How much more proof do we need that women are as capable at comedy as men? Saturday Night Live alumni in particular have a strong track record, most recently with Tina Fey’s mega success with 30 Rock, Amy Poehler’s leap to stardom with her series Parks and Recreation and now Kristen Wiig’s star turn in the new comedy Bridesmaids. After a lot of roles in projects as varied as Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up, Whip It and the criminally under seen and undervalued spy / action movie spoof Macgruber, finally she is given a chance to shine in a film all her own and she does not disappoint.
A bawdy comedy that can hold its own with Apatow’s best (he’s also a producer for this film), Bridesmaids follows best friends Annie (Kristen Wiig) and Lillian (Maya Rudolph) as they prepare for Lillian’s wedding. Annie’s life seems to be going nowhere, with a “fuck buddy” played really well by John Hamm who shows little interest in her beyond their bedroom activities, a creepy and inconsiderate pair of overweight British sibling roommates, the constant reminder of her failure in running a bakery, and so on, with Lillian eventually becoming engaged and adding more stress to Annie’s already strained and pessimistic outlook.
This isn’t helped any when we meet the rest of the wedding party, particularly Lillian’s newest friend Helen, played by Rose Byrne. Byrne is an accomplished actress, and though she has very little experience in comedy, she exhibits the gifts of timing and absurdity that can only come naturally. Her Helen is the film’s Big Bad, stealing almost every idea Annie has for the bridal party and sabotaging her along the way with Lillian in order to become the new maid of honor. This eventually comes to a head during a disastrous flight to Las Vegas for the bachelorette party (which never reaches its destination) in which Helen gives Annie both pills and scotch to help her relax, and which ends up with the party booted from the plane. Their antagonistic relationship gives the film much of its forward momentum, and also provides a lot of the beats necessary to develop the many subplots, including Annie’s burgeoning relationship with a police officer (a sweet and endearing Chris O’Dowd).
Wiig is a performer with a grace and effortlessness in her comedy, able to play broad and small moments with equal aplomb. She can be loud and awkward, even cringe-inducingly hilarious, before turning on that smile and charming us with wit and one-liners. She can be sarcastic and flippant, and she can be the girl next door with no pretense of an inherent ability to reduce anyone with malicious remarks. She also has an ability as a physical performer (and a fearlessness) that is not unlike Michael Richards’ work on Seinfeld and Lucille Ball’s natural ability to be graceful and completely graceless all at once. Wiig is that rare star who is unafraid of looking bad onscreen, too, as she proves several times here, with a couple of scenes that call for her to be seen in a totally unflattering light (the same can be said for all the women involved). She may well be headed in the direction of great screen comediennes, and it’s not just her solo abilities. Here she proves that she knows when to tone it up and down, ready to let her co-stars take center stage and makes a lot of their interactions feel like old-style comedy duo routines being seen for the first time.
The development of a friendship between the groom’s sister Megan (Melissa McCarthy) and Annie gains some traction in the final stretch, and provides Annie with the impetus to finally get off her ass after hitting rock bottom, is a perfect example of this ability to step back, and this scene in particular features a hands-on fight between the two, culminating in a bit of speechifying that never feels out of place or too much like pure expository and needless plot contrivances. There are still times, however, that these interactions and developments feel a bit rushed. I’m not quite sure what made Megan show up on Annie’s doorstep, though there are hints it may be coming in a previous scene when Annie has a meltdown at the bridal shower. Even so, it seems to come out of nowhere, for no other reason than to move the plot along, which of course makes the fact that the scene’s content in no way reflects that even more maddening.
In fact, despite the brilliant work by the rest of the bridal party, which includes comedy vets Ellie Kemper and Wendi McClendon-Covey, it feels like some of the characters are underdeveloped, and there are a pair of scenes in particular that suggest this isn’t a case of mere underwriting, but instead more likely of editing out scenes deemed for some reason to be nonessential that will inexplicably be held for a DVD director’s cut. But when you have a comedy that relies so heavily on the characters as this, and the backing of someone like Judd Apatow, whose comedies run long anyway, I just don’t understand not including them in the theatrical cut. One of the strengths of the slight misfire that was Apatow’s last film as director, 2009’s Funny People, was that we got to spend so much time with the main characters, and each one felt like a living breathing person by the end, even with a reliance on archetype and movie conventions.
The direction by Paul Feig fits the material like a glove, bringing his experience in television and a career spent in comedy, including the creation of one of the most brilliant shows of all time, Freaks and Geeks, with him in what I hope promises to be a long career of ushering strong comedies to the big screen. The script, co-written by Wiig and fellow member of The Groundlings comedy troupe Annie Mumolo, is also really strong, and totally unafraid of mixing up formula while still relying on familiar dramatic beats and turning those potentially stagnant moments into something a bit fresh and daring. The girls are also not above going for the gross-out scenes that male comedy has been relying on for the past decade, though it may hit its high point in this regard a bit too early in the film.
Before going on a trip to shop for the bridesmaid dresses, Annie takes the girls to lunch at a hole-in-the-wall Brazilian restaurant that gives them all food poisoning. Naturally, the sickness sets in while trying on dresses, leading to one of the best sustained build-ups and payoffs of scatological humor I’ve ever seen in a film. Don’t worry, it’s not overly graphic, though it certainly leaves little to the imagination. It’s a brilliant set piece, and its bewildering how far the actresses are willing to take it for the sake of the joke. I never thought I’d see a bride be treated to the humiliation endured by Maya Rudolph in this scene in a Hollywood romantic comedy.
The film may rely a little too much on the Apatow formula for it to be completely revolutionary, but it’s still nice to see so many women on screen in a movie that, though featuring an abundance of conversations about men (it is also a traditional rom-com underneath all of its bucking of tradition), really gives us the ultimate proof that women can be foul-mouthed and mean-spirited and still be endearing characters while being really funny, without necessarily relying on the men themselves to provide the set-ups for all of the humor in the movie. Bridesmaids is certainly the funniest movie I’ve seen this year, even better than my other contender for best comedy Cedar Rapids, and I don’t think it will disappoint many people.
Women tend to be underrepresented in American cinema to the point of absurdity, and this movie provides at least six women worth watching for two hours. While the climate is certainly better than it has been in the past, we could always use more. It’s to Judd Apatow’s credit that he took this project under his wing, because a lot of studios bet against the picture and against women identifying with such apparently vulgar material. Well, it turns out its not so vulgar, is readily identifiable material for many male audience members, and it’s definitely not The Hangover for women. It’s much, much better and so much more than that. Bridesmaids can lay claim to being the latest in a long line of recent pictures that see women on film being handled like people; characters rather than caricature.