Something old, something new: Wedding comedy ‘Bridesmaids’ is both broadly funny and refreshingly heartfelt
In times of uncertainty, some people look to the skies for guidance. I often look to my television and ask, “What would Lucy and Ethel do?’’ When faced with a violently upset stomach at a bridal fitting, for example, would either make a beeline for the ladies room and, upon discovering that another woman, who’s also sick, is occupying the preferred fixture, hoist herself, and her expensive pink gown, onto a nearby sink? Maybe Lucy.
I’d like to think that, as the more modest of the two, Ethel, being unable to make it to a facility across the street, would do as one character does in “Bridesmaids,’’ and lower herself, in a designer wedding gown, to the blacktop, like a satin balloon that’s down to its last gravitational option.
For much of “Bridesmaids,’’ thoughts of “This is so ridiculous’’ are tempered by thoughts of “This is so Lucy and Ethel.’’ Which is to say that the movie belongs to a long comedic tradition of women playing up their bodies to bring down the house. Lucy and Ethel famously stuffed their mouths and shirts with chocolate, and Lucy once stomped grapes in a giant tub. They never had food poisoning. But that’s only because they never made a movie that Judd Apatow produced.
With its mock-haywire camerawork and deftly balanced interplay between panic and feigned calm (one obviously ill woman refuses to give in), the fitting sequence is a wonder of the gastrointestinal comedy that’s become a regular part of what we now laugh at. It is also something of a red herring. We’re likely to spend the summer debating the Bridal Shop Melee of 2011. But that upstages the real, poignant subject of “Bridesmaids,’’ which is the suddenly fragile bond between a bride-to-be and her unmarried best friend.
Kristen Wiig, a “Saturday Night Live’’ standout, and Annie Mumolo, a comedian, have written a movie that arises from a place of true emotional primacy. (Paul Feig, the creator of TV’s “Freaks and Geeks’’ is the director.) It feels like a direct response to movies like “Wedding Crashers,’’ “The Hangover,’’ and “I Love You, Man,’’ in which men have colonized and mutated territory that once was the sole province of women. “Bridesmaids’’ both resembles those movies — silly, broad, implausible — and doesn’t. This one likes women.
The first time we see Annie (Wiig) and Lillian (Maya Rudolph) together they’re discussing men. Annie continues to have sex with a rich jerk (Jon Hamm) who’ll never love her. Lillian can’t figure out her boyfriend’s newly strange behavior. The next time we see these two together, Lillian explains that her man has been weird because he was trying to propose. Now that he has, she’d like Annie to be her maid of honor. After the shock vanishes from Annie’s face, she accepts.
So begins an odyssey that involves six women, some raw feelings, and the severe destruction of a giant cookie. The movie is built around Annie, a baker who lost her shop and now hisses at customers from behind the counter of a Milwaukee jewelry store. She’s like one of the lost boys that drifts through a lot of comedies: a loser whose domestic options are disgusting roommates or her mother (played by Jill Clayburgh, who died last November).
The difference between them and, say, many of the men Seth Rogen or Steve Carell play in movies is that Annie’s plodding makes sense: She tried for something and thinks she’s failed. Lillian’s wedding only amplifies that belief. In the last 40 minutes, “Bridesmaids’’ is a convincingly emotional movie. That’s shocking, since it seemed bound to drown in gags and aggressive misadventure: the aforementioned fitting, a loopy flight to Vegas, Annie’s time with a gentle, handsome Irish cop (Chris O’Dowd). That’s also a surprise, since a lot of the advance conversation about “Bridesmaids’’ would lead you to believe that Apatow did more than produce it (the fitting-room sequence was his idea).
Of the many comedies Apatow has produced, this is the first whose finest qualities depart from those of his better productions. Where movies like “Knocked Up,’’ “Superbad,’’ and “Funny People’’ are obliquely about the love men have for each other, “Bridesmaids’’ openly, comfortably turns the stress of being girlfriends into comedy. It’s really about the single friend backing away from the edge of temporary insanity. This isn’t the greatest such movie. That would be Nicole Holofcener’s “Walking and Talking’’ (1996), with Catherine Keener and Anne Heche.
Apatow’s being out front to attract an audience feels in some way an attempt to rebut the increasingly legitimate complaint that he — and the men in his comedy club — might not understand women. The attention on Apatow also distracts from the legitimate achievements of “Bridesmaids.’’ One of them is how good most of the performances are. The other bridesmaids include Ellie Kemper, Lillian’s undersexed newlywed co-worker; Wendi McLendon-Covey, as Lillian’s miserably domesticated cousin; and Melissa McCarthy, her rambunctious future sister-in-law.
A lot of the film pits Annie against Helen (Rose Byrne), the wife of Lillian’s fiancé’s boss, for a “best friend’’ title that Lillian has already settled in Annie’s favor. But Helen is well-heeled and aggressively desperate to perform devotion, which, in turn, makes virtually penniless Annie desperate. And in the best scenes of pure nonsense Helen turns up the heat on Annie’s boiling pot. Byrne has a slow-motion introduction that, just in kicking the train of her volcano of a dress, finds the hilarity in mock perfection.
They’re all doing a shtick — Wiig is actually doing about 11. But she and McCarthy, who once again relies on her weight for laughs, deliver when it counts, which in one scene on a couch, they do in tandem. Rudolph is the most robustly, achingly human person in the film, a real woman surrounded by cartoon characters. But as such things go, they’re cartoon characters after Pixar’s heart.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: wesley_morris