The people who pay attention to weekend box-office reports usually have some financial stake in what comes out on top. While I have zero prospect of gaining monetarily from the success of director Paul Feig’s raunchy, smart Bridesmaids, I will nonetheless watch the weekend numbers with bated breath. I’m vested because I want to know how America feels about women both defecating on screen and discussing it. This might be a turning point in feminism and comedy, provided that both sexes can embrace it.
The defecation in question happens shortly after a girls’ luncheon at a Brazilian dive. The women have gathered to discuss Lillian’s (Maya Rudolph) upcoming wedding. The impoverished maid of honor, Annie (Kristen Wiig), chose the restaurant for its good value without considering that food poisoning might also be on the menu. Lillian and her five attendants then innocently repair to a fancy bridal salon to try on expensive dresses. Sweat beads form. Innards rumble and then give way. It’s gross and uproarious but also beautifully choreographed; the image of swanlike Rudolph, swathed in white, sinking down onto a street to relieve herself is unforgettable.
But this very Hangover-style wedding-party moment is not exactly in keeping with the movie as a whole. Although wrapped in slapstick and sweetened with romance, Bridesmaids is at its core a shrewd examination of female insecurity. And for once, the focus is not entirely on insecurity as it relates to the opposite sex. Annie’s orbit does include a cad named Ted (gleefully played by Jon Hamm) and a quietly swoonworthy cop, Rhodes (Chris O’Dowd), but it’s the future of Annie’s relationship with Lillian — and her own self-respect — that’s at stake. Their lifelong friendship is under direct threat by an unexpected addition to the wedding party: Helen (Rose Byrne, holding her comic own with these Saturday Night Live vets), an attendant so exquisite, sophisticated and unflappable, she might make Pippa Middleton insecure.
Helen immediately sets Annie’s teeth on edge — she’s the female equivalent of Owen Wilson’s character in the Fockers series. Lillian, who has always shared Annie’s sense of humor, refuses to participate in any mocking of Helen’s perfection, and Annie’s neediness goes into overdrive. By the time the actual wedding shower rolls around, she’s practically demented. Wiig gives herself to these scenes with abandon, turning Annie into a bundle of awful but understandable jealous rage. Nothing has worked out for her. She’s in her mid-30s, unsuccessful in love and career. She drives a clunker and can’t come up with the rent on the apartment she shares with a pair of oddball British siblings (standouts Rebel Wilson and Matt Lucas). And she knows she’s an idiot for putting up with the emotionally unavailable Ted. “You should probably go,” he tells her after athletic sex that seems to have satisfied only him. “I’m going to miss you so much.”
Their pillow talk is painfully funny but also plausible. Wiig co-wrote the film with Annie Mumolo, her old friend from the Groundlings. While some scenes were improvised or added during filming (Feig and producer Judd Apatow, who gave Wiig a big break in Knocked Up, pushed for the food-poisoning gag), there is a consistent authenticity that will make women in the audience nod along. Not all of it is over the top either. There’s a long, silent sequence in which melancholy Annie — who lost her beloved bakery, savings and motivation to the recession — makes and decorates a single cupcake to the nines, then eats it with no apparent pleasure. It’s a rich, soulful pause in the comedy.
It chafes a bit that Annie has such a ladylike, nonthreatening ambition: What’s sweeter than a cupcake? But her vocation is also in keeping with the times, given how many women made it big in the past decade practicing the domestic arts (Rachael Ray, Ina Garten, Giada De Laurentiis). And Bridesmaids is liberally laced with a feminist sensibility, most notably in poking fun at women’s wedding fantasies. (Lillian’s groom is so much on the sidelines that I’d be hard pressed to find him in a lineup.) A lovely touch: in her last screen role before passing away last November, Jill Clayburgh, the star of 1978’s An Unmarried Woman, plays Annie’s mother, who — like her character in that ode to liberation — is indignant over being left for a younger woman. One of the bridesmaids, brassy Rita (Wendi McLendon-Covey), serves primarily to voice outrage at the drudgery of stay-at-home motherhood, while the one who’s most comfortable in her own skin, Megan (Melissa McCarthy from Mike & Molly), is heavyset and a little butch.
With the exceptions of Byrne and Hamm, everyone in this cast looks like someone you could expect to run into at the supermarket or maybe at Curves. “It’s so nice to see average people in a movie,” noted my companion as we exited the theater. I asked if her husband, who will almost certainly see The Hangover Part II, would pay a ticket for Bridesmaids. “Eh,” she said. “I don’t know.” He should go: Bridesmaids might be all about women, but the laughs are universal.