Granted, summer 2011 saw the usual procession of reboots, sequels and superheroes. But ignore the obvious hits, and the summer’s undisputed champ – by far the US box office’s highest-grossing original screenplay – is Bridesmaids. On paper, its success was inevitable. The sweet/sour, yucky/feely comedy has offered a lucrative means of tent-pole counter-programming in recent years, kick-started by (Bridesmaids’ co-producer) Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up and perfected in The Hangover, whose pre-wedding jitters provides the “something borrowed” here.
Then there’s the rise of the blockbuster ‘women’s pic’ – in 2008, the combined worldwide gross of Mamma Mia! and Sex And The City outstripped The Dark Knight. Put these elements together, and the sums should do themselves – but addition has been the problem of late, the sequel bloat of The Hangover Part II and Sex And The City 2 undoing their predecessors’ critical, if not commercial, success. Bridesmaids could have gone either way – but crucially, in contrast to those films’ bombast, this one starts small.
The star, Kristen Wiig, might be a comedy icon from years of service at Saturday Night Live, but despite sterling support in smart comedies (Whip It, Adventureland) she’s never headlined a movie. Director Paul Feig, meanwhile, created underdog manifesto Freaks And Geeks, and has since honed his talents by sticking to America’s best small-screen comedies: The Office, Arrested Development, 30 Rock. And it’s worth noting that title: this is about the bridesmaids, not the bride.
Much has been written about Bridesmaids’ shocking, hitherto unknown discovery that the ladies can drink, swear and vomit as freely and as funnily as the fellas. But the film’s appeal lies in an entirely different cliché: that women are deeper, subtler comedic observers than men. By contemporary standards, this is sweetness and light, the crudity driven largely by accident rather than the willing self-destruction of The Hangover boys. “At one point, we thought it was going to be a PG,” Feig jokes wryly on the disc’s commentary. The Hangover, hilarious though it was, relied on nothing more taxing than the slow reveal of a night of snowballing chaos. In contrast, Bridesmaids turns its screws in a linear, but no less excruciating fashion. This film is far more interested in the capacity of weddings to be parades of pretension.
Not since the Meet The Parents have crowd-pleasing chuckles disguised such sharp class satire. And because the film starts small, fear of bigness becomes its primary asset. Wiig’s recession-struck baker Annie is driven by jealousy and inadequacy when her BFF and bride-to-be Lillian (Maya Rudolph) introduces rival pal Helen (an immaculate Rose Byrne) – the swan to Wiig’s duckling – who orbits the wedding world with effortless ease. Unlike Bride Wars, the rivals’ escalating set-pieces – duelling engagement party toast, dress fitting, hen weekend, wedding shower – work because the slapstick is rooted in the inexorable context of Annie’s strained social status, as she’s ostracised by her fellow bridesmaids as the other the women want the garish kitsch of Helen’s world. Who can blame them when Annie’s alternative is a Buñuelian blow-out as the bridesmaids fountain at both ends in a wedding-dress shop? This is a film in which even the shit and vomit gags have symbolic value.
Talent to Byrne
And no man is necessary to get this party started. The IT Crowd’s Chris O’Dowd sets the tone with some selfless underplaying as Annie’s love interest. Jon Hamm, despite enjoying himself immensely as Annie’s nasty fuck buddy, goes uncredited to avoid stealingthunder. So prevalent is the ‘ladies first’ vibe that one of the more blatant Judd Apatow touches, a cameo from Paul Rudd as a blind date turned loco by an ice-rink accident, is consigned to the deleted scenes. (Another pace-sapping blind date is the sole addition of note in the unnecessary ‘unrated version.’)
Or maybe the fellas ran scared, because these women are on fire. Wiig is the real deal, allowed to be at once clutzy, charismatic, cynical and charming. The film thrives on her multi-faceted performance, made possible because Feig could simply keep cameras rolling as Wiig improvised for hours. The toast sequence became a night of SNL-style stand-up, as the crew scribbled jokes for Wiig and Byrne to try out. The latter, incidentally, confirms Get Him To The Greek’s discovery of a natural comedienne – Byrne is the only bridesmaid not present on the commentary, but her co-stars are effusive in their praise for her range. And that’s without mentioning Melissa McCarthy, who nearly steals the film as the vivid, vulgar Megan, or Rudolph, whose chemistry with Wiig ensures Lillian makes an impact.
Ultimately, Bridesmaids works because that elusive chemistry is right. The camaraderie is unmistakable on a commentary notable for maintaining the film’s fizzing feminine wit, as the women relay their porn star names (“Fluffy Roxanne,” “Suzy van Dyke”) or recount engagement stories: McCarthy, apparently, was “playing Tetris and watching an autopsy” when her fella popped the question. By the time you read this, it’s possible that The Help – another film where the sisters are doing it for themselves – may have overtaken Bridesmaids’ US box-office haul. But help is one thing that Wiig and co didn’t need to start with.