In the movie “About Schmidt,” Jack Nicholson plays the hero, a retired insurance agent who has lived a relatively dull existence most of his life and comes to the conclusion that his life has been relatively meaningless. What makes “About Schmidt” fascinating is its use of irony that lets the audience experience both sides of an emotion.
At one point, Jack Nicholson makes a pass at a woman, who screams and kicks him out of her RV. Embarrassed, Jack Nicholson takes off in his own RV, only to arrive at his future in-laws house where the mother immediately makes suggestive passes at him, causing him to flee into his own RV to get away from her.
What makes this irony especially memorable is that before Jack Nicholson makes a pass at the other woman, we see how his life has gradually turned into a meaningless mess. First, he sits in his office until the second hand exactly tells him it’s five o’clock so he can leave. Then when he’s bored staying home with his wife, he wanders back to his old office, only to find that a new guy has completely moved in with no trace of what he had left behind. Even worse, he finds that all his work has been tossed in boxes and stacked outside to be thrown away, which further emphasizes his feeling of being useless.
Later, he decides to visit his old childhood home, only to find that it’s been turned into a tire store. When he tries to reminisce with the tire store employee, the guy just stares at him, making Jack Nicholson feel even more useless. Then Jack Nicholson decides to visit his old college fraternity and bores the current fraternity members there with his stories of working as an insurance agent. So when we finally get to the scene where Jack Nicholson makes a pass at the woman, we understand his motivation for doing so, even if we might not approve. Then when another woman makes a pass at Jack Nicholson, the moment of irony is funnier because now we see his uncomfortable feelings as he flees from her.
Irony works best when properly set up. In “Blood Simple,” the bad guy warns the hero that his ex-wife (who the hero is having an affair with) will one day turn on him too and act all innocent, saying something like “I’m not trying to be funny.” Later when the hero has killed the bad guy, he thinks the ex-wife knows about it, but she really doesn’t. So when he gets frustrated and she tells him, “I’m not trying to be funny,” suddenly this statement takes on a whole new meaning. Instead of just an innocent statement, it makes the hero question whether the ex-wife really is playing him for a fool while we know that she’s really innocent. The irony has been set up so when it appears, it hits with a sledgehammer effect.
Bad movies often lack any sense of irony because that means not only setting up something for a payoff later, but it also requires relying on something other than visual special effects. Put irony in your screenplay if possible, and you’ll see that it can provide a unique emotional anchor to keep your audience interested in your story.