In a recent New Yorker profile of actress Anna Faris, writer Tad Friend reflects at length on the dearth of farcical comedies for women and dissects the mentality that discourages studios from making them. According to the conventional wisdom in Hollywood, when a couple goes on a date the man picks the movie, and though women will go along with seeing a rowdy, male-oriented comedy, men avoid "chick flicks" like the plague. If a woman stars in a comedy it had better be a romantic comedy, the sort of thing women go to see alone or with their female friends. There's also a pervasive belief that women just aren't funny—never mind a tradition of screen comediennes that begins with Mabel Normand in the silent era and continues on through Marion Davies, Carole Lombard, Gracie Allen, Lucille Ball, Madeline Kahn, Gilda Radner, and Tina Fey.
Bridesmaids is hilariously funny, but what makes it exhilarating is how boldly it defies that conventional wisdom about what men and women like. The producer is Judd Apatow, whose hit comedies (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Pineapple Express) trade heavily in the "bromance" among their male characters; the cowriter and star is Kristen Wiig, whose brilliant character work on Saturday Night Live and endless scene-stealing in movies (Ghost Town, Adventureland, Whip It) have finally won her the big-screen vehicle she deserves. I've watched Bridesmaids with two different preview audiences, and as far as I could tell the gags connected equally well with the men and the women. Remarkably, the comedy comes from a genuinely female perspective, but its being female isn't nearly as important as its being genuine.
To a great extent Bridesmaids simply transposes Apatow's bromance formula to the world of women: there are a couple of male supporting characters, but they're peripheral to the bonding between Lillian (Maya Rudolph), who's about to get married; Annie (Wiig), her oldest pal and her maid of honor; and the four other bridesmaids. Things aren't going well for Annie: her little bakery in Milwaukee has gone under, her obnoxious apartment mates take advantage of her, and her love life consists of one-night stands with a rich creep who openly refers to her as his "fuck buddy." Her friendship with Lillian is the only thing she's got going for her, but even that starts to slip away when another of the bridesmaids, Helen (Rose Byrne), who's filthy rich and married to the groom's boss, begins maneuvering for greater influence in the wedding party. The doughy groom is so incidental to the action I can't even remember if he has any lines.
From the opening scene, you realize that Bridesmaids springs from a much different comic sensibility than your average rom-com; it's broad but still inherently feminine. An establishing shot places us at a chic modernist house at nightfall, then a series of shots reveals Annie in awkward, uncomfortable poses as she's athletically boffed by the callow Ted (Jon Hamm of Mad Men). In the morning, while he's still sleeping, she ducks into the bathroom to wash and pretty herself, then slips back into bed and pretends she's been asleep all along. "Wow, this is so awkward," he says with a smile. "I really want you to leave, but I don't know how to say it without sounding like a dick." During a later sexual encounter, when Annie intimates that she's met another man, Ted clumsily kneads her breast and asks, "Can [he] do this to you?" She gives him a poker-faced look and replies, "Probably."
Back in the 90s, when Apatow and director Paul Feig were collaborating on the much-beloved TV series Freaks and Geeks, they would ask the actors and writers to recount the most embarrassing things that had ever happened to them, and sometimes incorporated these stories into the scripts. Even more than the bromance aspect, this focus on personal pain has been the defining characteristic of Apatow's best movies, and it's clearly been embraced by Wiig and her screenwriting partner, Annie Mumolo. The Annie of the movie never suffers more than when her friendship with Lillian is being upstaged by the rich and beautiful Helen. When Helen throws an engagement party for the bride at a swank country club in Chicago, the two rivals fight for the PA microphone and continuously one-up each other's public declarations of affection for Lillian. But as the wedding nears, there's no way Annie can compete with Helen's bottomless bank account, and for her their contest turns into one humiliation after another.
Some of the funniest moments belong to the other three bridesmaids, however, and each of them represents a different take on femininity. Megan (Melissa McCarthy) is a big girl with a decidedly butch outlook; her idea for a bachelorette party is one with a Fight Club theme in which they get the bride in a room and "just beat the shit out of her." Her opposite number is Becca (Ellie Kemper), a sweet and virginal thing whose romance with her boyfriend is so dainty that they both shower before sex. Rebecca is probably the least funny of the three, but she makes a great foil for Rita (Wendi McLendon-Covey), the disgruntled mom of three obnoxious boys. When Rebecca moons over the joys of motherhood, Rita tells her what it's really like to have little men running around the house: "There is semen all over everything! I cracked a blanket in half."
Last Sunday the New York Times Magazine featured a piece about Wiig that revealed some of the fissures between the women who wrote the movie and the men who produced and directed it. Apatow pushed hard for wild physical comedy rather than quiet relationship humor (giving Wiig and Mumolo notes on the script, he panned one sedate dialogue scene and declared, "No, we're not going to sit and talk"). For their part, the women initially resisted when Apatow and Feig pitched them the movie's most vulgar, over-the-top sequence: shopping for their bridal dresses at a chic, white-carpeted fashion salon, the women come down with food poisoning from the "authentic" Brazilian restaurant Annie has just taken them to and are overtaken by vomiting and diarrhea, to the horror of the bejeweled shop owner. Onscreen it's pretty damn funny, but it's not the sort of thing you see in a Julia Roberts movie.
Bridesmaids defers to rom-com formula mainly through its boy-meets-girl subplot pairing Annie with Officer Rhodes, a charming Irish-American cop played by Chris O'Dowd. But even in this instance the standard gender dynamic has been turned on its head: the story arc here is girl meets boy, girl loses boy, girl gets boy. After the two fall into bed together, Annie wakes the next morning to find that Rhodes, in stark contrast to the selfish Ted, has gone out and bought baking supplies, hoping that the process of whipping up something in the kitchen will make her happy. Instead he hits a raw nerve and Annie walks out on him, telling him she made a mistake by spending the night. Now the man gets to be the wounded soul, and Annie learns how it feels to break someone's heart. The peculiar alchemy of Bridesmaids is that, in letting women be like men and men be like women, it allows them all to be a little more like people. v
E-mail J.R. Jones at email@example.com.