Last summer, in the midst of the The Hangover 2‘s disappointingly massive success, another comedy came along, which went on to become something of a triumph of box office girlpower, the femalecentric comedy Bridesmaids. Written by Saturday Night Live‘s great nuclear reactor of comedic bizarrerie Kristen Wiig, and Annie Mumulo, it also starred Kristen Wiig in a good zonky hair-flipping performance, though the slapdash vehicle constructed to haul that performance around, despite the script’s Oscar nomination, was a rickety affair to say the least. The plot, really just an episode of a sitcom, has Wiig at existential odds (her bakery’s recently gone bust, she lives with a couple annoying roommates, and is involved in a sexual relationship with one of the more embarrassingly conceived of Hollywoodland’s selfish commitmentphobes, played by John Hamm) when her best friend, a mostly straightfaced Maya Rudolph, gets engaged to her mostly faceless boyfriend; the movie then is a long lumbering journey through the wedding’s planning stages all the way to the altar. Wiig goes wiggy when she becomes involved in a bit of oneupsmanship with Rudolph’s newly acquired rich bitch buddy (Rose Byrne, best known for her role as a conflicted do-gooder attorney on T.V.’s Damages) who insists on using her inexplicably repulsive wealth to show off. The satirical bite this feminine faceoff ought to have had doesn’t go anywhere, though, doesn’t come out of Wiig’s frustrations as it’s meant to, or make fun of petty female passive-aggressive competitiveness in any real way; it’s just a jangly assortment of silly skits taking place in a world not quite like our own. Fortunately everything turns out fine: Rudolph has an awesome multimillion dollar event of a wedding, where a disturbingly re-united Wilson Phillips performs with its usual slick forgetablity; Wiig and Rudolph, who at one point quarrel, make up; Wiig and tanned richie Byrne, who cries pathetically in one regrettably scripted scene to show us she’s a vulnerable human being, learn to accept one another; and Wiig and her cop boyfriend (played with easygoing charm by Chris O’Dowd) get back together after their inevitable second-act breakup (quite superfluous since she’d similarly broken with Rudoph) to start a real, mutually supportive relationship. That’s about all there is to it. There are a host of talented supporting performances around Wiig, though, such as the Oscar nominated one by Melissa McCarthy, fatally marred by a pep talk she gives Wiig telling her to pull herself together, probably the touch that made it Award-worthy. Personally, I preferred the gorgeous, aggressive nastiness of Wendy McLendon-Covey, who wilts everything in her immediate vicinity with vile observations about motherhood and married life, casually cursing even in front of her kids, I laughed every time she was onscreen. But while the actors are genuinely fresh, the material isn’t. What it is, is warmed over, molded, and reactionary, with its underlying sense that Rudolph’s horrible wedding is really supposed to matter and that we ought to be uplifted when it finally comes off.
Yet throughout the summer critics seemed to find it an event, something almost unheard of, a funny ensemble women’s comedy with mass appeal, meaning sensitive enough for women but funny enough for guys. One of the big selling points was that it wasn’t a female version of The Hangover, as had been vaguely threatened by the trailers. Supposedly there was more to Brides, something warm and real; not full up on the kind of pallid grossout which seems to have overwhelmed the underwhelming boy comedies of the last decade, oddly emblematized by The Hangover (which wasn’t actually that gross or politically incorrect, just cheesy). What was feared, I gleaned from these reviews, was that the vomit and sexual juices dribbling through the treacly mix of modern farces, where farts and hearts join romantic forces for yet another big wedding, might lean more on the fart than the heart part of the equation. Much to their surprise, apparently, it showed instead the kinds of deep amiable chatty connections women are said to enjoy, being inherently holistic and empathetic to the needs of the group. NPR’s Monkey See blogger Linda Holmes actually went so far as to suggest that Bridesmaids was almost alone in dramatizing onscreen the way women actually talk to each other. The one exception to this love fest was a constant complaint made about a time-eating sequence in which the women try on gowns in a shi-shi dress shop (the kind where sleek legs are crossed, champagne quaffed) and en masse suffer the onset of food poisoning, throwing up and diarrheaizing all over the place. A sequence capped by Maya Rudolph’s squatting in the middle of a busy street (the dress shop’s bathroom was full) and letting loose beneath the graceful folds of her unpaid for bridal gown. Her reaction afterwards, in the cab on the way home, saying again and again, “I can’t believe I shit in the street” is maybe the movie’s biggest laughline. Maya Rudolph, herself a dizzy whiz at wild comic confection, generously plays normal in Brides so that Wiig can shine, and it’s fun to see her get a little funkier. But Rudolph’s normality ultimately hampers the film, a great chance to send up the ballooning Bridezilla complex in female culture, and give the movie an actual subject, is utterly diffused by Rudolph’s inexplicable sanity. Traces of this tantalizing unused possibility are littered through the film, too, especially in the disastrous bridal shower scene, where women are given puppies and frou-frou drinks as they drive up to Rose Byrne’s mansion, in the backyard of which she has a chocolate fountain in her actual fountain. In any case, the mass crapping was apparently added by producer Judd Apatow, which annoyed critics because they felt he’d thrown it out as a crowd-pleasing sop for boyfriends in the audience. There may be a bit more to the irritation than that though: women are supposed to be treated more respectfully; they’re supposed to be soft and hairless and not need to use the bathroom, so there’s something a bit cringe-inducing in using women’s bodily fluids for pie-in-the-face gags. Not that seeing ladies upchucking on each other’s hairdos helped the movie at all.
Anyway, Apatow’s hands-on meddling ultimately gives the lie to Bridesmaids’ Oscar nomination for scripting: according to an interview Wiig recently gave Alec Baldwin in his podcast Here’s The Thing, Apatow spent the whole production, day by day, writing and re-writing the screenplay, with the actors constantly improvising for extra added laughs, held together by what pragmatic screenwriters call “Story Beats,” which dribble and drab away to the film’s predictable conclusion. Only this “hitting-the-beats” concept of filmwriting could justify obvious hack inanities like the opening scene, which begins with an exterior of a super modern, super expensive looking house, the interior decorated in predatory Late Bachelor of course. In its appallingly swank bedroom Wiig is introduced banging John Hamm, degraded by a telling bout of heartless sex, though Wiig curiously wears a bra despite the movie’s R rating, which only heightens the TV feel. All this ugly Hamm stuff, he makes it clear she’s nothing to him but a fuck buddy he’d rather not be publicly associated with, exists so it can be contrasted with good boyfriend O’Dowd’s salt-of-the-earth copness. He, for instance, lives in a modest homey place and is so supportive of Wiig he even wants to bake with her, so as to get her going on her failed baking career again! Naturally, she breaks up with him because he’s too good to her. I discuss all this dross because when it came time for the Oscars and Brides’ screenplay was nominated critics almost to a number took the chance to bemoan how Oscar never honors comedy (they thought Brides should have been nominated for best picture), just as the public constantly bitches that the academy never gives awards to the most popular lame money makers, blah, blah, blah. Don’t get me wrong, I love comedy and I’d be thrilled to see something genuine and inspired win awards, A Rushmore, say, or Royal Tennebaums or Happiness or Molly Shannon’s beautifully modulated oddity of a performance in a terrific film no one ever talks about called The Year of The Dog, or any number of fantastic funny films which have a little style, vision and heart, not just mechanical sentimentality poured on to make them test well with audiences.
There are probably enough laughs thrown off by the great actors in Brides to recommend it, but its bland overlit look, weird un-thought through class relations (how the hell did these people meet and in what vacuum of waste and needless expense do they live?), and especially the awful thankless rich foil-character foisted on Rose Byrne finally defeat the thing, Wiig said of Byrne’s part that it was difficult to balance out, because the character had to be somebody that Wiig would instantly hate but that Rudolph understandably liked. It doesn’t work. Byrne tries to pull it off but whatever comic resources she has are totally straightjacketed by the need for her to seem like there’s a nice girl hovering within. The effect is not unlike that of Sarah Jessica Parker’s job in The Family Stone, where Parker’s innate sensitivity had to register underneath her reactionary philistine exterior, making her seem like a deer trapped in the headlights, mortifying one on her behalf. Only it’s worse in Brides because Byrne isn’t as clear and exact an actor as SJP, so even when she tries tearfully connecting to Wiig later on, during one of the ill-manufactured crises of the film (Rudolph inexplicably gets cold feet and disappears right before the wedding so that Wiig, with her deep friend’s understanding of Rudolph, can find her instantly and solve their issues all in one fell swoop) the audience is likely to gloat over the crumpling of Byrne’s bony beauty, seeing it as just a fake, brittle bid for attention. And since the movie’s so implausible anyway, I think it would have been better served if Byrne had simply been allowed to let loose as a high-style Heather Chandleresque cunt not saddled by worries of character redemption. Still, through much of it, I was able to hold on to my good will toward Wiig and Rudolph, imagining they were a couple a smart funny alternative girls with artsy taste. Until it was revealed at the bridal shower Byrne throws for Rudolph that the two used to hang out together listening to Wilson Phillips as youngsters! Why Wilson Phillips? It’s not supposed to be camp irony, so what does that say about these women? That they’re so mainstream their taste is the absolute apotheosis of pre-fab culture, uncommitted to anything about anything? Whatever it means, apparently we’re supposed to find it adorable in a down-to-earth kind of way. After that I thought, these women can go to hell. Everything just upped and evaporated for me, and I felt rather cross. Maybe the saddest, most condescending thing about the praise heaped on this nothing movie is the underlying idea: See, girl comedies can be funny too. . .as well as all heartwarming. I’m afraid the problem is that audiences are so starved for good funny work from women they feel like if they don’t stand up for one that may only have a few decent bits in it they’ll have betrayed the possibility of anything being done at all. Or is taste even more subjective than I thought? In which case, ignore everything I’ve said.