Because they help sad people laugh, comedy films are often dismissed by critics. However, in a culture where entertainment has consumed our news and politics, it’s imperative we examine how such films function. In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959), sociologist Erving Goffman employs dramaturgical analysis to study how people relate to one another. He emphasizes that people carefully craft their front stage personae, hiding as much as possible what goes on back stage. When formerly hidden behavior is displayed front and center, the results can be shocking. Goffman describes a study of World War II GIs who return stateside only to horrify their genteel mothers by swearing at them during dinner.
The new film, Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, allows us to use Goffman’s stage metaphor to understand contemporary culture. In a society dominated by social media, we are always already on the front stage, thus seemingly obliterating the notion of a private sense of self. In the film, the characters constantly perform for each other, exactly as Goffman described over fifty years ago.
Mike and Dave are incorrigible and self-absorbed hams. We first meet Mike (Adam Devine) as he enters a bar to sell tequila. The owner (comic podcaster Mark Maron) shows no interest. On cue, his brother Dave (Zac Efron), sitting at the end of the bar wearing a hat for a disguise, celebrates the wonders of the tequila with a fake Australian accent. The bartender calls out Dave, since he knows the two brothers well. Still, and this is the kicker, despite their poor quality performative shtick, they sell the tequila to the annoyed bartender anyway. Horrifyingly, at the current moment, being outrageously performative works.
Mike and Dave next visit their parents, who fear the boys will ruin their sister’s upcoming wedding. The boys reminisce and remember themselves as the life of family parties. However, the parents have video evidence to the contrary: the boys destroy every family reunion with their out of control antics. Dave objects, standing in front of the television screen, declaring, “You just showed the negative… Where are the tracking shots?,” apparently having misremembered the past as a complex film production. Being Zac Efron, he only understands himself as an actor.
Tired of their endless attention-grabbing, the parents demand that the brothers bring nice girls to the wedding. In this brave new world of electronic mediation, the boys go on The Wendy Williams Show after their Craig’s List video looking for dates goes viral. Two ne’er-do-wells, Alice (Anna Kendrick) and Tatiana (Aubrey Plaza) see them on television and vie for a free trip to Hawaii by tricking the boys into thinking they are a school teacher and a hedge fund manager. “We’re going to flip the script and Bachelorette that,” declares Tatiana.
At first, things go well in Hawaii. To relieve the stress of the impending nuptials, everyone goes ATVing. However, even this seemingly innocuous outdoor activity turns performative. The trails are in the valley where Jurassic Park was shot. Dave recreates scenes from the 1993 Steven Spielberg film by putting hand drawn dinosaurs on pencils in front of his iPhone. Attempting to perform traditional masculinity after Tatiana completes a dangerous jump on her machine, Mike follows suit, but loses control and hits his sister in the face. Her distraught father declares of his daughter’s mangled face, complete with tire-tracks embedded, that “she looks like Seal.”
Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates is filled with infantile boy-men doing silly things. But behind this banality lurks something that makes traditional criticism—whether the movie is any good or not—irrelevant. Movies appeal to people by showing us a world that operates according to reassuring rules. In a social media world that celebrates celebrity without substance, our movies give us characters that can only understand the world around them as performance.
When Mike thinks Tatiana is a school teacher, he is attracted to her similarity to Michele Pfeiffer in the 1995 film, Dangerous Minds. Later, when he finds out she is actually a waitress, he decides that’s she is really more like Michele Pfeiffer from Scarface (1983). In a culture where we express complex emotions using cinema, we would be well served to pay attention to the enforced normalcy portrayed in supposedly worthless films such as Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates. As the relevance of Goffman’s approach to our unhinged 2016 world indicates, the roots of this madness run much deeper than we might think.