaughn end up spending a weekend at a large house party with their rich new friends. You know Wilson’s going to end up with McAdams by the end of the movie, but you don’t know how long he and Vaughn will be able to sustain the deception.
We laughed at Wedding Crashers continually throughout most of the film, and it was certainly entertaining. The dialogue was well-written (or improvised, at times) and beautifully delivered. However, the storyline was thin and flawed. If Rachel McAdams’ character is so wonderful and desirable, what is she doing with that jerky fiance in the first place? In a Thirties movie, the reason might be that she or her family need the money and security that her future husband could provide, or that her father has kept her so isolated that this is the first guy she’s ever spent any time with and she just plain doesn’t know any better. But Wedding Crashers offers no explanation, perhaps because the Love Interest With Jerky Boyfriend is a stock character by now, or perhaps because the writers figure everyone will be laughing too hard at Vaughn to question such things.
Other examples abound: How did the fiance’s private detective figure out the identities of Wilson and Vaughn’s characters? It makes no sense: he didn’t send photos, he just gave the guy a couple of fake names. It would have been easy enough for his character to find info he could use—for one thing, the guys keep changing clothes, so perhaps someone could have lifted their wallets, or checked up on the tuxedo rentals, or something. Midnight handles a similar situation quite deftly: Colbert’s character uses her pawn-shop receipt instead of an invitation to sneak into the fancy-dress party. Her enemies redeem the receipt, find her suitcase, and discover a photo of her in a chorus line.
And one other thing I noticed: the relationship between McAdams and her dad (Christopher Walken) wasn’t strong enough for him to notice how unhappy she was and to let her change her mind. In Thirties romantic comedies, heroines often have close relationships with their fathers (or some father-figure, like Barrymore in Midnight), who finally assure them that love is more important than money or prestige or whatever. Colbert’s father in It Happened One Night is a stubborn, overprotective bear, but in the end, he relents and helps her out of her jam. While Walken does reveal at the end that he’s always found the fiance a bit of a jerk and will side with his daughter against the guy, isn’t that a little late? Maybe the point is that she’s supposed to be independent and make her own decisions, but throughout the film it’s obvious she’s being nudged into this marriage by her family.
Do these fine details not matter in contemporary comedy? After all, the guys are very much the main characters in Wedding Crashers; McAdams is only Wilson’s love-interest, not a heroine in her own right. Her relationship with her dad and even with her fiance might be considered background details; we should be more interested in Wilson’s relationships. But even then, Wedding Crashers is weak. When McAdams jilts Wilson, he spends months in a funk: avoiding Vaughn, behaving boorishly at the weddings he crashes, camping out on his sofa reading suicide prevention self-help books. When Vaughn announces his own upcoming wedding, Wilson orders him out of the apartment and refuses to attend. This sudden mood swing doesn’t fit with the character we’ve come to know up until that point in the film. In fact, one suspects that he’s like this just so he can pop into the wedding after it already starts, make a big entrance, and try one more time to win McAdams back. (This is the same problem I had near the end of The 40-Year-Old Virgin, too. Carell’s character behaves inconsistently to create tension and humorous situations.)
In other words, in Wedding Crashers, the characters aren’t driving the action, the comic setups and payoffs are instead. But then Wedding Crashers was never marketed as a character-driven movie or a romantic comedy; it’s meant to appeal to young men, it’s meant to be a movie about young, irresponsible guys caught in hilarious situations. It appears almost accidental that the movie is hung on the structure of an old-fashioned romantic comedy.
The Wedding Crashers writers were smart in so many ways. Why use this old-fashioned structure? Because it works. It worked as early as 1934 and has held up in dozens and dozens of romantic comedies, and not just in the Thirties. Let’s see, guys in disguise falling for women unexpectedly … Some Like It Hot, Tootsie, and so on. The writers were also smart about dialogue and humorous situations. Why, then, would they be so careless about characterization and plot details? Were these flaws originally addressed in early drafts of the script, but rewrites forced the explanations to be changed or cut? Did the filmmakers cynically decide that audiences would be so busy laughing that they wouldn’t care, or that we’re too stupid to notice? And if so, were they right? Are my boyfriend and I the only people to notice these weaknesses and care about them?
Maybe this is the natural evolution of the romantic comedy through the decades. The most successful comedies from 2005 (Wedding Crashers, The 40-Year-Old Virgin) are structured on old-fashioned romantic comedies, but the humor is aimed towards guys. That way the women in the audience can be drawn by the sweet little romance, but the men will be eager to see the movie because Will Ferrell or Steve Carell or Vince Vaughn are just so damn funny. The female characters in these movies are pretty and non-threatening and willing to take a back seat to the guys. The jokes are more important than consistency of character or logic of plot.
Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett were amazing writers, but by no means perfect. I don’t like the very end of Midnight: Colbert’s speech about how husbands should be able to beat their wives is stomach-turning to modern female viewers. (Speaking of Cinderella movies, the end of Ever After is much better.) The end of Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife is just as repellant. And in fact I probably laughed harder at Wedding Crashers than I did at Midnight or even Ninotchka.
I suppose what I want is the brand of humor found in The Wedding Crashers, but with a stronger, more three-dimensional female lead, and a plot that doesn’t make me sigh and roll my eyes. Anyone? Is this even possible? Until then, I’ll keep petitioning for the DVD release of the films of Mitchell Leisen.

5 thoughts on “Wedding Crashers (2005) vs. Midnight (1939)”

  1. Alright, if “Wedding Crashers” is comparable to “Midnight”, I’ll have to check it out. That was one of the first classic movies I ever saw, so it has a special place in my heart. Plus it’s really funny.
    I kept hearing “Wedding Crashers” was a chick-flick hidden in a guy’s film.

  2. I like the review. I haven’t seen either film, but perhaps I should.
    I just found your site, and I really like it. I’ll have to come back.

  3. I think you were spot-on about the weaknesses in Wedding Crashers. And 40-Year-Old Virgin, too, for that matter.
    While I was pleasantly surprised by the romance in each movie, I watched (and loved) both because of the comedy. Those guys cracked me up, and I would have seen those movies with or without their “chick flick” elements.
    Then again, I did just find out that I have a higher testosterone level than a woman should. Hmm…

  4. Nice. I’ll have to check it out. I had no interest in this until I read your review. Plus, I too have a Rachel McAdams fixation. I just saw Red Eye and Mean Girls. Red Eye surpirsed me. Taught little thriller.

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