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Non-Review Review: Bridesmaids

It’s kinda interesting. Bridesmaids opens over here a month or so after it does in the States, so I’ve had the opportunity to pick up quite a significant amount of chatter on the film, as a good film tends to attract on the information super highway. Most of the discussion around the film has been centred around the movie’s gross-out humour, with reviews branding it as The Hangover in heels”or some such, and a great deal of discussion focusing on the fact that it demonstrates women can do that sort of disgusting and crass physical comedy. Such a discussion seems to be just a little bit over-the-top, as the movie really only features three absurdly crass set pieces (one of which admittedly opens the film, another competes with anything else in a comedy this year, and the third is tucked away in the credits) – so much so I doubt anyone would bat their eye if the same level of juvenile conduct were contained in a film about a bunch of dudes. It’s a damn shame that this seems to monopolise the conversation on Bridesmaids, because it’s actually just a really good film.

Maids of honour?

I wonder, even to myself, how much the fact that the lead characters (and the writers) are women impacts how I watched the film. There’s a scene in a bridal fitting room about half-way through the film that really feels surreal. It’s the type of humour that’s incredibly common in films these days (last week, I witnessed a similar scene in Death at a Funeral), so it probably shouldn’t phase me quite as much as it did. Perhaps it’s the simple fact that it’s so uncommon to see women presented in such a way on film that makes the sequence so striking. It’s almost disappointing, because it belies the movie’s real strength.

Basically, it’s a really well-made romantic comedy, which works because it gives the female characters a hint of personality, instead of falling back on the tired old clichés. If you look at the big romantic comedies that have emerged from Hollywood in the past number of years – 27 Dresses, for example, or The Ugly Truth or even The Bounty Hunter– they all work under the assumption that the female lead is fairly close to being a nice person, with a few personality quirks. As a rule, typically the closest thing the lead female in such a film has as a flaw (as far as the film can see) is the fact that she can’t comprehend or relate to how emotionally stunted her male counterpart is. It’s grossly offensive to both men and women, because it assumes that the women lack depth and men are really just shallow and bitter shells waiting for the right woman to come along to fix them.

No, made of awesome!

It would have been easy for Bridesmaids to simply flip the concept on its head – giving us a female lead with very serious emotional issues and a calm, nurturing male influence to show her that she has some true worth. That would have been just as simplistic and insulting. What the movie does very well is to illustrate that dysfunction works both ways. Our lead, Annie, is a jerk to a sweet and decent male character, Nathan. However, Nathan doesn’t exactly deal with her rejection in a mature or considered manner, and demonstrates himself to be quite emotionally immature in dealing with her after their break-up-esque-thing-y. It isn’t that one character is right and the other is wrong – they’re both very skewed sorts of characters, which I think actually allows them to work better on screen.

I would make the note, again, that it seems every comedy fronted by a woman must be a romantic comedy, despite the fact that there’s arguably any need for it. For example, Baby Mama, Tina Fey’s interesting “female friends” comedy (built around the idea of a single woman wanting a baby) ruined its third act by forcing a seemingly mandatory romance with Greg Kinnear. Not that I have a problem with Greg Kinnear. Similarly, as well-written as the interaction between Annie and Nathan may be, I do wonder if it was really necessary. Can’t a female lead go on an emotional arc without hooking up and finding a spiritual partner? Indeed, given the way that the movie focuses a bit on Annie’s love of baking (and failed bakery), one imagines that there might have been another yardstick for the audience to measure her personal growth.

An engaging comedy...

Still, it’s a small complaint, because the romance between Nathan and Annie, despite being much more interesting than most romantic films, is really just a subplot in a film focused around Annie and the plans for her friend Lillian’s wedding. It’s a nice little story about friendship, and how we inevitably grow apart as we grow up. It’s touching and sweet, without ever feeling manipulative or saccharine. The characters involved certainly feel more organic than the vast majority of female characters typically involved in wedding comedies. There’s no indication, for example, that Lillian has been planning the wedding since she was a child – and indeed the friend who does manage the event is portrayed as having obsessive and interpersonal difficulties. In fact, Lillian explicitly expresses concern that the wedding may bankrupt her father, who actually mutters, “I’m not paying for this” at one point during the event.

It’s nice to see a film where the wedding being big and ridiculous and over-the-top and incredible is actually called out on not being especially practical or tasteful. The girls involved do go to all sorts of outrageous lengths in organising the bridal shower and ceremony, to the point where it becomes something of a joke. It’s nice to know that there is a female character or two out there who is willing to admit how insane a perfect Hollywood wedding actually is. The movie repeatedly makes the point that we are living through a recession (which is why Annie had to give up on her dream), and such extravagance is actually nuts. I’m not even exaggerating there. In an economy where people struggle to keep a roof over their heads, it seems surreal to see such lavish ceremonies presented absolutely everywhere.

Karaoke-y on!

Kristen Wiig steals the show in the lead role, which she also wrote. In fairness, Wiig has a long history of being one of the best things in any given project (including last year’s juvenile, but surprisingly charming, MacGruber), but I really hope that this film establishes her as both a truly potent creative force and a leading actress in her own right. Annie makes for a fascinating lead, and I credit the script with daring to make her a genuinely flawed leading character. We feel sympathy for her because of her insecurity and low self-esteem, but the movie isn’t afraid to admit that she’s also selfish and inconsiderate.

The movie’s greatest flaw is perhaps the final third, where we get to wallow in the consequences of Wiig’s actions. It’s a nice idea in principle, illustrating that she does have an emotional journey to complete and that she needs to develop as a character, but it noticeably eats into the film. At over two hours, it does feel like a longer-than-usual comedy, but it’s never boring and always entertaining – but the last third does feel like it could have been tightened just a little bit.

Hamm-ing it up!

It helps that Wiig has a stellar supporting cast to work with. Like Wiig, Rose Byrne needs more work. She’s been stellar in everything, even when the movie isn’t great itself. Melissa McCarthy steals every scene she’s in as the token “wild friend” – offering the most direct parallel to The Hangover, being almost a female Alan. I think I have a huge amount of respect for John Hamm, based purely on that bug-eyed opening scene. It’s easily one of the most hilarious sex scenes I think I have ever seen. It takes a lot of courage to do something like that, and Hamm plays a sleazeball remarkably well. There’s a strange international element to the casting, with strong supporting roles going to British actor Matt Lucas as Annie’s roommate, and Irish actor Chris O’Dowd as Nathan, Annie’s obligatory love interest.

In fact, I’m so used to seeing O’Dowd on Irish commercials that it took a moment to get used to him in the role of a police officer. As an Irish person, I actually found his accent incredibly distracting, and couldn’t help agreeing with John Hamm’s asshole-ish observation, “Hey, that cop talks funny!” Still, O’Dowd is so firmly outside the ideal of what a romantic lead looks like (because, in Leap Year, they cast Matthew Goode as the Irish romantic lead) that it sorta works.

Knocking it out of the (car) park...

Bridesmaids is a great little film. And I mean that. I’m not going to be patronising by saying it’s a great female-centric comedy, or that it proves women are funny or any sexist nonsense like that. In fact, I think the focus on the film’s gross-out elements suggests perhaps a double-standard, an acknowledgement that we seem to expect different things from women rather than men. I’m not lecturing or anything like that – in fact, I’ll admit that some of the more outrageous stuff worked because it was so rare to see that sort of humour with women – just making an observation.

Well worth your time.

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4 Responses

  1. It’s far too long and the final product may feel like a series of sketches, but I laughed a lot during this and the cast just kept me watching the whole time no matter what was happening up on that screen. Good Review!

  2. I think the complaint about women being forced to have a “spiritual partner” by the end of the film applies equally to male leads as well. Almost every male lead gets the girl in one way, shape or form. So it makes sense that a female lead would be written in a similar way. I just think there is too much inherent drama with romance that makes it relatively easy to write and fit into a story (regardless of gender).

  3. This is easily my favorite comedy of the year so far. And as you mentioned it never makes a point to lay blame entirely at one person’s door.

    I had the hardest time trying to place Dowd’s accent the first time he spoke. At times it felt like he was trying to do a Minnesota accent simultaneously.

    • Yep, I really liked the fact that this wasn’t your standard “right partner learns to remedy/live with wrong partner’s faults” rom-com plot. And I just couldn’t believe it was the guy from the ads over here. It was surreal.

      Although I think only an Irish accent can make “are you kidding me?” sound as sarcastic and yet wounded as it does when John Hamm shows up.

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