Monday 20 June 2011

Great receptions: On "Bridesmaids" and the return of funny women

The following piece was commissioned by the Sunday Telegraph news desk a month ago, and bumped for two editions running, before missing out on yesterday's edition, which in its place ran such Great Moments in Journalism as a quiz on famous quotes and a lengthy article on Pete Doherty. Maybe it simply wasn't fit for publication; maybe, after a week in which every British newspaper ran at least one puff piece for the same film, it ran the risk of repetition. Either way, the fact it wasn't published did little to dispel my current dissatisfaction with print journalism, my usual reluctance to write features (whether or not it pays to do so), or to quash my growing suspicion even broadsheet newspapers, faced with a dip in advertising revenue and an increase of space to be filled, now seek to employ disposable content providers, who don't mind having their sentences scrambled by untrained sub-editors, rather than fostering and developing the voice and skills of individual writers. I run it here as an exclusive - and can only hope it's not exclusive in the same way, say, certain Wesley Snipes films are "exclusive to DVD", or Al Murray's Compete for the Meat is "exclusive to Dave".

From its opening moments, the current U.S. box-office hit Bridesmaids, which arrives here later this month, establishes itself as firmly, and unapologetically, a woman’s work. For aeons, male writer-directors have been persuading actresses to shed their clothing for the benefit of their surrogates in the film and in the audience. In Bridesmaids, comedienne Kristen Wiig, the film’s co-writer, has provided her heroine with the opportunity to straddle Mad Men hunk du jour Jon Hamm – a task Wiig, as leading lady, elects to perform, with not inconsiderable enthusiasm, for herself. I believe it’s called taking one for the team.

The tale of Annie, an out-of-work thirtysomething undergoing a meltdown in the run-up to her oldest friend’s wedding, Bridesmaids contains many of the ingredients for a raucous girls’ night out. On the surface, it’s canny, female-oriented counterprogramming in the middle of a movie summer that has thus far brought the combined muscle of Thor, Fast Five and more X-Men. The film’s surprise success – a $90m take to date, off the back of a $30m budget – suggests something else, however: that Bridesmaids has crossed the aisle, playing to male and female viewers alike. It has become, in Hollywood parlance, a game-changer.

Hollywood always used to make “women’s pictures”, of course: zesty, expansive studio movies like Stage Door and The Women, offering a multiplicity of perspectives on women at different points in their lives and careers. By contrast, the latter-day chick flick has become a by-word for something simplified, easy to consume, flickable, indeed – and as the films shrivelled, so too did their female protagonists. The past decade oversaw the Rise of the Aspirational Masochist: those waxed and solitary unfortunates prepared to endure any humiliation to get ahead in life and love. Renée Zellweger’s Bridget Jones, a collapsible soft touch, became emblematic.

The Bridget effect was observed in ten years of scripts torn from the pages of Grazia magazine; these lifestyle films, with titles like The Switch and The Rebound and The Back-Up Plan, were generally profitable, and they supported the careers of many A-list personalities between better-paying conditioner commercials. But they did odd, cruel, disempowering things to their protagonists. As an unnamed female screenwriter admitted to the New Yorker recently, to make a heroine adorable, “You have to defeat her at the beginning. It’s a conscious thing I do – abuse and break her, strip her of her dignity… then she gets to live out her fantasies and have fun.”

Many fine actresses, seeking characters rather than glossy composites, ditched movies for TV: Laura Linney for The Big C, Mary-Louise Parker for Weeds, Kate Winslet for Mildred Pierce – the latter reviving the spirit of the woman’s picture, with the added depth of serial television. Dominated by rowdy franchises, mainstream cinema had increasingly become the domain of men and boys: in 2007, Warner Bros. President of Production Jeff Robinov flatly declared “we are no longer doing movies with women in the lead.” That studio’s 2009 megahit The Hangover presented women as nags, shrews and whores; its recent, Bangkok-set sequel addressed the issue by replacing almost all those characters with ladyboys.

Elsewhere, however, there was a revolution going on in American screen comedy. Men would be at the forefront of this, too, but funny women were making their voices heard alongside them: Tina Fey with Mean Girls and 30 Rock, Diablo Cody with Juno. The new King of Comedy would be Judd Apatow, the TV veteran behind The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up and Funny People. These films were shaggy, sometimes flawed – Knocked Up skewed problematically male in its perspective on pregnancy – but they were marked by an appealing looseness, in both their performance style and morality; they were inclusive, honest about their characters, and – if they didn’t quite know what to do with them, often defaulting to the rhythms of guyspeak – they had an eye for idiosyncratic actresses: Catherine Keener, Elizabeth Banks and a pre-Glee Jane Lynch in Virgin, Aubrey Plaza and Leslie Mann in Funny People.

A recurring theme in these films was how men measure and define themselves against other men. Bridesmaids, which Apatow produced, is particularly acute on the way women grade themselves against other women – a starting point that liberates Wiig and fellow scribe Annie Mumolo to write as many funny women, and as many different types of funny women, into the one film. The porcelain beauty of Rose Byrne, as Annie’s nemesis, is as conventional as it gets here. The bride is spacey Saturday Night Live alumna Maya Rudolph; her bridesmaids include the bulky, garrulous Melissa McCarthy, schooled in the 200mph chat of superior soap Gilmore Girls, and Reno 911!’s Wendi McLendon-Covey, an actress who resembles no less than Marilyn Monroe hiding out as a soccer mom.

Add to this formidable roster Wiig herself – a specialist in lanky, passive-aggressive oddballs – and the film constitutes another pointed retort to all those reactionary firebrands (from Garry Bushell at the dawn of alternative comedy to Christopher Hitchens, the thinking man’s Bushell, in a 2007 edition of Vanity Fair) who’ve insisted funny and feminine is a contradiction in terms. That old canard stemmed perhaps from the gag’s inherent power structure: I’m talking, you’re listening. Women, in movies and elsewhere, were supposed to be mute and secondary: babymakers, not joketellers. Even in Knocked Up, Katherine Heigl’s Alison was little more than a straightwoman, a receptive audience for the quips and semen of the roistering, roguishly irresponsible leads.

Like her sometime SNL cohort Fey, Wiig forbids any such decorousness in herself and her on-screen collaborators. Her bridesmaids suffer from “boob sweat”. They get chocolate on their teeth. They drive crappy cars, have prickly legs, and don’t seem entirely at home in high heels. In the film’s coarsest scene – a vulgar subversion of makeover-montage norms – they develop digestive issues while trying on their gowns. Actresses we traditionally associate with poise and beauty, but Bridesmaids has little truck with fantasies, pedestals or poster girls. The most sincerely funny line in the movie is Rudolph’s glowing assessment of her entourage: “This is such a stone-cold pack of weirdoes, and I am so proud.”

In such moments, Bridesmaids fulfils the remit of the old-school woman’s picture – depicting a variety of women dealing with the crisis in their midst – while simultaneously taking a step beyond it. You don’t have to be female to share Annie’s belief weddings are getting ridiculously expensive, or her fears her contemporaries are leaving her behind. What the New American Comedy, an essentially egalitarian construct, privileges above any social, romantic or professional hierarchy is friendship: those plus-ones who know all our filthy secrets, and remain at our side nevertheless. Steadfastly refusing to shill for designer dresses and shoes, this convivial austerity-age event movie invites along anybody muddling through, holding on – no matter how much you’ve drunk at the reception, and whether or not you sit down to pee.

Bridesmaids opens nationwide on Friday.

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