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150 Films #22: Bridesmaids (2011)

Putting aside the extended diarrhea gags and Wilson-Phillips cameos, what remains is the story of a loser. Some complain Bridesmaids (and Judd Apatow-produced comedies in general) tend to overstay their welcome; while I tend to think this is true in the case of the James L. Brooks Lite films Apatow directs himself, Bridesmaids takes its time in order to show just how low Annie (Kristen Wiig, who co-wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay with Annie Mumolo) has sunk.

What hurts the most is that Annie was once on the cusp of greatness, and we bear witness to the aftermath. Following Irene Cara’s sage advice, she took her passion and made it happen, opening a small Milwaukee bakery that folded in the wake of the 2008 crash. She blew her savings trying to save it, and when she failed, her longtime boyfriend skedaddled. When we meet Annie, she’s forced to share an apartment with two obnoxious roommates (Matt Lucas and Rebel Wilson); she works as a clerk in a jewelry shop managed by her mother’s AA buddy (Michael Hitchcock); and she waits around for obnoxious fuck-buddy Ted (Jon Hamm) to call her when he gets the whim, hoping one of these days he might want more.

Anyone who has seen It’s a Wonderful Life knows you’re never a failure as long as you have friends. Sometimes, though, a person falls victim to “the grass is always greener” syndrome, and Lillian’s (Maya Rudolph) situation makes it easy for Annie. Lillian has everything Annie lacks: career success, upward mobility, a stable relationship with a loving partner… And so, when Lillian announces her engagement and asks Annie to be her Maid of Honor, what follows could very easily come across like petty jealousy or sour grapes. However, the script and Paul Feig’s direction make it crystal clear that Annie is more sad about what she lacks than angry about all that Lillian has. Even when Annie’s behavior reaches its humiliating nadir (making a huge, messy scene at Lillian’s elaborate bridal shower), her frustration comes from what she incorrectly perceives as Lillian changing for the worse.

These emotionally truthful qualities elevate what could have very easily been the sort of shitty comedy where any sane viewer would ask, “Why are these people who obviously hate each other friends?” It creates the sort of “cringe comedy” (a brand of humor I don’t typically like) that doesn’t rely on hostility and toxic relationships. I’ll go on record as saying I hated—absolutely hatedMeet the Parents, a wildly popular “comedy” in which Ben Stiller is repeatedly humiliated for no other reason than other characters don’t fill him in on anything this outsider should know (especially his fiancée, the one who should be filling him in on all this shit instead of joining in with all the boggling eyes and horrified gasps). Cringe comedy can work, but for me, it’s not funny when a character is repeatedly punished and humiliated for the sin of trying to be nice to shitty strangers.

It’s no surprise that Feig elevates the cringe comedy to something rooted in plausible human behavior, since he (with producer Apatow) mastered that art in their tragically short-lived TV series Freaks & Geeks. What’s important is making the audience cringe with Annie, not wonder why everyone is such a turd to her. Her embarrassment is rooted in character, for example not wanting to let others know about her dire financial straits, while wealthy Helen (Rose Byrne) seems to step in as Lillian’s replacement BFF. In a key scene, Annie—the professional baker, implicitly a foodie—takes Lillian and the bridesmaids to a hole-in-the-wall Brazilian steakhouse. She does this, in part, to keep the fun bridesmaids activities cheap—but also, as Lillian points out, Annie is the sort of knowledgable foodie who finds these excellent, off-the-beaten-path restaurants nobody else knows about. It fits her character in more than one ways, and this believable series of events leads to a lengthy “explosive diarrhea” set-piece. Not usually my cup of tea, but the fact that it all makes sense in the context of Annie’s character kinda makes it work.

I don’t want to gloss over the relationship with Helen, though. While the screenplay wisely avoids Annie feeling jealousy and resentment toward Lillian, she absolutely feels that way toward Helen. Without really trying, Helen rubs Annie’s loserdom in her face, stealing Annie’s thoughtful bridal ideas (rooted in her close friendship with Lillian) and turning them into over-the-top, money-is-no-object extravaganzas. When Annie loses it at Lillian’s bridal shower, it’s because Helen transformed Annie’s modest, Paris-inspired idea into an over-the-top affair involving fondue fountains, professional accordion players, and gift puppies. In a brilliant move, the screenplay defangs Helen’s actions by showing, late in the film, that Helen knows nobody actually likes her, so she goes overboard on trying to make them happy. She didn’t steal Annie’s ideas to hurt her; she did it to try to make Lillian happy. As expected, though, Annie knows Lillian better, and Lillian hasn’t changed as much as Annie thinks. In the end, all is forgiven, and Annie even (sort of) accepts Helen as her friend.

Bridesmaids makes me laugh, sure, but I love it for its atypically deep (for a comedy) portrayal of friendships and the self-torment of feeling like a loser. Apatow-produced comedies often draw from these wells, but unlike characters in movies like Funny People or This Is 40, Wiig and Mumolo’s screenplay capture true humiliation, like working retail and moving back in with your parents in your 30s. It’s funnier and easier to relate to someone like Annie than George Simmons (Adam Sandler), a wildly successful and wealthy comedy star who still feels like a loser. Boo-fucking-hoo. At any rate, I often criticize screenplays that try to portray some kind of “loser” artifice but are clearly written by people who have never held a demeaning job (or, possibly, any job). (One of my least favorite examples occurs in the abominable screenplay The Oranges, in which a manager interviewing a job applicant is somehow impressed when said applicant answers a cell phone call in the middle of a fucking job interview. What a piece of shit.

This is different, though. Feig, Wiig, and/or Mumolo clearly know what it feels like to struggle, and they channel those feelings into both big laughs and big, resonant emotions.

Keep or Sell? Keep

Up Next: The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

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