That’s How You Get The Girl

In Frye’s “The Argument of Comedy”, he writes of  a New Comedy- which he argues its main theme is ‘the successful effort of a a young man to outwit an opponent and possess the girl of his choice.’ (58) The girl is often given the role of the material cause from which the hero begins his story. Frye notes that it is usually the father who is given the role of the senex, who acts as the obstacle- the ‘formal cause in the social order’ which the hero must come to terms with when he is able to possess the object of his desire (the girl). (59) The last cause, the audience, is the final cause for the happy ending- the audience is supposed to applause at the resolution. ‘As the hero gets closer to the heroine and opposition is overcome, all the right-thinking people come over to his side.’ (60) This social integration is generally seen as the writer ‘tries to get all his characters on the stage at once.’ (61)


This description of New Comedy can be seen within Ocean’s 11 (Soderbergh, USA 2002). Danny Ocean, having just been released from prison, immediately proposes an impossible heist to Rusty- robbing the Bellagio, Mirage, and MGM Grand casinos. Although not revealed from the very beginning, the true object of his desire is not just money, but in fact, it is Tess, Danny’s ex-wife, Tess. Terry plays the role of the senex, he is the current boyfriend of Tess and the owner of all three casinos. Danny- the thief/ex-convict- is excluded from the social order, whilst Terry- the wealthy, reputable capitalist- is within the social order. He represents what Frye argued was the ‘slave to a predictable self-imposed pattern of behavior.’ (61) It is this predictability that Ocean’s 11 exploits and offers as comedy- Terry is selfish and will protect his money at all costs. Frye’s statement that ‘comedy is designed not to condemn evil, but to ridicule a lack of self-knowledge’ (61) rings true within this film. Terry overestimates his intellect and capabilities and acts on his own, whereas Ocean deliberately seeks out others, an acknowledgment of his weaknesses, or lack, and strengthens them.


The ending is a culmination of devastation for Terry- he loses all his money and Tess. The ending follows the modern comedy as it is more based on realism, or as real as a heist-comedy can be. Danny is once again imprisoned for violating his parole, but as he is released, he still has Terry’s money and Tess- similar to the “remarriage” that Frye speaks of.


Northrop Frye, “The Argument of Comedy,” English Institute Essays (New York: Columbia, 1949), 58-73.


  1. I agree with your interpretation, and I can certainly see the parallels you draw here between the different archetypes (Danny Ocean as the witty young man, Terry as the senex, Tess as the object of desire). Sometimes it’s hard for me to see Frye’s argument at work in more recent comedy films, but Ocean’s Eleven does seem to be a great example of New Comedy at work.

  2. The archetypes you so excellently defined make it apparent how the director and writer of the film want the audience to feel. This is essential in a heist film because the goal is to root for people who are doing something that would be morally objectionable were it not that they were stealing from the bad guy. This Robin Hood characteristic is what makes people comfortable in seeing Danny as the “good guy.”

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