Friday, May 13, 2011

Bridesmaids: Gals behaving badly

Bridesmaids (2011) • View trailer for Bridesmaids
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, sexuality and relentless vulgarity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.13.11

If Bridesmaids is intended to demonstrate that gal-pal comedies can be just as disgusting, loathsome and bereft of morals as their male counterparts, I’m afraid it fails.

Because in all the respects that matter, this film is superior to crude, bottom-of-the-barrel efforts such as the recent Hall Pass and most of what comes from the Farrelly brothers or Judd Apatow’s repertory company.
The atmosphere is fun, and the food is delicious ... but this convivial meal is
about to have dire consequences, much to the mortification of Annie (Kristen
Wiig, right), who once again will lose face in front of best friend Lillian (Maya
Rudolph, center) and new nemesis Helen (Rose Byrne).

Which is ironic, since Apatow co-produced Bridesmaids, as well.

Although occasionally clumsy and somewhat randomly directed, Bridesmaids nonetheless delivers something that the guys-behaving-badly sub-genre always overlooks: emotional depth. The women here aren’t merely one-liner delivery systems, debasing themselves at every turn and occasionally dropping skirt to defecate in public (although we get pretty close); they have reasonably credible relationships with each other, and — here’s the key — they evolve, during the course of the script written by Annie Mumolo and star Kristen Wiig.

The very core of the humor is entirely different. We laugh here because we do come to care about these women; the comic set-pieces derive from the character dynamics, rather than a ham-handed writer and/or director’s decision to be as vulgar as possible ... for no discernable reason.

Which is not to say that Bridesmaids never strays from its generally superior path. Apatow’s gross-’em-out touch can be felt at times, most notoriously during the aftermath of an ill-advised meal at a dive café, when everybody winds up with a case of food poisoning, and a desperately explosive need to, ah, relieve themselves from every available orifice.

Even here, though, director Paul Feig ultimately strikes a blow for restraint. While vile fluids flow freely from three characters, as they battle for the single commode in a public restroom, consider the different approach taken by Maya Rudolph’s Lillian, as she panics, heads outside and starts to cross the street, scrambling to reach ... well, it doesn’t really matter. Feig holds the camera as Lillian realizes she’s not going to make it, Rudolph’s face contorted in ghastly resignation, as she surrenders to the moment... the details of which are left to our imagination.

That’s much, much funnier that the excrement-laden free-for-all back in the bathroom.

A modern filmmaker’s ability to wallow in gratuitous filth doesn’t automatically require one to yield to such impulses. Whether in horror films or vulgar comedies, I’ve long argued that less is more ... although I cheerfully acknowledge that not everybody agrees.

But enough from the soapbox.

Annie (Wiig), her life in a mess, has a mixed reaction when BFF Lillian announces her engagement. Although delighted, Annie’s also worried that their own relationship will, of necessity, change ... and probably not for the better.

Lillian naturally asks Annie to be the maid of honor, but the latter’s efforts in that role are constantly undercut by Helen (Rose Byrne, a sly schemer), one of the other bridesmaids. Helen, a constant over-achiever, is determined to be the center of attention at all times ... while demonstrating that she is Lillian’s best friend. Poor Annie, insecure to begin with, finds herself playing catch-up at every turn.

The battle lines are drawn during the engagement party, as all the principles meet each other, and where Annie is expected to give a toast. The subsequent wrestling match for the microphone, between Annie and Helen — each determined to have the final word — grows funnier with every hand-off.

The bridal posse also includes Rita (Wendi McLendon-Covey), a stay-at-home mom hoping that this bridesmaid gig will grant some badly needed personal time away from her three hellish sons; Becca (Ellie Kemper), a wide-eyed naïf who giggles about the Disney-themed wedding she had with her husband, the only guy she’s ever slept with; and Megan (Melissa McCarthy), a plus-size force of nature who always — but always — speaks her mind, and behaves as if she possesses a supermodel’s body and sex appeal.

McCarthy is drop-dead hilarious, and frankly blows everybody else off the screen. She has perfect comic timing, and the dialogue given Megan suits both her character and her physical bearing.

As it happens, though, Megan is only one of numerous engaging supporting players. Annie also has two men in her life: the loutish Ted (Jon Hamm), designed to be the worst quasi-boyfriend in the known universe — and I pity any woman who recognizes anything familiar about this guy — and the effortlessly charming Rhodes (Chris O’Dowd), a cop who initially meets our heroine after pulling her over for a minor vehicular infraction.

The late Jill Clayburgh — we lost her in November — pops up as Annie’s mother, and the pathos associated with this appearance almost derails the story. Clearly ravaged by the leukemia that took her life shortly after this film wrapped, her once-commanding voice a shaky shadow of its former glory, Clayburgh nonetheless delivers a droll comic turn as a woman who makes a hobby of attending AA meetings ... not because she’s an alcoholic, but because she loves to listen to all the stories being told.

Not all the ancillary characters work. Annie’s apartment mates, Brynn (Rebel Wilson) and Gil (Matt Lucas), never quite come alive. They’re an under-developed detail that seems superfluous, particularly in a film that runs an over-extended 125 minutes. And what’s with Terry Crews’ blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo, early on? It feels like we should see him again, but we never do.

Kemper and McLendon-Covey also wind up as third-act casualties; after fairly solid introductions, Becca and Rita sorta-kinda vanish, overwhelmed by Megan, Helen, the splintering Annie/Lillian dynamic, and the expanding Annie/Rhodes subplot.

The latter scenes are rather sweet, with O’Dowd making excellent use of his Irish accent, as he turns Rhodes into the cuddly, teddy-bearish catch of the day.

Despite all these side issues, though, Wiig’s Annie anchors the film. Her messed-up life slides from bad to worse, in a completely believable fashion. We’ve all experienced the game-changing “loss” — or so it seems — of a good friend who gets married first, or has children first, or simply moves away first. Wiig’s comic hijinks notwithstanding, she never turns Annie into an exaggerated caricature; we always feel for her, particularly because — to quote Marilyn Monroe, in Some Like It Hot — she inevitably gets the fuzzy end of the lollipop.

It’s also nice to see that Wiig can carry a film. Her big-screen track record is spotty at best, with solid supporting roles in, say, Whip It and Paul usually overshadowed by clumsy turns in junk such as MacGruber and Extract.

Rudolph’s Lillian is the grounded half of this relationship: the calmer, more dependable ally who never (well, mostly never) begrudges her responsibility for picking up the freshly shattered pieces of Annie’s life. Rudolph projects a sincerity that invites such trust; we easily can imagine confiding in Lillian, knowing that she’d never betray us.

Wiig and Mumolo are patient writers, willing to allow a gag time to develop, ripen and burst into life: a tactic that maximizes the subsequent hilarity. Annie’s woozy, unrestrained, pills-and-alcohol-fueled behavior on a plane trip to Vegas — she self-medicates too much, due to a fear of flying — may be front and center in this sequence, but the slow build of a secondary gag involving Megan gets the bigger laugh.

As often is the case with modern comedies — and particularly those chaperoned by Apatow — this one would benefit from tighter editing and a willingness to jettison superfluous cargo (starting with all scenes involving Brynn and Gil). This script sometimes feels at war with itself, the core storyline occasionally subverted by a flailing, kitchen-sink effort to milk a gag — particularly a vulgar gag — far beyond its sell-by date.

The stray, gratuitous F-bombs orbiting around Rita’s sons, and Helen’s step-sons, also serve no purpose (and, in the latter’s case, represent a key plot issue that remains unresolved).

Cameron Diaz, Christina Applegate and Selma Blair proved that gals could behave just as badly as guys, in 2002’s cheerfully filthy and under-appreciated The Sweetest Thing. Wiig, Rudolph and the others do just as well here — better, even, given the underlying pathos — and while I’d never want one of these bridesmaids as a family member, I’d sure love to attend a party they hosted.

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