Kristin Wiig, like Will Ferrell, can go from looking and acting like the most ordinary person on the street to becoming a loose-jointed lunatic yodeling out her complaints against the world. The character she plays is always a little off, a little out-of-place. There’s a scene in Bridesmaids where a cop stops her, thinking she’s driving drunk. He makes her walk the line, which she does, until it quickly turns into the kind of dance a chicken might do if she were drunk and on top of a flagpole. Through it all she never steps off the white line. For me, that’s emblematic of the kind of comedy Wiig does so well. If she were completely out of control, we wouldn’t identify with her. But because there’s something solidly real about her, we do.
Wiig plays Annie, the outsider who’s always trying to impress the cool girls, but whose every gesture calls the wrong kind of attention to her. So when her best friend, played winningly by Maya Rudolph, gets engaged, Annie’s world begins to fall apart. She’s afraid she’ll be left behind as her friend marries and movies into a different circle of friends. In fact, it begins right away when Annie discovers her best friend’s new best friend, played with cat-like glee by Rose Byrne, who’s so perfect in every way that poor Annie knows she can never compete. So she does what every child does when she can’t get her way. She makes a scene. And another. And another. Each one tops the last, until Annie hits bottom.
It’s great to see the late Jill Clayburgh, who plays Annie’s mother, a woman who believes she’s an alcoholic though she’s never taken a drink. Clayburgh was the darling of romantic comedies in the 70’s, including It’s My Turn, and dramas like An Unmarried Woman, so it’s a surprise to see her do well in a raunchy and irreverent comedy like this one. It just proves she was a pro, and I miss her.
Wiig walks that narrow margin between sanity and insanity. Even during a quietly realistic scene, you can see a touch of hysteria, like a light shining under the door. When her character finds herself in an uncomfortable social situation (and for Annie, all social situations are uncomfortable), that door starts to open. First there’s a tremor of anxiety around the mouth. Then her chin draws in, and her eyes widen. Soon she flings herself into the wildly inappropriate, not just saying the wrong things but singing them diva-like one moment, squeaking out sarcastic impressions of people the next, and growling out condemnations after that.
In some ways, her zaniness reminds you of Russell Brand, but with Brand the zaniness feels laid-on, mechanical. His character never tries to fit in, or by the time he does, it’s too late for us to feel much for him. Wiig’s character, on the other hand, wins us from the get-go. At the start of the movie, she’s already lost her bakery, and she’s forced to live with a British brother and sister who seem like escapees from a Wallace and Gromit movie. She’s in a loveless friends-with-benefits relationship. But at least she has her best friend. Until she doesn’t. We’re with her because we know how hard it is sometimes to fit in, to feel you belong in the space you occupy. So when she freaks out, she seems to speak—or shriek—for us all.
The movie was written by Wiig and Annie Mumolo (who has a funny cameo) and in the spirit of its executive producer, Judd Apatow. I like Knocked up, Step Brothers,r and Apatow’s other movies just fine, but Bridesmaids made me laugh out loud more often, and that’s because it has a lot of heart, heart that’s not just tacked on at the end but that arises from character and starts with the very first scene.
Bridesmaids’ ensemble cast is excellent, too, especially Melissa McCarthy, who plays the stocky friend. If this were a guy movie, the character would be the trigger for a series of fat jokes. But McCarthy’s role has more dimension than that. She’s overcompensating for her weight by presenting herself as the self-styled expert on everything who flirts with guys as if she can have any one she chooses (and as it turns out, she can).
The story itself is fairly weak: a woman’s self-esteem and fragile hold on happiness are tested when her best friend becomes engaged. But the many pleasures of this movie come from the wicked writing and from the strong performances. It’s great to see a movie that not only assembles such a talented cast of women, but which gives the audience a woman-centered sensibility as well. And one and all, the actors eat it up. It’s as if the coach has finally put them in the game, and they can’t wait to show their stuff. Wendi McLendon Covey is great as the overwrought mom who’s dying for an escape from her teenaged sons. Ellie Kemper plays the naive friend, the movie’s weakest link. Capable but forgettable, she actually seems to disappear from the movie by the end.
Anthony Lane in The New Yorker complains that Bridesmaids has a split personality, that it doesn’t know whether it wants to be a women’s movie or a gross-out comedy. It think it achieves both with great success. Yes, there’s gross-out comedy (the food poisoning scene is about as gross as it gets). And, yes, there are moments of bonding among the women. For me it all worked, especially Wiig and Rudolph, who play best friends with the easy intuitiveness of real friends. It’s even more impressive that the women in this movie are all over thirty and look like real people.
For most of the comedies I see, the audiences sit quietly. This isn’t because they’re humorless or polite. It’s because the so-called comedies don’t give them much to laugh at. Oh, there may be a chuckle now and then, but that’s about it. Again and again in Bridesmaids, the audience broke into sudden laughter, the best kind, sprinkled liberally with “Oh my Gods!” It reminded me of what Hollywood comedies are supposed to be like.
P.S. The Sleeper was wide awake throughout.