Monday, June 06, 2011

Members of the Wedding

I wish I could write about Bridesmaids (2011, directed by Paul Feig) without writing about the sociological issues surrounding it. In years past, this kind of comedy would have been no big thing. In 2011, its success or failure is a referendum on movies made by, starring, and targeted at women. Which is complete and utter bullshit, by the way. I mean, 51 percent of potential moviegoers are women, guys! This is NOT rocket science. And all those tickets you sold for Titanic and Twilight? Who do you think bought them? But Bridesmaids is being sold with lines like "Chick flicks don't have to suck!" and is being characterized by its gross-out humor (one freaking scene! ONE!), as if they're selling a movie for women to an adolescent male audience. Which, of course, is exactly what they're doing. They don't know any better. They're a bunch of entitled fucking dude-bros in the boardrooms of the movie studios these days. They've transplanted the frat house to the corner office. None of which should have even the slightest relevance to Bridesmaids. But it does, and we're all poorer for it.

It's hard for me to review a movie like Bridesmaids, actually, because all critical standards are suspended for comedies in the face of the one true comedy imperative: Is it funny? I mean, I could write a masters thesis on the patterns of class warfare in this movie, and on the existential plight of the single woman in a society that demands she have a partner, but while that's all well and good, it doesn't matter if the movie doesn't get laughs. And laughs are produced by some weird alchemical process involving personalities and timing that no one can quantify. In the case of Bridesmaids, the ultimate verdict I can render is that it made me laugh more or less consistently. So there's that. That won't stop me from writing about the existential dilemmas of a single woman, of course, but I thought I'd put all that right up front. It's a funny movie.

The story here finds Annie (Kristen Wiig, who also wrote the movie) coming off a bad stretch of luck in which she broke up with her longtime boyfriend and saw her business fail. Her business was a bakery shop and it was something that she loved doing. She consoles herself in the arms of Ted (an unbilled Jon Hamm), who views her only as a fuckbuddy. She wants something more. Annie is asked by her best friend, Lillian, to be the maid of honor at Lillian's wedding, a position that brings her into contact with the other members of the wedding: Becca, still a newlywed who has never known anyone but her husband; Rita, who has seen the bloom fade from her own wedded bliss and feels like she's incarcerated with her three sons; Megan, the groom's earthy sister; and Helen, a trophy wife who slowly takes over the bridal party as a matter of complete entitlement. Helen and Annie are immediately at odds, each seeing a rival in the position of BFF to Lillian. Things continue to spiral downward for Annie, as every event she initiates for the wedding ends in disaster, culminating in an eruption at the shower--planned in baroque detail by Helen--and Annie finds herself on the outs with Lillian. Meanwhile, she's looking for someone to love. Ted offers sex, but no love. She finds it in sweet highway patrolman Nathan Rhodes, who is immediately smitten with her. Annie doesn't recognize real affection anymore and when she gets it, she instinctively pushes Nathan away. It's the defense mechanism of someone who has been hurt too much.

This actually sounds like the outline of a pretty bleak movie, but it's all in the presentation. I think people have to find humor in suffering, actually. But this has more on its mind than just self-pity. The conflict between Annie and Helen is a class conflict as much as anything, and the situations that result are loaded with it. Take, for instance, the film's now infamous dress shop scene. The set-up has the party going to a Brazillian restaurant of dubious quality and contracting food poisoning. This erupts--literally--at a ridiculously upscale dress shop where the gross-out humor takes on a certain amount of political meaning, in which the downtrodden Annie gets a measure of revenge on bourgeois affluence by shitting and puking all over it. There's also a level of feminist critique in this, in so far as it introduces the bodily functions of women into the ivory tower that marriage occasionally represents. It's pretty subversive, actually. That it's all accidental is beside the point, and the movie explicitly airs Annie's list of grievances later in the movie at the shower, a gaudy affair in which the guests are conducted to the party on white horses and in which the party favors are puppies. Annie snaps here, as much at the ridiculousness of it all its wretched excess as at the blindly conniving way Helen has displaced Annie in the wedding. Bridesmaids does all of this while presenting a middlebrow face to the world. It's a smuggler, to use Martin Scorsese's term for it, and a damned crafty one.

There's so much potential for bitterness in Bridesmaids that it's a small miracle that it's as sweet as it is, and you can chalk that up to Kristen Wiig, who manages to make Annie sympathetic and ridiculous at the same time. It's a nice tightrope act. She's surrounded herself with good characters and actors, too, with Maya Rudolph, Rose Byrne, and Melissa McCarthy making the strongest impressions. The film is directed in the same kind of slacker deadpan common to producer Judd Apatow's other films, but this is a case where the screenplay and the performances really trump the director. This is Wiig's film, make no mistake, even if the dude-bros in the suits put a dude in the director's chair. It all makes me wonder what it is about Loren Michaels and SNL that make so many of his cast members seem like so much less than they are until they step out of his shadow. Add Wiig and Maya Rudolph to the list of people who look to have been actively stifled by the constraints of SNL's format, because, away from TV, they seem so much smarter and so much funnier and so much more like real human beings that I would want to know.


Unknown said...

i don't know, maybe it's cus i'm a dude. but i didn't find this movie that funny. i chuckled a few times.

i thought it had the making of a good comedy. i liked the way the main character and the cop played off each other.

but somehow it never seemed to quite jell for me. it seemed it was trying to hard to get a message across or something.

Deborah said...

Your opening paragraph fills me with delight.