Better Late Than Never: “Bridesmaids”

Bridesmaids

Even before I sat down to watch Bridesmaids, I felt like I’d already seen it. It’s a symptom of the saturated pop culture world in which we live. Not only had I seen the PG-13 clips of the infamous bridal shop scene repeated ad nauseam, but the 2011 film quickly came to stand for a standard of comedy that few movies since have been able to match. (Pitch Perfect might be the exception, but I wouldn’t know – haven’t seen that one either.)

Sitting down to watch Bridesmaids for the first time was an interesting experience. I spent the first thirty minutes anxiously awaiting the arrival of farts and burps, only to discover that that scene, while well-constructed, was far from the movie’s centerpiece, and not even its funniest attempt at body part-related humor (that would be Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph arguing about their “assholes”). Instead, that scene served as a preamble for what turned out to be a moving, surprising comedy that balanced elements of romance, drama and farce with remarkable ease. I finished the movie surprised to find that, in some ways, it had been underhyped. I expected the movie to crescendo during the few scenes that everyone talks about in casual conversation, but instead I was rewarded with a supremely entertaining and well-crafted story surrounding those few scenes.

With that in mind, here are five (okay, six) reasons Bridesmaids is far more than some bad chicken and gastrointestinal malfunctions.

Wiig

1. In a perfect world, Kristen Wiig could have been nominated for an Oscar for her performance.

Annie could have been a stock character: down on her luck professionally and romantically, bitter at the world for prioritizing her friends and leaving her in the dust. In writing and execution, Wiig makes her much less easy to pin down. She’s not a total klutz when it comes to romance, but she’s far from smooth. She’s gifted at baking but lacks the confidence or the motivation to keep doing it, even though she knows she probably should. She’s struggling by comparison to her friends, some of whom seem to be moving on to more capable confidants. And she’s got a mean temper. Wiig manages to keep all of these plates spinning while making us laugh so hard we don’t even realize how hard she’s working. Annie’s successes and shortcomings go hand in hand, as they would in real life. Any one of her character traits might have been the sole foundation for her character. Wiig takes on the more daunting but more rewarding task of fulfilling all of them.

Oh, and she’s great at playing drunk. That airplane scene is a classic.

Bridal shop

2. Director Paul Feig deserves credit for subtlety.

It’s strange to praise a movie that prominently and graphically depicts a woman vomiting in another woman’s hair for its subtlety, but Bridesmaids manages to do a lot more under the surface than you realize while you’re laughing your head off at the outbursts of wacky hijinks. For one, note that I said “outbursts of wacky hijinks.” With a cast as outsized and game as this one, the temptation to let the movie exist as a delivery system for one scene of manic improvised mayhem after another must have been appealing. But Feig constructs each scene carefully, building to the punchlines so they have more impact. I kept waiting for the vomit as soon as Melissa McCarthy let out the first burp, but Feig keeps the scene going right up to the point of misdirection before unleashing the torrent. Other scenes unfold with similar confidence: editors William Kerr and Mike Sale deserve tremendous credit for toggling between the different interactions on the plane in such a way that the appearance of each conversation in succession becomes as funny and welcome as what each person is saying.

Airplane

3. All of the women are characters, not just types.

When people praise a movie for its “strong female characters,” they’re sometimes missing the point. The ideal female character in a Hollywood movie is allowed to possess the same contradictions and complexities as the average male character. “Strength” is shorthand for “believably human” – after all, reducing female characters to “independent butt-kickers” is as problematic as reducing them all to wives and mothers. Bridesmaids is the rare blockbuster ($288 million at the global box office, countless more in its home video afterlife) that gives dimension to many female characters, not just one or two at the center. Melissa McCarthy could have played a two-dimensional wack job and no one would have blinked an eye because she’s just that good at playing a two-dimensional wack job, but Wiig and Mumolo’s script allows her to possess human traits while being a wack job, and the difference is notable.

I was struck by the morning-after scene, in which Wiig takes Officer Rhodes (Chris O’Dowd) to taking it upon himself to save her from her insecurities. He sets up materials for a “baking party” in an attempt to rouse her from her professional apathy, but Annie isn’t having it. In a lesser movie, this scene would have been the movie’s climax, with the man saves the woman from her neuroses and everyone lives happily ever after. This film is too smart to go down that cliched route – Annie’s baking is hers to control.

Romance does enter into the equation, of course. O’Dowd is too charismatic and acutely charming for the movie to remain solely focused on platonic relationships. But I accepted and thoroughly enjoyed the romantic story because Wiig and Mumolo clearly consider other narrative threads to be equally important and meaningful. Depicting a woman as interested in romance isn’t sexist. Depicting a woman as interested in romance and nothing else is. Bridesmaids acknowledges the difference.

Car

4. The pace is relaxed.

Plot is almost beside the point, in the most appealing way. I cared far more about how the characters feel than what will happen to them next. I didn’t mind long scenes of characters discussing things that didn’t move the plot along because they gave us an opportunity to enjoy the dynamite chemistry between Wiig and Rudolph, Rudolph and Byrne, McCarthy and anything that moves. The casting is immpeccable, from the major roles right down to the impossibly suave Jon Hamm as Annie’s randy friend-with-benefits Ted and Jill Clayburgh as Annie’s well-intentioned mother. But casting is nothing if the people making the movie don’t give the actors room to breathe.

Hamm

5. Did I mention it’s hilarious?

Any number of scenes are instant classics in their own right – the bridal shop, sure, but also the endless toast, the drunken airplane antics, Annie and Rhodes using the speed camera, Annie goading Rhodes into pulling her over, Megan’s dizzying pep talk, the destruction of the bachelorette party, Wilson Phillips. Many of these scenes are absurd, several of them risky. All of them pay off, and it’s quite the achievement.

Bridesmaids

Bonus: The right creative decision trumped the right commercial one.

Even better? No sequel! For once, a great Hollywood blockbuster and a major commercial success is allowed to stand on its own. Considering that the movie seems ripe for a rewatch, this decision might be the best one of all.

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