Screening Log #28: Bridesmaids (2011)

Written by Paul Feig
Directed by Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo
Starring Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Chris O’Dowd, Rose Byrne, and Melissa McCarthy

 

 

 

The obvious thing to say is that Bridesmaids feels like a female-casted Judd Apatow film, something like The 40 Year Old Virgin, where a group of friends come together around some conventional rite of passage in society and humorous situations ensue. Bridesmaids actually is produced by Apatow, so its general structure, as well as a few of its particularly Apatowian (I don’t think that’s a real word) moments fall naturally from this family tree.

The key to comedy is timing, or so I’m told when someone explains to me why I’m not funny, and Bridesmaids benefits greatly from a talented cast of actors. Kristen Wiig, miles away from her often one-note characters on SNL, provides an endearing performance; the script takes  time to flesh out many of its supporting characters, giving their respective actors something to bite their teeth into. Wiig plays Annie Walker, whose best friend Lillian, Maya Rudolph, has just become engaged to a man with friends of substantial wealth. Annie’s cake business has recently failed, her life is in a rut, and the opulence injected into the bridal party by Lillian’s friend Helen, Rose Byrne, strikes a sensitive cord. Annie and Helen jockey for the place as the true maid of honour in a match of shared life experience versus money. These jousts take place against a backdrop of hijinks and situations, the most Apatowian (is it a word yet?) of which involves mass explosive food poisoning in a chic wedding dress store. Annie’s insecurities play against what Helen can offer materially to Lillian, and the situation becomes combustible.

Structurally, so far so good. There is a falling out between Annie and Lillian. Annie bottoms out and moves back in with her mother after losing her job and awkwardly fumbling a potential romance with the nice police officer Nathan Rhodes, played by Chris O’Dowd. Naturally, things are resolved in a conciliatory convention common to these comedies and, as is tradition, the whole thing ends with a wedding and, par for the Apatow course, a semi-ironic musical number.

As I said, it would be obvious to state that Bridesmaids is a riff on the usual Apatow fare with a female-centered cast and focus. From there it becomes nearly axiomatic that it gains praise for being a successful and charming comedy centered around middle-aged women – a sort of film that is painfully rare. Rightly so. However, merely passing the Bechdel test does not a radically feminist film make. At its heart, this praise is provisionally based on the film’s adherence to a patriarchally oriented structure; by praising the film as a buddy comedy for women, its value is still being communicated in terms predicated on a problematic system of representation. By structuring the plot around the convention of marriage, and basing so much of the humour on Annie’s discomfort with being single, the film still defers agency to the masculine spectre hovering behind it, rather than assigning to its female characters. Why not place Annie in a position of power and security, despite being unattached? Why affix the romantic subplot with Rhodes? Why did her attempt at being a professional cake maker failed; does the economic downturn punish women who enter into the traditionally masculine business world more harshly?

Perhaps I’m over reacting and sounding overly critical. Perhaps these gestures are rooted in some systemic necessity – the film, as a product, needs to be commercially viable – and these issues are symptomatic of compromises that had to happen for the film to be made at all. Bridesmaids functions quite well as a comedy, it is funny, warm, and well performed; that the film is a female version of a male buddy comedy is both a laudable stride forward and yet, sadly, not nearly far enough.

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