It’s a tough one. I can’t decide if I was more offended by the Technicolor food poisoning scene in the bridal salon, or by how many critics prefaced their otherwise positive reviews with “This is no mere chick flick …” or, worse, “It’s official. Women are funny too.”
Full disclosure: Bridesmaids was never at the top of my list. In fact, I alluded to it in my year-end wrap-up for WVFC as an example of the less than promising titles women had to look forward to in 2011. Then, something strange happened. People started telling me that I simply had to see it. Unexpected people. Respected friends who are movie snobs, teachers, authors, artists — men and women both — told me that it was the funniest movie of the year.
The film is written by Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, directed by Paul Feig, and produced by Judd Apatow. Although all four are known for their comedic talents, it was Apatow’s steering of the project that had me most concerned. I think, on some level, I can respect his successful body of work, including The Hangovers I and II, Knocked Up, and The 40-Year Old Virgin. But I don’t personally enjoy the scatological humor or his obsession with oversexed moronic men.
Well, let me start my own review by saying that I was pleasantly surprised. I didn’t actually hate Bridesmaids, despite some truly cringe-worthy bodily fluid special effects. Parts of it were very funny. Other parts rang true and really resonated with me, such as some of the dialogue between grownup best friends or the poignant self-doubt experienced by the main character. Much of the writing is very smart and very good. And, the performances are all solid.
The story revolves around Annie (above right), a good-hearted 30-something woman who thinks she has hit bottom, only to discover that she has even further to fall. Played by Saturday Night Live’s engaging and enormously talented Kristen Wiig, Annie is immensely likeable. The poor woman has lost her business and her boyfriend. She lives in a crowded apartment with a horror-show brother and sister act, and works in a jewelry store. This less than satisfying job was secured by her eccentric mother, who constantly urges Annie to move in with her. To top it off, Annie has the dishonor of being the perpetual booty call for one vain, self-centered pig of a man who kicks her out of bed in the morning while he congratulates himself on being so honest about his feelings (or, more accurately, lack thereof).
We quickly learn that the only bright thing in this otherwise dim existence is Annie’s relationship with best-friend-for-life, Lillian, played by another SNL star, Maya Rudolph. When Lillian announces her engagement and asks Annie to be her maid of honor, we expect mayhem to ensue. And to some extent it does. But there are darker undercurrents here, too.
The mismatched bridal party includes disenchanted wife and mother Rita (Wendi McLendon-Covey) who complains about her three adolescent sons and the amount of semen all over her house; dewy-eyed newlywed Becca (Ellie Kemper), whose husband will have sex with her only in the dark after they’ve both showered; the groom’s hefty sister Megan (Melissa McCarthy), who practically steals the show with her steamroller joie de vivre and decidedly unfeminine charms; and the rich and beautiful and perfect and accomplished Helen (Rose Byrne) who has her eye set on usurping Annie as Lillian’s BFF.
The rituals leading up to a wedding provide plenty of opportunity for humor, and the creative team milks them for all they’re worth. The traditional engagement party, bridesmaids’ luncheon, gown fittings, bachelorette party and shower all devolve into independent comedy sketches, featuring catty girl vs. girl bickering, peppered by pills, booze and tragically ill-advised Brazilian barbecue. The situations are extreme; the jokes are funny. But the disjointed nature of these episodes is one of the movie’s flaws.
Writers Wiig and Mumolo began their comedy careers as members of renowned Los Angeles improvisation troupe, the Groundlings, one of several feeder companies for SNL (along with Chicago’s Second City). As improv artists and sketch comedy writers, they know how to take advantage of every potential joke. While this strategy makes for successful late-night comedy routines, it doesn’t build the kind of dramatic arc a two-plus hour movie needs.
And this is my second issue with Bridesmaids. It is simply too long. In his own films, Apatow tends to give his actors license to improvise scenes over and over. Director Feig, whose background includes the critically acclaimed though commercially short-lived Freaks and Geeks, as well as episodes of The Office and Arrested Development, is also comfortable working this way, as are Wiig, Mumolo and much of the cast. In a way, this created a production situation that was too much of a good thing. There were too many comedians in the kitchen.
Through all of this overlong laugh-a-thon, Bridesmaids’ saving grace is Wiig’s portrayal of Annie. She’s a one-woman train wreck, by all means, but her heart is in the right place. She sneaks out of bed while her cad lover (a nasty role that seems to be relished by handsome Jon Hamm) is sleeping to touch up her makeup. She does try to live up to her maid of honor obligations, despite having no money and none of the connections rival bridesmaid Helen uses to undermine her. She loves her friend; she loves her quirky mother (the wondrous Jill Clayburgh in one of her last roles). She gives up for a while (who wouldn’t?) but eventually gets back on her feet. And when an earnestly sexy Irish cop (Chris O’Dowd) takes an interest in her, we can’t help but root for a happy ending.
The success of Bridesmaids, critical and box office, can only help women in Hollywood. Apatow and others have proven that there’s a huge market for gross-me-out raunchy comedy. Wiig and Mumolo, along with their talented cast, have proven that women can succeed in this fraternity, too. But I can’t help but wonder if this is an unadulterated victory for women. Is this our real voice? Or is this an example of very smart, very talented women emulating a style that is more genuine to men?
I’m reminded of how I’ve always felt about some aspects of the so-called sexual revolution. Single women, with the availability of birth control and the relaxation of certain societal mores, can have as many meaningless sexual encounters as men. But do we really want to?
When all is said and done, I think the strength of Bridesmaids is its focus on what real women want and not on how well it regurgitates — literally — what men think is funny.
The New York Times captured her gifts and her warmth in Jill Clayburgh’s obituary on November 6. It is left to women who sat in movie theaters in 1978 to remember how she portrayed us all from the inside out in An Unmarried Woman.
The film, directed by Paul Mazursky, left many of us speechless at witnessing the coming undone not only of a marriage, but of a self that Ms. Clayburgh managed to disassemble on screen—even as she was preparing to reassemble her character Erica into a stronger, more buoyant, more sure-footed version of someone whose brains and beauty were just a starting point for the deeper resources of her soul.
I have reached an age when names, plots, entire films are forgotten, some momentarily, others forever. Reading Jill Clayburgh’s obituary, I realized I remember almost every scene, every actor, every moment of An Unmarried Woman. That comes as no surprise. So searing was her portrayal that I and legions of others left the theater feeling as though a friend had gone through a tragedy and a transformation.
It is to be hoped that her marriage to David Rabe and her life with her children (including the powerful Lily Rabe, appearing on Broadway as Portia in The Merchant of Venice opposite Al Pacino) was as idyllic as has been reported. In the aforementioned role and many of the others that followed—in films like Starting Over and The Longest Yard and on Broadway and television—she understood neurosis and weakness and worked from a strength that allowed her to confront them as an actor and invited audiences to approach them through her portrayals.
There was something about Jill Clayburgh that makes this loss seem personal for many who never knew her. Humanity is what it is called. Many people live far longer than 66 years without ever approaching what she brought to her characters as a young woman. So many long for the grace she showed as she grew as an artist, allowing herself to age on screen while fighting leukemia and prevailing until leaving us to remember her with gratitude and joy.