Bridesmaids and The Ghost of Rom-Coms Past
May 15, 2011 5 Comments
Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo are (to quote what one says of the other in their real-life womance) “amazingly funny and so f*cking talented.” Let’s just get that on the table and marvel at what they created: a screenplay built around a wedding that manages to be neither a twee redemption nor a savage parody of a genre the comedy world has decided to despise. It’s unembarrassed by chick flicks (oh the opprobrium!) even as it systematically outperforms them.
Wiig is, as many have noted, a hell of an actress, with impeccable timing and just the right kind of understatement (that scene on the airplane! Calling Steve Stove! The unhinged, quiet, aggressive-but-flirty “Are you an appliance?” “I am Mrs. Iglesias!”).
When you wrote about Apatow’s sneaky marketing and how the reviewers you heard used him as the reference-point for a conversation about Bridesmaids, I realized I’d cropped Apatow out of the movie’s creation. That’s wrong; he was obviously involved in some capacity–mainly editorial and, I suspect, marketing, which explains much of what you’ve noticed; for example, how this unrepresentative atrocity of a movie poster inexplicably puts Apatow front and center:
This has his fingerprints all over it (and nobody else’s, tellingly–the writers/actors/directors are nowhere named). Which explains, to my mind, why precious little about that poster is true to the movie’s content: not the wedding dress, not the bridesmaid’s dresses, not the attitude, not the shoes. The women here match temperamentally and sartorially. They’re all weirdly sassy in the exact same way. This is a movie about mismatches—between the economy and a great bakery, between friends, between roommates, between a wedding dress and the woman wearing it. For a plot that speaks (largely) in the language of dresses and shoes, the fact that the poster reaches outside the movie’s universe into a totally different wardrobe shows how Apatow misunderstands what the movie gets so, so right.
(I just—seriously: that wedding dress shows up NOWHERE in the film! Those bridesmaids’ dresses are sartorial deafmutes–they couldn’t do less to signal the lifestyles that are at war in the bridal shop–a war waged in aggressively-styled dresses and gifts.)
[WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD]
Before talking about the language of dresses, here’s what Kristin Wiig has to say in March, two months before Bridesmaids was released:
We f*cking wrote this script… No. We started writing it almost five years ago for Judd [Apatow], which, on its own, to me, was just an amazing opportunity to go through that whole process with him and rewrite the notes and learning how to write a movie. Neither one of us had any experience at all. And then to have it actually happen and have Paul Feig direct it — who is one of the best people I’ve ever known. I still pinch myself, I can’t even believe it’s going to be in theaters. And it’s real. I’m so excited.
How was that, writing with Judd? Obviously he has experience on how to make a successful movie. Would he read the script and say, “No, that part won’t work in a movie.”
It was never, “No.” It was more like, “Maybe we could punch this up. Do you guys have any other ideas? Why don’t you think of 10 more things.” Sometimes it would be one of those 10, sometimes it would be the original thing and maybe we would shoot some of the other 10. It was very collaborative, there are scenes in the movie that are his idea.
A movie’s authorship is impossible to meaningfully discuss because it’s such a collaboration, but if I were to attempt a textual history of Bridesmaids, my working hypothesis would provisionally attribute the final product to Wiig first, Mumolo second, Feig third, and Apatow fourth, lurking in the foreground but having the good sense not to interfere overmuch. Like the American Revolution, Bridesmaids the movie (as opposed to that conventional, manhandled hot-pink poster that perfectly encapsulates what the movie isn’t) is what can happen with salutary neglect.
On the subject of dresses, I wanted to revisit the moment you mentioned: Helen’s appearance at the engagement party in a full-length formal gown. You’re right: this says SO MUCH. It demonstrates her need for attention, her insecurity, her territoriality, and, importantly, her actual inelegance–bad form to upstage the bride, and her attire was just inappropriate for the venue. Helen The Perfect Woman’s lapses in taste are crucial for our understanding of the movie. She’s trying too hard, not just for Lillian, but in general.
For awhile I thought the font on the bridal shower invite-box (that emblem of wedding-industrial magic) was hopelessly wrong for what she was supposed to be. It was an elaborate Print Shoppy cursive. I realized later that this was right; Helen’s choices should be a little saccharine, something other than perfect taste. As much as Helen gets right in delight and luxury (like the lemonade–“Shit, that’s fresh!”), she gets a LOT of the practical stuff wrong. You can’t drive and drink lemonade. Throw all the money you want at a party, but the movie admits that it’s deeply wrong for women to wear mini-dresses on horseback. The puppies as party favors are conceptually lovely and actually the worst idea in the world. The wedding Helen planned is a tacky horror, but it doesn’t matter. It does matter that she keeps buying living things—butterflies, horses, puppies, Wilson Phillips—as offerings for the stereotype of the ultimate female event.
I’ve been toying with the theory that Helen is the conventional rom-com heroine in the aftermath of her Hollywood happy ending. Once perfection has been achieved and her “quirks” (which are actually adorable) are no longer working to distance-then-attract her man, she has nothing to do but plan other happy endings. And she isn’t bad at it. It’s a lovely touch that she brings Annie and her officer together. But she isn’t and will never be “classy”, and it’s something of a tragedy that this is the only storyline that remains to her.
Helen’s flaws are important because, aside from showing her lapses in taste, it also establishes her as HUMAN—the antithesis of Jane Fonda’s Monster-In-Law, the vengeful scheming woman who cattily does all the catty work. Helen’s makeup is competent but unprofessional, her skin isn’t flawless, her stepkids don’t like her. Helen isn’t Regina George, this isn’t a high-school movie, and Annie can’t get away with sacrificing everyone else’s subjectivity in order to hate and self-soothe.
The reason she can’t do that is that Melissa McCarthy’s character descends upon her with nine puppies’ worth of vitality and womanhandles her into fighting for her life. You’re right. She steals every scene she’s in, and establishes the possibility of the successful female freak (without making her a lesbian). I think that’s part of what the pearl necklace was doing. That scene on the couch is what a female fight club would like—and it worked because it wasn’t coded as semi-sexual or male (which is how Hollywood likes to characterize its lesbians, for the most part). Women need to fight. That’s her message. And “you’re an asshole,” which, as you point out, is exactly what Annie needed to hear when she was sitting there saying, to someone who lived much of her life being either invisible or the target of firecrackers to her head, that she had no friends. McCarthy might need an Oscar for that performance. Luckily, she’s getting her due—Paul Feig is apparently planning to direct a movie she wrote with Mumolo in which she’ll star. (Fun fact: she’s married to Ben Falcone, the air marshal!)
McCarthy’s other triumph is how handily she pops a cap in the Wimmenz Be Crazy meme. I worried. I did. When she was talking to the air-marshal, she was so close to lunatic-friend territory. The fact that she was RIGHT is what makes this movie transcend its old and tired formulas.
Speaking of crazy (I love how many reviews of this movie describe her “unhinged”), Annie does heroines everywhere a service by articulating something that usually remains underground when it comes to female dysfunction and failure. All the behaviors Annie exhibits in this film are ones that have shown up in some form or another in Hollywood, with the important difference that this time they aren’t emblems of crazy, they’re logical consequences of a story that isn’t crazy at all. They make sense. They get as much backstory and explanation as Ben Stiller’s character in Meet the Parents, whose exploits are at least as bizarre.
Still, we should talk about her craziest moment. It’s at the bridal shower, when she loses it and goes to “try” the enormous cookie, the ultimate substitution, the perfect trigger. SHE’S A BAKER! That cookie is a horror! The lettering is crooked and cheesy—it looks like it came from a mall (Helen is consistently bad at fonts–the neon lettering at the wedding is atrocious too). But the horrible wedding shower is indestructible. She can’t overturn the chocolate fountain, she can’t kill the puppies, and when she dives into the cookie she’s only hurting her reputation as a social performer. There might be no greater failure than a baker drowning in bad cookie dough, in public, at an event dripping with decorum, screaming.
Painful as it is, her eruption in that scene also offers huge relief. At LAST! It emotionally fulfills the visual promise the movie made in the bridal shop, with its horizonless white expanse. We’re primed to expect a defiling—all that exhausting, demanding white! All that purity! All the pristine trappings of a wedding, of a marriage! You loved the bride shitting in the gutter. I did too, partly because I remember realizing I had to go to the bathroom in my wedding dress, flinching at the conceptual disconnect and wishing for a picture of the ridiculous spectacle I made holding all that fabric up bunched in the stall, trying to keep everything but my body away from the bathroomy surfaces. I was actually disappointed that the dress completely covered the shit; the reality was acknowledged to exist, but it stayed veiled, draped in white. As metaphors go, it’s not a bad one for the underside of many a marriage, but it wasn’t the symbol I wanted, not the fabulous broken cookie the movie eventually delivers. The bridal shower remains intact. The friendship and the cookie are broken. That says volumes.
Much has been made of the fact that this is a lady-movie featuring (oh-so-predictably) a wedding. In its defense, I want to offer that the premise matters both because weddings are complicated and because they allow one to believably stage female interactions. The shower, like the bridal shop, is another pristine women-only space. In a movie that wants, at least in part, to prove to the blinkered that women can be funny, that spares us the tiresome dichotomy of women as enforcers of the social order and men as it’s happy-go-lucky violators. Women do all the violating here. Annie flouts social and, later, traffic laws. She’s the transgressor trying to expose the codes for the empty containers they are. She flails and fails, perhaps because she’s not awkward enough. She dresses well. Despite her discomfort, she isn’t actually out of place at most of the events she attends. I was thinking about what you said about Subashini’s (totally fantastic) post, and it occurred to me that Melissa McCarthy is the awkward female who consistently violates social norms and succeeds. Her taillights aren’t out, they aren’t failed or broken; they’re neon purple.
Speaking of cars, which are surprisingly prominent storytelling vehicles (heh) in this movie, Helen’s total surrender in the car was interesting. At first I thought the idea was for her to name all the small things that drove Annie wild and acknowledge that they were real—a tidy expository review of all that’s gone down between them.
I was wrong—it’s more complicated than that, in ways I’m still not sure I quite get. She says things that seem unlikely (that she liked the simple dress Annie picked out better than the high-fashion one) and things that just aren’t true (it probably wasn’t food poisoning!). That’s so complex, so smart. One explanation might be that she’s ingratiating herself with Annie, but she’s also showing her limited engagement with the truth. She’s not going to change. It’s not all awesome now. They won’t be best buddies, but they might have a lunch.
And finally, the central womance. Oh, my. The scene between Maya Rudolph and Kristen Wiig shocked me with how easeful it was, how funny, how utterly opposite from the strained high-octane jokes that characterize The Sweetest Thing. This was quieter and more hilarious—it was actually how I picture the girls in Whip It when they grow up. (It’s not a coincidence, I suspect, that Wiig was in that movie too.)
A good friend of mine objected that the movie was built around cattiness, and that she would have liked to see more of the comedy deriving from women loving each other. In a funny way, I think that’s actually where the “cattiness” in this film comes from—too much love. The rivalry isn’t about status or about any of the things that comprise the “catty” oeuvre; it’s about competing for the truly limited space for friendship that exists in a married woman’s life. Plenty of critics have noted that this film has a heart; I’d add that cattiness is exactly the wrong word for the good intentions that surround the events of the film. It isn’t mean. In an interview, Kristen Wiig says, “Mean comedy is not really something that I personally gravitate towards or something that I do.”
I don’t think the on-screen chemistry between Rudolph and Wiig is really in question—it’s tremendous, and it’s comedy gold. Their off-screen riffing is just as good. When asked what they’ll be doing next, Maya Rudolph says, “I’ll be gestating a human.” Kristen: “I will be too, but in my lab.”
Which brings me to the final scene between these two women in Lillian’s apartment. I cried. Then and afterward. It took me a couple of days to get enough distance from that moment to talk about it.
We’re used to validating masculine marriage-jitters, used to mourning their losses of couch-and-cereal-bowl, their frat-houses of exuberant fun. We’re used to defining female happiness as coextensive with weddings and marriage and losing your name. (Runaway Bride is in some sense the exception that proved the rule—Roberts’ tendency to conform to external preferences means she doesn’t even know how she likes her eggs.)
When Lillian, hiding under her covers, says she’ll never live in her apartment again, that she won’t be down the block from Annie, that she worries about what’ll happen to Annie, to their friendship … those things are unutterable, unanswerable, and true. Every woman who has watched a friend walk down the aisle and realized that things will never be the same can recognize the power of that scene, the exquisite pain of the private loss that goes hand-in-hand with the celebration of a public union. Sometimes you work through it. Many a friendship muddles through on borrowed trips, lunches, phone calls, e-mails. But marriage, with all its virtues and all its beauties, kills many more friendships than it saves. I’ve never had bridesmaids or been one, but as I write this it occurs to me that the structure offers a way for friends to be involved in an event that carries a very real danger of excluding them. In that sense, Bridesmaids is exactly the right name for this movie.
In case it isn’t obvious, I loved it. I left the theater crying in relief and floating on sweaty air.