Idiot plots, purity culture, and the cruel gods of farce

Roger Ebert’s movie glossary defines an Idiot Plot as “Any plot containing problems that would be solved instantly if all of the characters were not idiots.” Hemant Mehta eyes the trailer for Christian-brand comedy The Virgins and doubts that an Idiot Plot can be redeemed simply by attributing the characters’ idiocy to religious devotion.

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“I grow restless,” Ebert said, when the misunderstandings driving a plot “could be ended by words that the screenplay refuses to allow [the characters] to utter.”

This was less of a pitfall in Shakespeare’s day, and even up through Victorian times, when convoluted and capricious mores and manners were understood to prevent those characters from uttering those words. The characters in Pride and Prejudice were constrained by social norms that no longer hold sway. So for that same plot to work in Bridget Jones’ Diary, the characters have to be constrained by something else — some limitations within themselves. Thus Elizabeth Bennett comes across as a smart, capable person who is prevented from being fully honest — to others or to herself — by the stifling rules, roles and expectations of class, gender and manners that shaped her life and her time. Bridget Jones, facing fewer such external rules, just comes across as neurotic and indecisive.

The essence of a romantic comedy is pretty simple: Introduce two characters who belong together, then contrive to keep them apart for about 90 minutes. Again, this is trickier now than it was in Austen’s or Shakespeare’s time. A lot of contemporary romantic comedies are annoying because the only obstacle they can imagine to keep their heroes apart is a kind of mutual immaturity. That serves the need of the plot, but it makes the couple less likable, which means we don’t care as much when they finally get together in the end.

One solution is to find a contemporary setting that still involves something like the kind of stifling social constraints in a Jane Austen novel. That’s what Ang Lee did with The Wedding Banquetwhich, like The Virgins, is more of a farce than a romantic comedy. The complications and misunderstandings that drive the plot in Lee’s story could all be cleared up with just a few honest words from the protagonists. But they can’t say those words — not because an arbitrary “Idiot Plot” screenplay prevents them, but because the story involves a closeted gay man in New York and a visit from his ultra-traditional Taiwanese parents.

Matthew Wilson may be trying something similar with The Virgins. Wilson is a white evangelical, a graduate of Biola University, so he’s intimately familiar with the mores, rules and expectations that govern white evangelical purity culture. That purity culture provides more than enough constraints and complications to construct a satisfying romantic comedy or romantic farce. The rules and expectations of purity culture are exactly the sort of thing that can prevent characters from uttering the words that would otherwise clear up all the misunderstandings driving the plot, thus ending the movie in the first act.

But that only works when — as in Austen — the characters are also critical of those cultural rules and expectations. If they’re not critical of them, but just blindly accept them, then, well, they look like idiots and we’re back to an Idiot Plot. This is where Much Ado About Nothing goes wrong. The Claudio/Hero subplot is driven by something very similar to white evangelical purity culture. Claudio accepts that purity culture uncritically, which makes him seem as villainous as Don John and makes it difficult for the audience to be happy for him in the end (or to be happy for Hero, who surely deserved better than that judgmental idiot Claudio).

I haven’t seen The Virgins, so I don’t know if it falls into that same trap — utilizing the constraints of purity culture to drive the plot without ever critiquing that culture, and thereby falling back into Idiot Plot territory. But the trailer leads me to suspect that is the case. (As Hemant wrote, “Maybe they should stop trying to make everything perfect and just jump each other on the porch of that locked house.”)

There’s another aspect of white evangelical culture that makes it hostile territory for this kind of farce. “Maybe we’re not supposed to stay here tonight,” the virgin wife says at one point in the trailer for The Virgins. She’s referring to divine intent — to an abiding assumption of God’s micromanagerial providence. This is related to the way evangelicals pray for a good parking space, or sometimes interpret the consequences of our own actions as divine will. That religious outlook doesn’t seem compatible with the kind of farce involving “wild adventures” on “one crazy night.”

“Why are you doing this?” the virgin groom says later in the trailer for, directing that question upwards, to God. I was reminded of a similar cry to the heavens, from Griffin Dunne in Martin Scorsese’s wild-night farce After Hours.

“What do you want from me? What have I done?” Dunne cries out, kneeling as though in prayer.

That works in After Hours because Dunne’s prayer isn’t directed toward the providential God of white evangelicalism. It is directed, instead, toward New York City itself. New York is the kind of cruel, capricious and unresponsive god you need if you’re writing a farce. The benevolent, attentive God of white evangelical piety shouldn’t be allowing such a farce to play out. Trying to write a farce with that kind of God in it is like trying to write a thriller in which everyone has cellphones with reliable connections and the police are always responsive, cooperative and competent.

The trailer for The Virgins makes it clear that Matthew Wilson has a good eye for capturing the nuances of white evangelical culture. Whether or not he’s also able to critique the assumptions of that culture will mean the difference between this being a workable story or an Idiot Plot.


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