There is something intriguingly subversive in “Bridesmaids” that goes beyond the anarchy inherent in all humor and its reliable sub-category, the switch-up. But we’ll talk about those first to get the basics out of the way.
Comedy is almost always about boundaries — pushing through, transgressing, upending — and especially about the boundaries that define our assumptions and expectations. One classic way is substitution or switch: Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon dress as women. So does Dustin Hoffman. It undermines some of our fundamental notions of gender and identity. Then there is good, old-fashioned anarchy, when some uncontrollable force like the Marx Brothers or a leopard or the Cat in the Hat or just a madcap love interest turns the life of the hero upside down. “Bridesmaids” has both. Judd Apatow, one of the most successful writer-director-producers of recent movie comedies, has been justifiably criticized for the guy-centric and bromantic themes of his movies, which over and over again feature boy-men terrified by incomprehensible civilization and maturity as represented by angry and humorless females. His movies have (usually) provided such sturdy and reliable box office performers that they have created an established genre — which means it is ripe for some deconstruction. Enter the ladies. When “Saturday Night Live” MVP Kristen Wiig appeared in a small role in one of Apatow’s films, he invited her to write a script. She and her friend Annie Mumolo (who appears in the film as a terrified airplane passenger) came up with “Bridesmaids,” a female-led comedy that gives the starring roles, the punchlines, the outrageously explicit gross-out comedy, and the character arc to the women. That simple shift alone gives the movie a freshness that is immediately intriguing if sometimes unsettling (see reference to the gross-out comedy). It takes on more than the standards of the typical Apatow-style comedy, which are dear to the heart of its fans. It takes on something even more dear to the hearts of the “Sex in the City”/”Say Yes to the Dress” segment of the audience — the onslaught of wedding drama, with all of its attendant opportunities for humiliation and over-spending, often at the same time. Some in the audience will find the over-the-top scenes like Wiig’s imitation of a part of the male anatomy or the intense gastro-intestinal distress of four women trying on gowns at an exquisitely appointed boutique the most tellingly hilarious moment. But others will find it in a simple scene that merely involves opening an invitation to a wedding shower.
Annie (Wiig) has just about hit rock bottom as the movie begins. Just about every possible element of her life is maximally directed at destroying any remaining shreds of self-esteem. Her bakery has folded. Her boyfriend left her. She is sex-buddies — without the buddy part — with a handsome but completely self-absorbed man (a hilariously sleazy John Hamm). She has a job she hates at a jewelry store and awful brother-and-sister roommates. Her only bright moments are her time with her lifelong friend Lilian (Maya Rudolph), who always makes her feel understood and supported. When Lilian gets engaged, Annie is genuinely thrilled for her and happy to be her maid of honor. But she is sad and bereft and a little jealous, too. Lilian’s life is coming together for a big happily ever after wedding and she feels left behind and scared.
Those feelings are exponentially magnified when Annie attends Lillian’s engagement party and meets her new friend, Helen (Rose Byrne of “Get Him to the Greek”). Helen is wealthy and beautiful and very competitive. Annie starts to get overwhelmed and frantic as she tries to keep up with her obligations — the bachelorette party, the bridal shower, the ultra-expensive bridesmaid gown. Infuriatingly, every time Annie fails, Helen serenely sails through with a gentle, pitying look, and takes over. Along the way, Annie meets a kind-hearted cop (the unassumingly charming Chris O’Dowd of “Pirate Radio”), but she is so scared and sick of herself that his genuine kindness and affection just make her feel worse. And then, when Lilian’s big day comes, Annie gets one more chance to be a true maid of honor.
Wiig and Mumulo are first-time screenwriters and they have not quite figured out the structure of a screenplay. It feels like a string of sketches and goes on about 20 minutes too long (they should lose the “funny drunk” scene for starters). But an bit of an amateurish touch in the writing and the improvisational riffs of dialog work nicely, giving it a fresh, heartfelt quality. It is clear that the actresses had a blast unleashed from the usual film comedy roles of dream date or harpy. Many of the funny lines in the trailers and commercials do not even appear in the film; this is one where the DVD extras will be as much fun as the movie. And there are some sturdy underpinnings that demonstrate real care. Watch Annie’s morning-after scenes with the two men. With one, she leaps out of bed to primp so she can pretend she always looks freshly made up and she lies about what she wants from the relationship and expects him to know the truth. The other invites her to be her truest self, truer than she is really ready for.
Like a chocolate with a crunchy outside shell, this movie has a gooey center. Its biggest surprise is the way it deftly captures the chemistry and rhythms, the deep sense of connection, and — sometimes — the passive-aggressive, deadlier-than-the-male viciousness in female friendships. Its greatest strength, though, is its cast, who act as though they have been waiting all their lives to get up to bat and knock it out of the park. Byrne is just right as the silky mean girl. But in one of the best performances of the year, Melissa McCarthy (“Gilmore Girls,” “Mike and Molly”) steals the film as Lilian’s future sister-in-law and Annie’s fellow bridesmaid. She is fierce, she is fearless, she is wildly hilarious, and she raises the bar for the guys over at atelier Apatow. Gentlemen, over to you.
Parents should know that this is an extremely raunchy and crude comedy with very explicit and vulgar language, sexual references, and sexual situations that in a drama would receive an NC-17. Characters drink (one combines drinking with a tranquilizer and gets very inebriated). There is an extended and explicit scene of severe gastrointestinal catastrophe.
Family discussion: How is raunchy humor different in a comedy about women than it is in a comedy about men? Why didn’t Annie want to cook? Why did Annie and Helen compete so hard for Lilian’s attention?
If you like this, try: “The 40 Year Old Virgin” and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”