Bridesmaids is a high-profile test case. Directed by Paul Feig (a sitcom journeyman most lovingly known as the creator of Freaks and Geeks), it's the first female-fronted comedy produced by Hollywood kingpin Judd Apatow, who has weathered criticism in the past for his brand's dude-centric point of view. It's also built around the talents of co-writer and lead actress Kristen Wiig, an SNL regular carrying a full-length film for the first time. This combination of gambles is rare enough in contemporary studio film that a wide variety of blogger-pundits — from feminist, fanboy, and industry perspectives — have positioned the film as a referendum on the viability of women in Hollywood comedy. It's important to make a distinction between creative merit and commercial: Bridesmaids won't settle the inane Christopher Hitchens–stoked "Are women funny?" debate once and for all, but its box-office performance could have major implications for the sort of women-oriented films that get made going forward.
Those high stakes manifest themselves on screen in a kind of multiple personality disorder, epitomized in a first scene that first foregrounds raunch, then slips in psychology. We meet late-thirtysomething single Annie (Wiig) in the midst of a booty call with hot asshole bachelor Ted (Jon Hamm); they cycle through a variety of sexual positions in a glib, high-energy montage that quickly establishes the film's R-rated bona fides (Ted's command that Annie "cup my balls!" is maybe the film's fifth line). Cut to the next morning: Annie sneaks out of bed to touch up her makeup before Ted wakes, a fear and self-loathing tell that solicits knowing smirks over easy LOLs. From there, Bridesmaids continues to vacillate between two, contradictory types of raw matter — one, the kind of raucous, visual, and vacuous comedy that plays well in a trailer; the other, a more nuanced approach forgoing immediate spectacle and punchline for character detail that pays dividends as the film rolls along. Or, in more cynical terms: The former tosses meat to the traditional male comedy audience, while the other wins over women who look to rom-coms for self-identification.
Bridesmaids' core relationship is between Annie and her best friend of 30-plus years, Lillian (Maya Rudolph), whose recent engagement — and new friendship with Helen (Rose Byrne), the effortlessly polished and capable trophy wife of her fiancé's boss — sends underemployed, chronically single Annie into a tailspin. As socially awkward, underachieving Annie attempts to prove her worth as a friend to Lillian by day, by night she inadvertently charms traffic cop Rhodes (Chris O'Dowd). A Model Boyfriend type, Rhodes, with his practical perfection and unwavering attention, begins to disrupt her default practice of finding excuses to give up when realities fail to match fantasies. (Another example of Bridesmaids' split personality: It's a film that thematically advocates for clear-eyed, delusion-free personal responsibility while narratively hinging on the realization of a fairy-tale wedding.)
At its best, Bridesmaids reconciles its two minds, merging high-concept, skit-length-and-paced comedy with naturalistic conversation (an extended scene on an airplane finds the heretofore unknown common ground between Robert Altman and Jerry Lewis). It's funniest when the humor is based in language, with Wiig exercising her talent for passive-aggressive one-upping in heightened situations. Lurking inside the uneven finished project is a film that continually draws attention to movie clichés by literalizing them. The standard third-act tough-love talk devolves into an absurd inspirational anecdote and physical aggression. Montages of therapy baking and wound-licking are set to carefully chosen songs sung by Fiona Apple and Courtney Love, female performers whose prodigious talents for introspection and histories of self-sabotage neatly match Annie's struggle to see herself accurately and make changes accordingly. But many of the chaotic set pieces cataloging her self-destruction (a pair of party fouls that recall Wiig's most painful SNL mugging, an even more foul and painful extended riff on public diarrhea) have a kind of dumb crassness that works against Bridesmaids' often smart, highly class-conscious deconstruction of female friendship and competition. Comedy of humiliation is one thing; a fat lady shitting in a sink is another.
Bridesmaids' need to be all things to all quadrants places an unfair burden on a film that, when not bending over backward to prove that girls can play on the same conventional comic field as boys, successfully dismantles both romantic and bromantic comedy formulas. This supposed great experiment in femme-com bears the distinct scars of having been "fixed" — out of fear or financial imperative — by and for dudes.