Dir. Paul Feig. Starring Kristen Wiig, Rose Byrne, Maya Rudolph
What makes Bridesmaids work several years down the line, and what I expect will make it stand the test of time for at least a couple decades, is its keen eye on the Recession. Annie (Wiig) is one of the only characters in the film who has been truly blindsided by the economy, but that serves to show just how far she’s fallen. Ted (Jon Hamm) has a big house and drives a Porsche; Lillian (Rudolph), Becca (Ellie Kemper), and Helen (Byrne) either work at or have married into a secure workplace; Rita (Wendi McLendon-Covey) may complain about her insane boy children, but it looks as if her family is financially secure enough to allow her to stay home with them; even Megan (Melissa McCarthy), who would be the Bull Goose Loony if Annie didn’t show up, is working an extremely lucrative government job. It’s not simply that Annie has crashed out of the sky after losing a successful bakery where she did what she loved, presumably. It’s that everyone else around her seems to have been, at the very least, to be able to tread water. It’s at least as much a reason for her Helen animus as the sense that Helen is stealing her best friend, which is laid bare for us to see. It’s also what makes her the odd woman out when everyone else wants to go to Vegas and can pony up for the flight, or when everyone looks at bridesmaids’ dresses which are way outside of Annie’s budget. Annie clearly relies on Lillian to validate her in this group, and the slightest hesitation to do so is the latest nick in her death of a thousand paper cuts.
It’s an effective approach, sometimes even a moving one. The film understands what it means to be a screw-up, and not in the cute, kinda sexy way that so often inflects women screw-ups in movies; in short, the movie doesn’t act like this is a temporary state that can be fixed with the right guy or a shopping spree or some plaster solution. If Annie could be “fixed” by one of those things, it would have happened already; there’s a greater dissatisfaction in her which must be dealt with by genuine rectification of genuine problems. (The movie opens itself up to a reading of Nathan’s interest in Annie that implies that he is the major ingredient in fixing her. If that’s the case, though, then surely his tough pep talk would have taken before Megan showed up with her armada of puppies and gave a more effective one?) Bridesmaids wants to show us what it’s like to feel when the world has cratered around you and the most difficult thing is not to rebuild, but to have faith that rebuilding won’t end in another sinkhole. It’s the message that I think most people who lived through the Recession have taken from it, and the fact that the movie takes place a few years after the initial crash matters. Annie has, as Megan tells her, been throwing herself a pity party. It’s gone on way longer into the night than is healthy, but at least we can understand why Annie mailed the invitations. Bridesmaids walks a really thin line between “What’s wrong with you, you slob?” and “The world is a pigeon and you’re a statue,” but when it keys in on Annie as opposed to Annie and Helen/Lillian, it manages to walk that without major missteps.
Bridesmaids very subtly allows us to see a lot about Annie as a person by letting her work alone. We watch her make a prettily decorated cupcake and then try to shove all of it into her mouth at once. We watch her stop before hitting a porcupine crossing the road (a porcupine?), which, because her brake lights don’t work, ends with a car smashing into her. We watch her reluctantly accept a pink lemonade on her way in to Lillian’s bridal shower, try to decide where to put the thin glass which wouldn’t fit into a cupholder even if she had one in her car, sip it, and lament how “fresh” it is. Wiig is one of those folks who can be funny all by herself, which is a short list indeed, but while we’re chuckling at Annie’s reaction to the lemonade we’re also noting her navel-gazing approach to this bridal shower; everything is a referendum on Helen rather than Lillian. Her cupcake is made in secret, and the evidence of what an outsider would view as improvement—a willingness to allow herself to be burned again rather than her crippling reticence to risk anything—must be disposed of quickly.
I think that Bridesmaids is going to survive because it’s a marvelous anthropological document. I have more doubts about the movie’s humor; seven years later, it’s still funny, but its reliance on cringe humor is as glaring and unfashionable as a pair of parachute pants. Once again, this was Wiig’s bread and butter for her SNL run (in a cast where I think it’s more or less consensus that she was the funniest person), but we were already reaching the end of the form’s viability in 2011. Scenes like the one where Annie and Helen take the microphone back from each other in their attempts to have the last word are awkward, but mostly they’re interminable. The food poisoning segment is probably the film’s biggest calling card, but I don’t think it’s particularly funny anymore. Lillian taking a heinous dump in a pristine wedding dress has some character, but the rest of is a lot of Thousand Island dressing and screaming that, again, takes longer than it needs to. Pick almost any comedy setpiece in Bridesmaids and it would almost certainly be more effective with thirty seconds cut out. Even personal favorites, like Annie’s attempt to get Nathan to pull her over so he’ll help her find Lillian, could stand some brevity for the soul of wit.
The movie oversteps itself a little with Helen as well, a villain who seems to have been summoned from Hades just to make Annie insane but who really undercuts the best, most true-to-life elements of the film. Rita and Becca, who are in their own movie for half of this anyway, are perfectly adequate economic foils for Annie; in their own more muted ways, both represent possibilities for Annie that are quickly evaporating away. Helen is Lex Luthor, but no one else in Bridesmaids is even in a comic book. I appreciate Rose Byrne, who makes the best of a bad job. In her hands, Helen is that girl everyone envied and hated in high school—the phrase “studied blitheness” comes to mind—which of course collapses when Lillian disappears…into her apartment…on her wedding day and can’t be found. It’s only ever a chance for Helen to ugly cry her way through not having a life as perfect as she pretends it is, which we surely understood already. (Her stepchildren curse her off early in the movie, and her husband was already unseen. Having her bawl her eyes out over it is overkill, or maybe it’s just a lazy way to make sure everyone gets the joke.) It’s an avenue to briefly put Helen on the same plane as Annie, which is the ingredient Annie needs to pull herself out of her funk and rescue Lillian from her own surprising-in-a-bad-way blues. I don’t know what the movie is going for here: is the point that misery loves company, or is the point that schadenfreude is the ennobling element missing from Annie’s life? Either way, I’m not sure it makes sense, and what has been a fairly classic if staid rivalry really devolves in the last act into something mushy and ill-formed.