Bachelorette: Something Borrowed, Something New

A top notch Kirsten Dunst leads the pack of bridesmaids behaving badly in this gleeful but uneven female take on 'The Hangover'

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Bachelorette is about three friends (Kirsten Dunst, Lizzy Caplan and Isla Fisher) who reunite for the wedding of the overweight girl they deigned to hang out with in high school. They are superficial, bigoted and cruel. That’s not a complaint; half the fun of Bachelorette is seeing just how awful this trio can be to each other, innocent bystanders and even inanimate objects. (After the bachelorette party, two of them, at least one high on cocaine, squeeze into the fat girl’s wedding dress and accidentally tear it in half.) But it does place limits on what Bachelorette writer/director Leslye Headland, making her splashy feature film debut, can do with the third act in terms of remaining true to the tone she has set and to her gleefully nasty mean girl characters.

The group’s Queen Bee is named Regan—my fervent hope is this was Headland’s nod to The Exorcist—and played by Dunst, who glides effortlessly through the movie as if she were born to the genre of ribald comedies. Regan is, to put it mildly, terrifying. The groomsmen try to explain to the horny best man (James Marsden) why he should proceed with caution vis-a-vis the maid of honor: “You know how there are serial killers and then there is Hannibal Lector? Well there are girls and then there is Regan.” Regan has a med school student boyfriend in Philadelphia and a vague job counseling preteen cancer patients that she appears to have taken simply so she can tell people about her alleged good works. It baffles and enrages her that the bride Becky (the gloriously funny Rebel Wilson) is beating her to the altar. “I’ve done everything right,” she fumes to the rest of the trio.

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She’s certainly done more right than they have: Gena (Caplan, whose lively eyes and throaty voice remind me of a young Debra Winger), flies in from Los Angeles for the wedding, having toted a baby powder container full of coke past the TSA. She’s unemployed and nervous about seeing her ex from high school, Clyde (Adam Scott), who is also a groomsman. Airhead Katie (the droll Isla Fisher), who flits in from her retail job at a nearby Club Monaco, is an outwardly sunny sort who dabbles in suicide attempts. But Headland gives Regan a bleak backstory as well; she’s an unreformed and highly expert bulimic. The movie is filled with well-paced physical comedy, but the bitter tidbit that stuck with me was Regan making a tonsil pistol out of her index and middle fingers, running them under the tap (how hygienic!) and then inserting. Bachelorette taught me more about bulimia methods than four years at Duke in the 1980s.

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In terms of the big picture, Bachelorette is, as was Bridesmaids (which it will be compared to endlessly), thematically centered on immaturity. But within that scope, it is less mature. It’s bold, lively and filled with knowing pop culture references (the classic Brian Krakow vs. Jordan Catalano debate from My So-Called Life serves as the basis for romantic advice) but still seems not entirely formed. In large part that’s due to what Headland does with that pesky final act. Instead of unrepentantly sticking to her mean girl guns, she mostly makes nice. As the enticingly malicious froth she has built up deflates, so does the movie. Apparently Bachelorette has been divisive, with audiences either falling hard for it or walking away disgusted. I’d have fallen harder for it if I’d walked away more disgusted.

But I’m a Party Down devotee, which means I’d be happy to see anything that features, as the cancelled Starz ensemble comedy did, Caplan and Scott as sparring love interests. (The Starz show only ran for two short seasons, lamentably, but in those 20 episodes I found Caplan and Scott about as adorable as two people can be.) Gena and Clyde’s narrative arc, involving an incident in which he let her down in high school and thus spurred her wasted young adulthood, feels cheap and emotionally suspect. If it weren’t for Caplan and Scott’s chemistry none of it would work. Their backstory echoes a similar plot point to the one in Young Adult, which suggested that the trauma of a very youthful pregnancy lost to miscarriage was what made Charlize Theron’s character such a raging lunatic. Both movies have an undertone of conservatism in regard to young women and pregnancy, intriguing (and odd) since they are embedded in depictions of outrageous behavior typically viewed as “loose” (drinking, drugs, sex with whomever). We’ve come a long way baby, but not that far.

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The best reason to see Bachelorette is Dunst, once a child star (Interview with the Vampire) with an uncanny ability to project maturity, now an actress with an ever-increasing range. In 2010 she was touching as a sunshine girl turned victim of domestic violence in the underrated All Good Things. Last year she had the key role in the acclaimed but not-exactly-multiplex-material Melancholia as the prescient depressive Justine. She’s done comedy before (Dick, How to Lose Friends & Alienate People) but it hasn’t been her specialty. Here she’s funny in a wonderfully old-fashioned way; you can imagine her teasing the hell out of Cary Grant. Regan is not just a stone cold fox (in the elegant white dress she wears for most of the movie she’d make Hitchcock swoon), she’s actually stone cold. “Chinatown!” she snaps at the hapless Asian wedding party planner before dressing her down for some minor canapé infraction. Regan learns a little and softens a smidge in the course of Bachelorette, but Dunst brings an edge even to that. I bet Bette Davis would love this Jezebel; I know I did.

READ: About one of Dunst’s most daring roles as a teenager