I empathized with Annie, the character at the center of Bridesmaids—we have a lot in common. We’re both single people in our mid-30s, we both drive unreliable cars, we both sometimes get bored or scared by romantic partners who are nice to us, and we both have a secret love for Wilson Phillips. Wait…did I just say that out loud?
At the boiled-down core of Bridesmaids is a whispered moment when Annie (Kristen Wiig), alone, unemployed, and sitting behind the wheel of a car that’s broken down in the middle of a highway, puts her hand to her temple and quietly, desperately swears. If that moment was at the center of an indie film from the 1970s, Wiig would be contending for an Oscar. But as it happens, it’s at the center of a major studio comedy from 2011, and I don’t think anyone involved with Bridesmaids is deluded enough to be clearing space on his or her shelf.
Produced by comedy king Judd Apatow, Bridesmaids is directed by Freaks and Geeks creator Paul Feig and co-written by Wiig (Saturday Night Live) and Annie Mumolo, Wiig’s fellow alumna of the L.A. sketch comedy troupe Groundlings Main Company. The plot has Wiig’s character Annie helping to plan the wedding of her longtime best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) while facing competition from Lillian’s wealthy, beautiful new BFF Helen (Rose Byrne). Annie also has man troubles, stuck between a handsome cad (Jon Hamm) and a nice cop (Chris O’Dowd, with an Irish accent that makes up for his close-set eyes) who she fears is taking her on as a personal project.
Balancing empathetic characters with broad, caricatured comedy is the impossible mountain that mainstream movies try to climb again and again. It’s an easier balance to maintain in indie comedies that wring laughs from the absurdity of real life than in people-pleasing studio films that aren’t content unless a grown woman shits her pants. There are really two different movies stuffed into Bridesmaids: a subtle, gritty character study that makes knowing reference to the little moments that get under your skin and a Farrelly Brothers goofball comedy where fat girls make sex tapes of themselves feeding sandwiches to funny-looking men.
Of those two movies, the first is very good and the second is just okay. On balance, that makes Bridesmaids worth seeing—and it’s at its best when the two movies are left on their own. For the character study, there’s the scene where Annie walks through the engagment party, her face a mask of stoic cheer, smiling and nodding as she suffers pinpricks to her dignity. For the broad comedy, there’s the aforementioned pants-shitting scene.
But then there are the uncomfortable scenes where Feig, Wiig, and Mumolo try to have it both ways. For example, there’s Wiig’s awkward scenes with O’Dowd, who was apparently ill-directed to act like Steve Carell. Then there’s Wiig’s big blowup scene: in the character study, she could just yell at Rudolph and the genuine emotion would carry the moment, but the broad comedy comes in and makes poor Annie stick her head into a chocolate fountain.
And then at the end, Wilson Phillips show up and everyone starts singing and dancing, the cop arrives in improbably stylish clothing, and…well, I won’t tell you how the movie ends, except to say that if you know anything about Hollywood conventions, you know that any character who shits her pants is probably going to be rewarded with a happy ending.