It’s kind of insulting even to have to stoop to a list of counter-examples, just like we don’t want to use Rob Schneider and Shawn Wayans as evidence that men aren’t funny. But since great comedy has at its core always been about subversive honesty, we’ve had a long road culturally—from Mae West to Joan Rivers to Sarah Silverman—toward being comfortable with it coming out of the mouths of the fairer sex. While we’ve been more willing to appreciate slapstick charmers like Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett on the small screen, the history of American mainstream comedy box-office stardom has generally been as female-friendly as a third-grade boy’s birthday party.
Now, we’re squarely inside an era where cinematic comedy is often built on R-rated can-you-top-this gross-outs. Can America handle distaff disgust?
Producer Judd Apatow—who’s largely responsible for leading this R-rated comedy charge (The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Forgetting Sarah Marshall)—seems to think so, since he gave SNL’s Kristen Wiig this showcase for not-ready-for-even-after-prime-time laughs. Wiig co-wrote (with Annie Mumolo) and stars as Annie, a 30-something woman who’s asked by her recently engaged best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) to be her maid of honor. But it may not be the best time for Annie to be handling a major responsibility. Her bakery business and her long-term relationship both recently failed, leaving her finances as precarious as her emotional state. So when another one of the bridesmaids—Helen (Rose Byrne), the wealthy wife of Lillian’s fiance’s boss—starts insinuating herself into the planning, it might be a bit too much for her to take.
In plenty of ways, Wiig and director Paul Feig (Freaks & Geeks) stick to a successful Apatow formula. The story structure is never so rigid that it won’t allow room for freelancing a randomly (and hilariously) off-color conversation, like bridesmaids Rita (Wendi McLendon-Covey) and Becca (The Office’s Ellie Kemper) comparing notes on sexual experiences. The dialogue, even when it’s in questionable taste, snaps with intelligence. You can count on at least a couple of obscure pop-culture gags, like Annie’s homage to The Brady Bunch identifying a made-up boyfriend as “George Glass.” And while belly laughs are the meat on the menu, there’s a sentimental side, here involving Annie’s tentative first steps at a relationship with a good-natured Irish cop (Chris O’Dowd).
The primary point of departure from that Apatow game plan is that most of the key performers are women—and they’re just as solid as any of the ensembles Apatow himself has assembled. The supporting standout is Mike & Molly’s Melissa McCarthy, playing the bride’s vaguely off-kilter future sister-in-law, Megan. Her inappropriate bluntness steals nearly every scene she’s in, including Bridesmaids’ stomach-churning centerpiece in which the bridal party collectively experiences a post-luncheon gastrointestinal meltdown during a dress fitting, with only one toilet to share between them.
Then there’s Wiig, who steps away from the polarizing weird characters that have been her SNL trademark. As willing as she is to look ridiculous, she’s also surprisingly charming playing a woman trying desperately to maintain her dignity at a time when she’s constantly being reminded of how far she is from her dreams. When Annie and Helen begin a battle to one-up each other with heartfelt engagement-party speeches, it doesn’t feel like one of those when-will-this-end contrived SNL sketches. And that’s because Wiig plays the scene—like she does most of Bridesmaids—low-key and endearingly human.
If there’s a problem with Bridesmaids, it’s really the same problem that typifies most Apatow-helmed projects: Its willingness to indulge any comic moment leads to something more meandering than it needs to be. Though there’s nothing inherently wrong with a two-hour-long comedy, Bridesmaids lingers primarily because the creative team won’t accept the basic editing premise of sometimes needing to “murder your babies.” It’s funny, but not always disciplined.
Then again, maybe it’s OK giving Kristen Wiig and her Bridesmaids co-stars a little extra time to shine. Heaven knows—and Belushi’s blather notwithstanding—it’s been a long time coming.
Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Rose Byrne