Question: How many feminist girls does it take to light a lightbulb?
Answer: It’s women—and that’s not funny.
You get the picture. Feminists aren’t funny. Feminist cultural criticism is even less funny. God knows complaining about Bridesmaids, which opened last month to a round of fanfare, really isn’t funny. After all, the movie has made more than $100 million at the box office at this point. Many, many women—including ones whom I adore and admire—have sung its praises to the high heavens. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that attending this film is a political act: Use your box-office dollars to compel Hollywood to put more funny women front and center. So this New Deal Sally has tried to keep mum.
Except that Bridesmaids is a disaster on the women tip. Or, to be more specific: feminist tip.
I know, I know. That’s not funny.
But for long stretches, Bridesmaids isn’t either, despite all the bruja-ha it’s been reaping. In fact, in addition to being the least funny comedy over which producer Judd Apatow ever waved his Magic Wand (vibrator joke intended, always), it’s actually kind of offensive. At the very least, it’s wrongheaded.
To be clear: Many, many times in my life I’ve refrained from calling foul on pop culture transgressions. But it’s one thing to grind while Kanye hollers “We want prenup!” and it’s another thing to pretend these standard poop-n-puke frat-gags pasted over a Cathy Comic plot is anything but a not-so-hot mess—let alone a triumph in any way for women.
The shtick: Eminently likeable Kristen Wiig stars as Annie, a thirtysomething Milwaukee denizen whose life is the craphouse. Since her bakery went under and her boyfriend left her, she’s been reduced to working at a jewelry store (insert engagement ring jokes here) and to living with her mother (Jill Clayburgh’s last role, tragically). To make matters worse, she’s sleeping with the world’s most toxic bachelor (Jon Hamm, who seems to relish sending up his own good looks more than any other living handsome man), and her BFF Lillian (fellow SNL veteran Maya Rudolph) is getting married—to a wealthy nebbish! Naturally, Annie finds herself roped into co-bridesmaiding with a random gaggle of ladies including a virgin type (Ellie Kemper, best known as The Office’s Erin), a wannabe-MILF (Wendi McLendon-Covey), a bulldoggish fat lady (Melissa McCarthy), and a pathologically passive-aggressive trophy wife Helen (Rose Byrne), who does her best to undermine Annie in order to become Lillian’s new BBF (Best Bridesmaid Forevs). Insert other acronyms (and parentheses) here.
The film starts on its highest note, as the 10 minutes of screen time preceding Lillian’s engagement and Annie’s devolution into live-action Cathy are marvelous testaments to the casual, kind honesty that distinguishes earned adult female friendship. And, as they’re both old hands at oddball, wonderfully manic improv, Rudolph and Wiig riff off each other brilliantly when given a chance to really do so. Best is when they attempt to participate in an outdoor bootcamp class without having to shell out a fee.
But once Annie becomes bridesmaidzilla, the movie devolves into a bad-tasting waffle: Annie channels a hysterical banshee at various wedding-related events and is defeated by the thinly drawn Helen in the Best Friend Olympics. Aka the single girl is humiliated—and humiliates herself—once again. Quel radical.
The problem is that, despite Wiig’s screenwriting credit, this is basically a Judd Apatow flick (he’s a producer; his pal Paul Feig, director), which means it boasts his odd pacing and even odder, socially conservative values.
I actually love Apatow as a writer/director—I’ve yet to tire of The 40-Year-Old Virgin no matter how many times I watch half of it on nonpremium cable—but his boys-will-be-boys ethos and aesthetic doesn’t exactly lend itself well to what’s being hailed as the breakout female comedy of the, uh, millennium. At the end of the day, all his films are about how guys most highly prize their dude time but aren’t really men unless they settle down with a hot grown-up lady who’s funny, though not, G-d forbid, as funny as they are. With Bridesmaids, he ensures that vision of the cosmos, however unintentionally, since these chicks are not as funny. Honey.
I’ve heard tell that the original cut of this film ran at least an hour longer than its 124 minutes, and it seems likely that the outtakes far outstrip what seems patched together to presumably please reluctant male attendees. To be fair, a haphazard wobbliness has always distinguished Apatow films, has even granted them a 70s-throwback appeal that offers welcome relief from the too-slick Action Jacksons that typically hurl down the Hollywood pipeline. But here, though plotpoints may be randomly dropped, potentially strong characters may go nowhere, and seemingly inconsequential scenes may drag on forever, them girls are most resolutely put in their place. Methinks I smell too many suits in the kitchen.
Indeed, some of what’s been omitted in Bridesmaids adds up to a real loss. Such as any real ensemble scenes featuring these amazingly gifted women that do not include convulsive diarrhea or binge drinking. Or a legitimate explanation for why Lillian, who seems like a salt-of-the-earth girl’s girl in the very best sense of that term, would lack any other real female friends besides Annie—not to mention why she would abandon her lifelong best friend to be bought off by a Nutra-sweet type like Helen. Though occasional scenes are funny (especially one where Annie labors mightily to snare the cop’s attention in a truly inspired montage), mostly I found myself gritting my teeth. Female competition is an old saw, and though I’d never pretend it doesn’t exist, it only works as a cinematic device when its retrograde nature is acknowledged. Since such self-awareness is in zero evidence here, the result packs about as much of a punch as an episode of The Hills.
For though the normally on-point Melissa McCarthy has defended her role in this film, I find it hateful and, yes, antifeminist. She’s the badly dressed, (mostly) delusional, greedy-Gus fat girl whose desire is trotted out solely as a source of humor. She takes all the wedding party favors (live puppies, an admittedly excellent touch) and assumes she’s good friends with Annie though, apparently, the two have only hung out a few times. (That Annie doesn’t protest this fact seems more a product of the film’s slipshod editing than anything else.) And though she may correctly identify a nebbish on the plane as an undercover US Marshall, their subsequent sex scene –in which she pauses to eat enormous amounts of food between throwing him down—is worse than any of the have-their-cake-and-eat-it-too bullshit that you’d expect from the Farrelly Brothers. Or take the dynamic between good-girl bridesmaid Kemper and the wannabe MILF who makes out with her in the perfunctory girl-on-girl scene: a subplot that clocks in at roughly two minutes. And, really, the whole “girl fight” theme that provides the backbone of the storyline is a disaster. It’s not just that all these elements are regressive; it’s that female bodies, and specifically female desire, are consistently objectified as fodder for amusement and very mild titillation, and the “subject” doing the objectifying is the same-old, same-old—Juddy’s boys, in other words—while we women somehow cheer it on.
Um, that emperor is not wearing any clothes. The brother is naked.
There’s more, of course, such as the film’s mostly unexamined associations between marriage and finances, between men as financial objects and women as sexual objects: Ya gotta get hitched to shed your solvency issues, sisters! And: If daddy doesn’t make enough, better marry somebody who does, no matter how otherwise un-noteworthy he may seem.
But the bigger question is why so much has been made of this nothing-to-write-home-about flick. Since it’s not awful so much as just More of the Same, why has it been heralded as the best advance for women since the advent of the birth control pill? Even in the last five years, far stronger, well-observed female comedies have come our way via both TV and film.
To wit: I may not love Tina Fey (her mean girl politics reinforce too much of the status quo though she is undeniably, searingly funny) but Baby Mama outstrips Bridesmaids all around, even though I found it mediocre at the time, and 30 Rock‘s characters Jenna and Liz Lemon are far too clever to dismiss out of hand. The work Amy Poehler has been doing on TV’s Parks and Recreation not only is better-observed and more deeply felt but manages to uphold female friendship as well as common decency while producing hysterical moments week after week. (My man Ron Swanson doesn’t hurt in that department.) I’ve touted Drew Barrymore’s 2009 roller-derby minor masterpiece Whip It in this blog before, but it bears repeating that it’s a female-produced, female-directed, female-written, nearly entirely female ensemble romantic comedy that includes slapstick, clever one-liners, go-get-you-some-girl carnality, and a terrific humanity that endows all of its characters, however minor, with nothing less than three dimensions. I may have spotted a fourth in a few instances.
And, when I was lucky enough to take in a Q & A with Elaine May after a 92nd Y screening of her director’s cut of Ishtar a month ago, her arch commentary reminded me once again that smart-talking dames have been doing it on their own terms since my beloved screwballs of the ‘30s and ‘40s. That other Mae, for example, was writing, producing and sashaying through her own musical comedies more than eight decades ago—and no can deny that Dame West boasted a far stronger command of her sexuality than these do-you-think-I’m-pretty? Lily Livers who mostly pepper screens these days.
So what’s the big deal with Bridesmaids? Because it not only keeps the bitches in their place but makes them feel victorious about it. Because it ain’t going to shake anything up even if the women sail to theaters in droves. Because it comes bearing nerdy male Hollywood’s ultimate seal of approval—the Apatouch—and because the attendant big-studio muscle thereby ensured it a big-studio publicity campaign as well as three-gazillion screens across our Glorious Nation. Because, ultimately, exactly what makes this negligible summer comedy so palatable to the greater American public is why it fails short:
It could have used a woman’s touch.