***½/**** Image A Sound B- Extras A
starring Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Rose Byrne, Wendi McLendon-Covey
screenplay by Annie Mumolo & Kristen Wiig
directed by Paul Feig
*½/**** Image B- Sound B Extras C+
starring Kate Hudson, Ginnifer Goodwin, John Krasinski, Colin Egglesfield
screenplay by Jennie Snyder Urman, based on the novel by Emily Giffin
directed by Luke Greenfield
by Jefferson Robbins On release, everybody tried to make Paul Feig's Bridesmaids about sex (gender and the act), when its bigger issue is class. Working from a script by Annie Mumolo and star Kristen Wiig, frosted liberally with improv in the manner producer Judd Apatow has made inescapable, the creators spin Wiig's failed cake-maker Annie for an early midlife crisis rooted in bad relationships as well as economic hardship. It's easy to get stuck on the sex angle, given the opening scene: Singleton Annie is stuck in a self-hating friends-with-benefits cycle with sometime-lover Ted (Jon Hamm), doing exactly what he wants in bed--at length, in several variations, and noisily. She gets only smiling, sociopathic dismissal in return as he kicks her out of his lush Milwaukee McMansion. She's pinned some vague hope on a pretty package of a man who's not only bad for her, but vastly wealthier, too. Note how Annie is forced to vault an automatic gate to escape Ted's one-percenter compound. Bridesmaids is not just about relationships in the mush-minded romcom sense--it's about power relationships: who has the most money and thus can bring the most social clout to bear, in the snowglobe economy created by a best friend's nuptials. Goddamn, that's timely.
Class is the unspoken issue of most contemporary romantic comedies--the background radiation to love found, lost, and regained. The best example is the "Sex and the City" aesthetic, in which airless privilege is never punctured by real-world financial care except in the most glancing ways. (Miranda works too hard!) Its heroines suffer deprivation because they have everything they need but can't (immediately) get what they really want. That's the shallow soil where the drama is rooted, and that's why every How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days and The Wedding Date and Something Borrowed is so easily chewed up and excreted.1 Bridesmaids takes the class thing and brings it to the fore. Annie doesn't simply want a fulfilling job and, secondarily, a stable partner--she needs these things, or she'll likely spin off into clinical depression.
This is the point where most romantic-comedy heroines turn to their quirky/bitter/free-spirited best friends, created so the main female character can express in words the discontents the story is too unimaginative to display through action. But Annie's lifelong best friend, Lillian (Maya Rudolph), is marrying and running with socialite Helen Harris (Rose Byrne), a new-money trophy wife whose family home boasts a plaque dubbing it "The Harris Estate, est. 2006." Helen was coming up when Annie and millions of people like her were coming down, and she's awash in the superficiality and defensive artifice that too much money can engender. Annie's self-doubt refocuses into jealousy and deflection; as maid of honour, she's charged with bridal-shower planning but can't personally afford to do anything extravagant. Helen, by contrast, is all about extravagance--and not afraid to user her resources to poach Lillian from Annie.2
Bridesmaids is honest about the way women can sabotage each other under the guise of generosity and best intentions. (If Annie and Helen were men, we'd call their relationship a dick-measuring contest.) Each of Annie's fellow Bridesmaids fulfills a certain broad female type. Rita (Wendi McLendon-Covey) is the frustrated housewife. Becca (Ellie Kemper) is the sexually naive woman-child, obsessed with all things Disney. Lillian's sister-in-law-to-be, Megan (Melissa McCarthy), challenges this pattern by playing her character as the tomboy--big, unrestrained, no internal censor. She is, give or take a Y chromosome, John Candy. Bridesmaids passes the vaunted Bechdel test--the female characters talk (boy, do they talk) about lots of stuff besides men--but it does so mostly by turning the male characters who might be discussed into nonentities. Lily's fiancé Dougie (Tim Heidecker) may as well be a lump of pale dough. Annie and her mom (the late Jill Clayburgh) discuss her never-seen dad as an abstract nightmare. The female relationships are paramount, and the film recognizes how tightly entwined with social class those relationships can be. Of Lillian, Annie says, "I feel like her life is going off and getting perfect and mine is like..." She trails off and makes a perfect blurgh face.
It's saying something that in an ensemble of comedians with both physical and cerebral gifts, Wiig holds the centre with grace. The actress easily projects a coltish insecurity I first saw channelled in her few fantastic scenes in Knocked Up--a vicious, near-subliminal undermining of Katherine Heigl's heroine. (Let's acknowledge that the real success of that movie, by the way, was not its inoffensive stars and moralistic plot but rather the gifted supporting players chipping in from the sidelines.) Wiig's great covert meltdown when Lillian announces her engagement puts a feminine gloss on the sort of severed-guy anxiety seen in a hundred dudebro comedies. She's phenomenal--and she has great legs, frequently displayed. Naturally, Feig and Apatow want to play to the improvisational strengths of Wiig and her cohorts. This works in a bachelorette-party flight to Vegas that escalates rather beautifully and allows each performer to shine in turn. Most other scenes go on six to eight beats too long, however, and many hit that point where improv, contrary to its intentions, actually becomes overcooked. Two hours and four minutes--or two hours and ten minutes, if you're viewing the unrated version of Bridesmaids--is self-indulgent for a contemporary American comedy of almost any pedigree. It takes ninety minutes, or the duration of most comedies, for Annie to hit bottom and begin her climb back up. Still, there's a moving thematic target here that Feig keeps in sight: By film's end, Annie regains her positivity yet remains mired in poverty. She's landed a kind boyfriend, yes, which is the primary stated concern of romcoms--but he's a state patrol cop (Chris O'Dowd), about as working-class as it gets, and she's still stuck with no job and a beater car. Even a wedding dance number with Wilson Phillips ain't gonna pay the rent.
Stacked with a decent cast and drawn from a chick-lit source novel that appears to have a following, Luke Greenfield's Something Borrowed winds up looking like a Heineken commercial next to Bridesmaids. That's not merely because Heineken apparently paid out the ying for product placement. (Seriously, every time somebody's drinking something that's not in a mug or a can, it's Heineken.) It's because, once again, the plot is simply motivated by covetousness and self-delusion as opposed to legitimate external pressures. Manhattan lawyer Rachel (Ginnifer Goodwin) has just turned thirty and hates the job we never actually see her working at. Remember when Goodwin was "the fat one" in Mona Lisa Smile? Knockout though she is, she's still playing riffs on the girl outshone by her "knockout" best friend Darcy (Kate Hudson). Tipsy after her own party, Rachel sleeps with law-school buddy Dex (earnest teeth-whitening product Colin Egglesfield), now Darcy's fiancé. A shitty thing to do, right? But the picture stacks the deck, giving us bits of Rachel and Dex's relationship in flashbacks; meanwhile, her past with Darcy is only roughed in, leaving shameless narcissist and serial liar Darcy the unmotivated villain of the piece. And Dex, who confesses his love for Rachel but then continues to canoodle with Darcy in her presence, comes off as blithely cruel and no smarter than a bag of breath mints. Some prize.
Rachel is that standby romcom heroine: clumsy, "depressed" in the finely-lit, smiling way of romcoms, convinced she's not the most naturally beautiful woman around, trailed everywhere by the music of this week's Michelle Branch. The job she hates pays for an apartment most of her real-world contemporaries couldn't afford, her best friend Ethan (John Krasinski) is a "writer" who's also not without evident means, and most of the stolen glances and heart-stabbing recriminations unfold over at least three consecutive weekends in the Hamptons. Because it's Goodwin, who excels at betraying subsurface fractures, we can feel for Rachel when she suffers pangs over Darcy possessively grabbing Dex's ass. But the picture as a whole fails her, as it fails us. There's a clumsy, forced vagina joke, a meatheaded Lothario (Steve Howey), confessions in the rain, a choreographed dance sequence set to an '80s pop nugget (Salt-N-Pepa's "Push It"), and that hoary shot of a FedEx van that pulls away from our heroine's apartment block to reveal the love of her life waiting on the stoop. Krasinski does what he can as the entirely one-note pal, a collection of reaction shots and rejoinders who decides the best way to avoid an aggressive past fling (Ashley Williams) is to pretend to be gay--but there, just look at what he has to work with. Kate Hudson is looking less and less like Kate Hudson these days, verging now on Sheryl Lee territory, and this alongside Bride Wars sort of argues that she's no longer in it to break our hearts the way she did in Almost Famous. There are moments where Something Borrowed tries to invert its formulas and winds up feeling more graceful than you'd expect from the director of Rob Schneider turd-rocket The Animal (though The Girl Next Door gave proof Greenfield had something better to offer). This film in 2008 could've probably been a winner with audiences, but in 2011, money talks a different language.
THE DVD - BRIDESMAIDS
Universal's "Unrated" Bridesmaids DVD is packed. It's also mastered beautifully in a 2.40:1, 16x9-enhanced transfer preserving Bob Yeoman's excellent Super35 cinematography. (He was aided in the outdoor scenes by the fact that much of the shooting happened in Southern California.) For a movie built around the cosmetic glosses a wedding puts on a woman's life, the actors' skin tones, the dress textures, and the pastels look as party-planner divine as you'd hope. We tried to get our hands on the Blu-ray release, but this presentation upconverts nice enough to substitute, refusing to pixellate on my 1080p display until I get within arm's reach of the screen. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, on the other hand, disappoints, sounding flat in the way of many studio DVDs. (It would be nice to hear some of the subtleties involved in, say, a roomful of women's stomachs gurgling towards explosive diarrhea.) Dialogue and action are front-centric, while each musical number attacks from all channels. It's a distraction that suggests a crude downmixing of the original soundtrack.
The cornucopia of supplementary material commences with the unrated version of the movie, boasting six additional minutes in a comedy that was already at least fifteen minutes too long. These additions include Annie on a blind date with the father of an exceptionally creepy little kid (giving her reason to hate and fear childrearing as well as marriage); a bathroom scene involving Annie's weird sibling roommates (Rebel Wilson and Matt Lucas); and a longer version of Megan's credits-segment "bear sandwich" sex play. (Speaking of that: The typeface for the closing titles is tiny.) The film's length is tied to the improv strategy, as Feig admits on a DD 2.0 commentary attending the theatrical cut: "We have hours and hours of just the funniest, craziest stuff." I know many movies are built in editing, but doesn't this become a logistical problem after a while?
For this yakker, Feig is joined by Wiig, her co-writer Mumolo, McCarthy, Kemper, Rudolph, and McLendon-Covey, and the result sounds like a high-spirited dinner party where the other guests talk to everyone but you. The track is helpfully subtitled, but it can't quite keep up. Feig mentions test screenings a lot, pointing to scenes that were tweaked after preview-audience feedback. (Because this was recorded a few days prior to Bridesmaids' May 2011 theatrical release, there's no mention of its significant critical and box-office impact.) The cast members entertain each other greatly, and their camaraderie is off-putting the longer it goes. Rudolph discloses that at one shooting location, Clayburgh3 discovered a hidden room stocked with vitamins and water cures. No one says the word "Scientology," and Rudolph worries aloud that she'll get the Bridesmaids production in trouble for bringing it up--but the synchronicity of Paul Thomas Anderson's wife floating this tidbit as her husband struggles to bring The Master to fruition is just too delicious. On another track, the theatrical version is narrated for the visually impaired through Descriptive Video Service.
Feig's "hours and hours" of elided improv are sampled here in about twenty minutes of featurettes. A "Gag Reel" (4 mins.) boasts the charming moment of Wiig realizing she's got Jill Clayburgh, of all people, talking about an esoteric sex move in which one drinks water out of a cupped scrotum. "I just realized that we're making you say this," Wiig shrieks. Clayburgh, like a pro: "I love it." "Line-O-Rama" (12 mins.) is a barrage of one-liners clipped from different points along the movie's length, highlighting the skill of these performers at crafting comedy that's rooted in their characters. McLendon-Covey's acerbic lines are amazing, but the real wow is her straight partner for many of these exchanges, Kemper, who bolts-on some reactive faces that are pure gold. "Deleted Scenes" (8 mins.) features a blind date sequence with Apatow favourite Paul Rudd, who's terribly good in a terribly half-baked scenario. "Extended and Alternate Scenes" ... oh God, nine minutes of these, improv on top of improv until you wonder how people bear it. Finally, find a gag commercial for the scungy jewellery shop where Annie works (1 min.), with Michael Hitchcock mugging impossibly in a satire of late-night DIY ads. Meanwhile, there are startup previews for Honey 2 (wha?) and "Bring It On: The Musical," which appears to be...a touring show? I don't even.
THE BLU-RAY DISC - SOMETHING BORROWED
Again, it's to the credit of the Bridesmaids DVD that it in many ways looks as good as Warner's Blu-ray for Something Borrowed. The producers of the latter, however, should take that as a slap. This, too, is a lovingly shot affair (by DP Charles Minsky, of Pretty Woman fame), and although the 1.78:1, 1080p transfer shows off some nice lensing and flattering lighting, quite noisy grain materializes in the subtle colour ranges where Bridesmaids comes out clean. This doesn't extend into the blacks--but that's because the blacks are so crushed as to offer no texture for grain to cling to. The 5.1 DTS-HD MA sound showcases the kind of unimaginative mix that suits this kind of trifle. It's pleasantly surroundish (especially in musical montages), albeit somewhat arbitrary in its assignment of offscreen voices to the rear channels.
Rachel turning thirty is the plot catalyst, so the BD special features nod to this with "Something .. Old?" (4 mins.), a yakfest in which the cast and filmmakers talk about what that milestone means in a person's life. Producer Hilary Swank chimes in with the most thoughtful entry; Hudson simply says, "Yeah, I have a lot of friends who are really age-conscious." (Not me, though. Never me.) "What Is Something Borrowed?" is two minutes of EPK bullshit; "Inside Something Borrowed" is three minutes of same. "Left Off the Guest List" (8 mins.) is a clutch of utterly skippable deleted scenes, while the five-minute "Gag Reel" is funnier than about eighty percent of the movie. "On Location Tours with Emily Giffin" (5 mins.) has the author of the source novel discussing her work with starstruck readers on a Manhattan tour bus; she's fresh from a "Today" interview with Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford, which as seen here looks a lot like extraordinary rendition. The longest offering, "Marcus' Guide to the Ladies" (7 mins.), has actor Howey reinhabiting his schlubbo ladykiller character for a Tucker Max-esque infomercial about how best to disrespect women. It has its moments, but it made me long for Frank T.J. Mackey. All the supplements are in Hi-Def. HD previews for Dolphin Tale and Crazy, Stupid, Love. lead off the disc on spin-up. This package also comes with a combination DVD/Digital Copy of the film. Originally published: December 1, 2011.
1. The "Sex and the City" franchise probably crashed with its second big-screen outing, which asserted that money and fabulousness can topple sharia law. Strange to call a film with an all-woman ensemble "paternalistic," though I think that qualifies. return
2. Byrne came to notice as a dramatic actor, but I'm increasingly convinced she was born to do comedy. She may never be an improviser in Wiig's style, but she draws much more of my attention when cast in funny roles like in this movie and Get Him to the Greek. return
3. Although her character is not strictly needed, Clayburgh is the best possible casting for Annie's mother. The actress is given great props on this commentary track, with Feig averring that she was one of his teenage crushes. Yet no one brings up the fact that Bridesmaids was her last film role before her death in November, 2010--in fact, no one mentions that she's dead. Had Clayburgh lived, this might have been the kind of dirty-mouthed, career-reorienting comeback filmwatchers love. return