When Judd Apatow brought the R-rated comedy back to prominence through movies like The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and Superbad there was one clear theme that every critic seemed to be fascinated with: the films’ male centric nature. Some film critics and cultural pundits even went so far as to cry sexism because the women in the films would often be playing straight-men to the male performers who were doing the comedic heavy lifting. Bridesmaids, a film produced by Apatow but written by and starring Kristen Wiig, seems to be a deliberate response to this criticism with an almost entirely female cast engaging in many of the same antics we’ve seen in Apatow’s earlier sausage-fests. The film was met with critical acclaim and major box office, but I still decided to pass on the film, largely because I positively hate the work that Kristen Wiig does on Saturday Night Live where she is easily the most irritating cast member since Chris Kattan. Still the movie’s success was undeniable and given my diligent viewing of Apatow-esque comedy I felt that I still needed to give the movie a chance.
Told from the perspective of Annie (Kristen Wiig), Bridesmaids is about a single woman in her late thirties who recently suffered a financial setback when the bakery she opened failed, who learns that her best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) has gotten engaged and will soon begin planning her wedding. Annie is of course chosen as maid of honor for the ceremony and will serve along with Lillian’s other friends like the terminally frustrated Rita (Wendi McLendon-Covey), the naïve newlywed Becca (Ellie Kemper), and the crass sister-in-law to be Megan (Melissa McCarthy). These women all have their quirks, but it’s the last bridesmaid who really irks Annie, the wife of the grooms boss Helen (Rose Byrne). Helen is a wealthy socialite that has taken an active role in the planning for the wedding and seems to be everything that Annie isn’t. Annie sees Helen as a threat to the her long time friendship with Lillian and this isn’t entirely an act of paranoia, Helen does genuinely seem to be trying to drive Annie and Lillian apart so that she can step into the best friend role over the course of the wedding preparations.
Judd Apatow’s earlier male-centric movies were often labeled “bromances” because they applied romantic comedy tropes to stories about platonic male friendships. Bridemaids often feels like a female answer to the genre (a sis-mance?); placing Lillian as the object of affection, Annie as the good hearted down on her luck protagonist, and Helen as the undeserving rich snob who wants to woo the object of affection away from the protagonist. That’s a plot that makes sense in a genuine romance; Meg Ryan can only marry one suitor after all, and it makes sense that the rich snob is going to do everything in his power to make sure it’s him. In the context of a friendship on the other hand, this behavior makes a lot less sense. Do Annie and Helen not realize that it is entirely possible for Lillian to have two friends at once? Annie’s side of the problem does seem a little more believable, friends do grow apart and it is established this friendship is one of the few good things she has in her life. Helen’s side of story on the other hand makes a lot less sense. Late in the film we do get some explination for why she is behaving this way, but for most of the movie she seems like a complete psycho operating without any clear motivation. Not only is her behavior bizarre, but it doesn’t seem like it should be as successful as it is, her machinations are quite obvious and Lillian should have caught on a lot sooner.
Part of the problem is that Rose Byrne does not really do a great job of either humanizing her character or of making her seem like the kind of expert manipulator that she’s supposed to be. I think one of the biggest challenges that an actor can have is to play a character who is behaving dishonest while also tipping their hat to the audience. In this case Byrne needs to lie to Lillian’s face and do so in a way that seems like it will fool Lillian while also sounding unbelievable enough that the audience will think that the character is acting. I had similar problems with Jackie Weaver’s highly praised performance in last year’s Animal Kingdom, so this can obviously be a challenge for the best of actors, but that doesn’t change the fact that Byrne doesn’t deliver and that her character is a gaping hole in the middle of this movie.
Some of the other performances in the film fared a little better. I was pleasantly surprised by Kristen Wiig, but then again I had low expectations for her. I suppose it is worth celebrating that she speaks like a normal human being in the film and not like Gilly or The Target Lady or any of her other obnoxious SNL characters. She does slip back into that sort of nonsense once or twice in the movie (often while drunk), but for the most part she played a likable character going through a rough patch. Maya Rudolph was solid in her role, but I do sort of think she was wasted as a straight man to all the rest of the hijinx in the movie. The rest of the cast is a bit of a mixed bag, Wendi McLendon-Covey and Ellie Kemper are side characters that easily could have been cut out of the film but they both have their funny moments.
I’m not quite sure what to think about Melissa McCarthy, who plays a crass and irritating character, but who approaches the role with a ton of gusto. The movie is at its broadest whenever she’s on screen and it almost feels like something from a different movie. That’s a problem that the film has in a number of places actually. For most of its runtime it comes off like a fairly straight comedy with perhaps a bit more swearing than you’d expect in similar material, but then it delves into some really broad gross-out material like a dress fitting that ends in projectile vomiting and a woman defecating into a sink. The message behind these scenes is clear: woman comics can be just as good as men at super-broad comedy, but they’re doing it in the middle of a movie that hasn’t really dedicated itself to material like this and when these scenes happen they seem kind of jarring.
All in all, Bridesmaids didn’t really work for me. It reminded me a lot of the 2009 Paul Rudd vehicle I Love You, Man in that it’s characters seemed to behave really strangely because it was also trying to equate romantic comedies and friendships in a way that didn’t make a lot of sense. It also reminded me of that film because it was only sporadically funny at best. I didn’t laugh a whole lot at all, certainly less than I did while watching most of the other films in the Apatow oeuvre. Did the fact that this is a movie that women are supposed to relate to have anything to do with this? Maybe, I don’t know. I’ve overheard a lot of women say they’ve had trouble getting interested in movies like The Hangover because it was such a “guy movie” and it doesn’t surprise me if that works both ways. However, there’s no excusing the fact that the Rose Byrne is ridiculous, and I really do think that’s what ultimately kills this movie.
** out of Four