Looking back at how ‘Bridesmaids’ broke comedy rules, on its own terms
The #UltimateSummerMovie Showdown is under way, and voters have chosen “Bridesmaids” (2011) as their winner for Week 2, dedicated to movies first released in theaters from May 8-14 (between 1975 and 2019). Times film critic Justin Chang sat down with entertainment columnist Glenn Whipp to discuss the enduring appeal of the Kristen Wiig-starring comedy, the obtuseness of the “Are women funny?” debate and the pros and cons of that scene.
JUSTIN CHANG: Glenn, bear with me, but I must start this week’s conversation with a personal anecdote. Back in the summer of 2011, my wife — my girlfriend at the time — went with her roommate to see “Bridesmaids,” which had just opened to big box office, glowing reviews and a lot of chatter about how much it meant for women in comedy and women in Hollywood. The hype was understandable, of course. It also had its share of annoying side effects. At the theater, the (male) ticket taker took one look at my wife and her roommate and said something to the effect of “You’re both going to love this movie! It was made for you!”
As it turns out, “Bridesmaids” was decidedly not made for my wife; she didn’t care for it at all. I adored it and thought it was one of the funniest comedies I’d seen in years — and not only that but also one of the most emotionally perceptive and penetrating studies of friendship, class envy and midlife despair to emerge from a major Hollywood studio in recent memory. I still think that. And I say that after spending a recent afternoon rewatching the movie, laughing to myself and sometimes cringing through my fingers at every one of Kristen Wiig’s extended verbal pratfalls. (My wife, working on her laptop nearby, paused every so often to roll her eyes in my direction.)
All of which goes to show the folly of trying to pigeonhole movies and their audiences, even with the best of intentions. And I think it’s worth keeping in mind as we enter our second week of writing about our readers’ favorites in the #UltimateSummerMovie Showdown. Does the world really need to hear two guys talking about “Bridesmaids”? Probably not. But hey, the world definitely didn’t need to hear two guys talking about “The Avengers” last week, and with that behind us, I’m eager to dive with you into a discussion of a much better movie. And I hope we can discuss “Bridesmaids” beyond simply what it represents, which is never as interesting as discussing what a movie actually is.
GLENN WHIPP: Your wife is in good company, Justin. A movie boasting an extended comic sequence revolving around public diarrhea that ends with Melissa McCarthy emptying her bowels in a sink isn’t going to be everyone’s jam. Even then, maybe (probably?) I’m pigeonholing her objections. Maybe she likes crass comedy but hates Wilson Phillips. Maybe she couldn’t get past McCarthy taking all the puppy party favors. Or maybe she was put off by the ticket taker’s condescending comment as she entered the theater and just disliked the movie on principle.
You’re right in noting that the film itself, one of the best comedies of the past decade, tends to get lost in all the discussion about its importance and influence. Christopher Hitchens famously wrote around this time that women and humor are “antithetical,” and judging from the evidence, movie studio executives shared the opinion. You’d be hard-pressed to look at the two or three decades prior to “Bridesmaids” and find more than a handful of great comic roles for women.
So people were correct to celebrate “Bridesmaids,” even if much of the coverage at the time felt a bit patronizing, celebrating the victory without quite fully appreciating the movie. McCarthy rightly earned an Oscar nomination for her force-of-nature supporting turn, but Wiig, in her first movie lead turn, is wonderful too as Annie. You expect her to nail the physical comedy, but it’s her work in the smaller moments of despair that gives “Bridesmaids” an emotional truth that makes it such a triumph. (That and every blessed moment on the airplane after Annie chases the sedatives with a double Scotch.)
CHANG: It’s worth noting that the famous food-poisoning scene you mention is one that even Wiig disliked; she and cowriter Annie Mumolo added it to the script at the insistence of the studio, Universal Pictures. It’s telling that that scene is what a lot of us instinctively think of when we think about “Bridesmaids,” and it’s easy to understand Wiig’s irritation. As she put it in a Hollywood Reporter podcast years ago, when people say they’re going to give female-centered movies a chance, what they often mean is that “they want to see women acting like guys.” It’s a depressing corollary of that very depressing “Can women be funny?” debate you brought up, Glenn, which now seems too ludicrous to have even existed.
Since “Bridesmaids” we’ve gotten “Girls Trip” and “Bad Moms” and “Trainwreck” and “The Heat” and “Spy” (the latter two reteamed McCarthy with her “Bridesmaids” director, Paul Feig). But really, it’s not like any of these movies proved anything we didn’t already know. That stagnant decades-long period you cite is real, but did the people arguing that women aren’t funny ever hear of Lucille Ball or Carole Lombard? Moms Mabley or Barbara Stanwyck? Whoopi Goldberg or Diane Keaton or Amy Poehler? (By now, at the very least, I hope some of them have heard of Phoebe Waller-Bridge.)
But here’s the thing: Having said all that, and with apologies to all unfairly maligned Brazilian churrascarias, I’m grateful that food-poisoning scene exists, and it is hard for me to imagine “Bridesmaids” without it. Wiig and Mumolo might have been reluctant to put it in but they executed it their way, and with a verve that works on multiple levels. In a movie that functions as, among other things, a sly satire of the wedding-industrial complex in all its lavish absurdity, it’s only fitting (so to speak) that Annie and her bridesmaids wind up befouling that pristine boutique.
It’s also instructive to watch that scene again carefully and see how it plays out — and to be reminded that, even in an epic gross-out sequence, there is room for subtlety, implication and nuance. Much of the comic horror of the sequence is in the tense buildup, the beads of sweat on the actors’ faces. When all hell breaks loose, yes, we do see some flying vomit and hear some gurgling-stomach sound effects. But the worst of it is implied, brilliantly. McCarthy renders any grotesque visuals utterly superfluous with a single line (“It’s coming out of me like lava!”). And the sight of Maya Rudolph’s Lillian, the bride sitting in the street in that gorgeous white dress while the unthinkable happens, might be the movie’s most memorable image. It’s hilarious, yes. It’s also heartbreaking.
WHIPP: It is the image of a lovely swan defiled. The way Rudolph sinks, settles and just exhales, “It happened … it happened” is such a perfect moment. I have to think that Feig and director of photography Robert Yeoman (the ace cinematographer on all of Wes Anderson’s live-action films) knew they had something special with this vision of white on the dirty asphalt street because they come at it from every angle and then linger when Rudolph surrenders.
As you noted, Justin, Wiig and Mumolo understand the vital importance of female friendships. And looking at the men in “Bridesmaids,” you realize why these women hang on to each other for dear life. Annie, apparently, is No. 3 on the booty-call list of her part-time lover (a delightfully douchey Jon Hamm), and judging from the evidence, she’s not getting any satisfaction. Neither is Ellie Kemper’s sexually frustrated Becca (her husband can only have sex in the dark under the covers and only after they’ve showered — separately) or Rita (Wendi McLendon-Covey), who needs a wild bachelorette party so she’ll have something to remember while she endures sex with her husband.
Even Rose Byrne’s Helen, the polished, passive-aggressive rival to Annie, is desperately lonely, leading to her almost pathological devotion to providing Lillian with the perfect wedding. We barely see Lillian’s fiancé, Doug, but from the look of him, I don’t hold out much hope. If they ever made a sequel to “Bridesmaids,” they’d all be divorced as they prepared to be attendants at the wedding of Megan and her air marshal (played by McCarthy’s husband, Ben Falcone).
So, yes, forget “for better or worse.” The men here are just flat-out awful (and, by example, they’ve taught their sons to be monsters too), lending this very funny movie an underlying feeling of pathos. I guess there’s hope for Annie’s romantic prospects, as she goes off with her attentive highway patrolman (Chris O’Dowd). But I like that “Bridesmaids” leaves you with the impression that Annie doesn’t need a man. What she really needs is to find a way to start another bakery.
CHANG: There’s a special poignancy in watching Annie talk about having had to close her bakery during the 2008 financial crisis, and not just because we find ourselves staring down the barrel of an even grimmer recession. Because if “Bridesmaids” is all about female friendship, it is also, no less smartly, all about money: all the things it can buy ($800 bridesmaid dresses, first-class tickets to Vegas, a bridal shower with chocolate fountains and huge heart-shaped cookies), and all the anxieties it can induce. The tension between Annie and Helen is predicated on not just a personality clash but a power differential; the subtler tension between Annie and Lillian derives, in no small part, from the latter’s upward mobility.
Annie isn’t the only one feeling the pinch: The minor role of Lillian’s dad (Franklin Ajaye), who turns up every so often to grumble about just how much the wedding is costing him, is hardly incidental to the proceedings. And if by the end we feel so well acquainted with Annie’s personal hang-ups and demons, it’s because they’re so closely tied to the details of her pocketbook: the lousy retail job she loses, the apartment she can no longer afford, the business she lost and the jerk boyfriend she lost with it. You know O’Dowd’s Officer Rhodes is a keeper when he not only shreds Annie’s moving violation but also pays for her tail-light repairs — in advance.
I love that Annie and Rhodes’ fairy-tale rom-com subplot is almost, but not quite, an afterthought; some doubtless wish it didn’t exist altogether. But I’m glad it does, not least because O’Dowd is such a charming and under-tapped (in every sense) romantic lead. You mentioned satisfaction, Glenn, and I think it’s telling that “Bridesmaids” opens with that sex scene between Annie and Hamm’s boorish boy toy, Ted, which shows a different kind of transaction in progress. The instant-gratification-minded Ted wants to go fast and get it over with; Annie wants to slow things down and draw things out. She wants this no-strings-attached sexual encounter to mean far more than it does.
It’s a familiar gendered dynamic, to be sure. But if you’ll pardon a carnal analogy, one of the reasons I love “Bridesmaids” is that, as a comedy, it follows Annie’s lead. Rather than going straight for the explosive money shot, the humor here builds in pleasurable little waves and endlessly attenuated rhythms. Think of the scene in which Annie and Helen take turns one-upping each other in their toasts to the bride. It just keeps going, with Wiig and Byrne riffing on each other’s volleys, building micro-flurries of laughter. In some ways, it’s even more squirmingly funny than the diarrhea scene, in part because there really is no big comic release — for now, at least. In more than one sense in “Bridesmaids,” good things come to those who wait.
WHIPP: Wheeeew ... Justin. Give me a second, here. I’m feeling a little flushed. I mean, yes, yes, YES, “Bridesmaids” boasts a number of scenes — like the toasting throw-down — that begin simply enough and then escalate into these elaborate set-pieces that last, um, a surprisingly long time. Annie driving by Rhodes, breaking every traffic law in the book, just so he’ll talk to her. Annie melting down at the bridal shower because, c’mon, did you see that giant [expletive] cookie? And, of course, the food-poisoning scene, which, speaking to your point about money, happens in the first place because Annie can’t afford to take the group to a nice restaurant — one that doesn’t serve gray lamb.
I mentioned that “Bridesmaids” gave Wiig her first lead film role, and it’s disappointing she hasn’t found another film to truly showcase her talent since then. Nine years on, movies still don’t provide women — particularly funny women — with enough opportunities, despite the fact that audiences of both genders have shown an eagerness to support them.
Among the long list of pandemic-related movie postponements was a new comedy starring Wiig, “Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar.” She wrote it with Mumolo, who’s costarring in it as well. It’s now due out next summer, and I don’t know if it’ll be as great as “Bridesmaids.” But it’d sure be nice to see Wiig’s absurdist exuberance right about now. As Rhodes puts it: There’s something about her that sticks.
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