'Bridesmaids' Shows This Is a Man's World
Bridesmaids is a high-profile test case. Directed by Paul Feig (a sitcom journeyman most lovingly known as the creator of Freaks and Geeks), it's the first female-fronted comedy produced by Hollywood kingpin Judd Apatow, who has weathered criticism in the past for his brand's dude-centric point of view. It's also built around the talents of co-writer/lead actress Kristen Wiig, a Saturday Night Live regular carrying a full-length film for the first time. This combination of gambles is rare enough in contemporary studio film that a wide variety of blogger pundits—from feminist, fanboy and industry perspectives—has positioned the film as a referendum on the viability of women in Hollywood comedy. It's important to make a distinction between creative merit and commercial: Bridesmaids won't settle the inane Christopher Hitchens-stoked "Are women funny?" debate once and for all, but its box-office performance could have major implications on the sort of lady-oriented films that get made in the future.
Those high stakes manifest themselves onscreen in a kind of multiple personality disorder, epitomized in the first scene that foregrounds raunch, then slips in psychology. We meet late-thirtysomething singleton Annie (Wiig) in the midst of a booty call with hot asshole bachelor Ted (Jon Hamm); they cycle through a variety of sexual positions in a glib, high-energy montage that quickly establishes the film's R-rated bona fides (Ted's command that Annie "cup my balls!" is maybe the film's fifth line). Cut to the next morning: Annie sneaks out of bed to touch up her makeup before Ted wakes up, a tell of fear and self-loathing that solicits knowing smirks over easy LOLs. From there, Bridesmaids continues to vacillate between two, contradictory types of raw matter—one, the kind of raucous, visual, vacuous comedy that plays well in a trailer; the other, a more nuanced approach forgoing immediate spectacle and punch line for character detail that pays dividends as the film rolls along. Or, in more cynical terms: The former tosses meat to the traditional male comedy audience, while the other wins over ladies who look to rom-coms for self-identification.
The film's core relationship is between Annie and her best friend of 30-plus years, Lillian (Maya Rudolph), whose recent engagement—and new friendship with Helen (Rose Byrne), the effortlessly polished and capable trophy wife of her fiance's boss—sends underemployed, chronically single Annie into a tailspin. As socially awkward, underachieving Annie attempts to prove her worth by day as a friend to Lillian, by night, she inadvertently charms traffic cop Rhodes (Chris O'Dowd). A Model Boyfriend type, with his practical perfection and unwavering attention, Rhodes begins to disrupt Annie's default practice of finding excuses to give up when realities fail to match fantasies. (Another example of Bridesmaids' split personality: It's a film that thematically advocates for clear-eyed, delusion-free personal responsibility while narratively hinging on the realization of a fairytale wedding.)
At its best, Bridesmaids reconciles its two minds, merging high-concept, skit-length and -paced comedy with naturalistic conversation (an extended scene on an airplane finds the heretofore unknown common ground between Robert Altman and Jerry Lewis). It's funniest when the humor is based in language, with Wiig exercising her talent for passive-aggressive one-upping in heightened situations. Lurking inside the uneven finished project is a film that continually draws attention to movie clichés by literalizing them. The standard third-act tough-love talk devolves into an absurd inspirational anecdote and physical aggression. Montages of therapy baking and wound-licking are set to carefully chosen songs sung by Fiona Apple and Courtney Love, female performers whose prodigious talents for introspection and histories of self-sabotage neatly match Annie's struggle to see herself accurately and make changes accordingly. But many of the chaotic set pieces cataloging Annie's self-destruction (a pair of party fouls that recall Wiig's most painful SNL mugging, an even more foul and painful extended riff on public diarrhea) have a kind of dumb crassness that works against Bridesmaids' often-smart, highly class-conscious deconstruction of female friendship and competition. Comedy of humiliation is one thing; a fat lady shitting in a sink is another.
Its need to be all things to all quadrants places an unfair burden on a film that, when not bending over backward to prove that girls can play on the same conventional comic field as boys, successfully dismantles both romantic and bromantic comedy formulas. This supposed great experiment in femme-com bears the distinct scars of having been "fixed"—out of fear or financial imperative—by and for dudes.
This review appeared in print as "This Is a Man's World: A comedy written by and starring women, Bridesmaids is still screwed."
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.