I went and saw Bridesmaids last night. It’s a type of film I only intermittently enjoy, but the web buzz was enough to get me out to a theater. Even my favorite mainstream feminist film critics gave it resounding praise, with Dana Stevens even writing,
Hallelujah and praise the Lord for Paul Feig’s Bridesmaids (Universal), a movie we’ve been awaiting for what feels like forever. At long last, we have a smart comedy with dumb jokes—a giddy feminist manifesto that responds to the perennially circulated head-scratcher “Can women really be funny?” with a whoopee-cushion fart. I loved virtually every minute of Bridesmaids and forgave its few missteps the way you forgive your best friend for being a good-hearted klutz.
I saw pieces on whether or not it was a feminist film all over the place: feministing, zunguzungu, The AV Club, Salon, Alternet, The American Prospect. It seemed that this was not just another piece of pop culture that was getting coverage because of its ubiquity (Twilight, Transformers) that my friends were seeing merely to debunk. This was something they were embracing and adopting as their own. After two weeks, I gave in and bought a ticket.
My first reaction to the film was disappointment. Was I missing something? Was I a bad feminist??
I don’t think I missed anything, and I can’t answer the second question, but I do think that I was misled by some of the online discussion. So, after re-considering the film, here are my thoughts on what it does well and what it doesn’t.
A quick overview for those who have no interest in the links: The film is a homosocial dramedy of manners populated by 30ish-adolescents who can no longer avoid growing up and are reluctantly dragged into adulthood. It’s a typical Judd Apatow comedy, but with women comprising the homosocial clique in question. Like other Apatow films it wildly careens between sappy moral drama and gross-out humor, but unlike the best of the Apatow canon, it rarely finds the crucial emotional core that allows both to coexist coherently.
The film is getting heightened attention (scrutiny?) because of the gender swap. The state of women in studio film is not great, even with all the women-who-kick-ass movies of the past year. Any movie that comes out of a major studio and doesn’t have women situated as love interests or assassins is, at this point, pretty remarkable. Considering that RomComs are pretty much the only point of reference for film with the subject matter Bridesmaids tackles, all it had to do was pick a different genre as a point of reference (bromance) and it was gonna be a big deal.
So, does it live up to its reputation? That depends, but I’m inclined to say no. I was watching the film as a feminist, as a film buff, and as a participant in progressive politics. I went into this movie with three big questions: 1) Is it a good film? 2) Is it a feminist film? 3) What’s notable about the film’s portrayal of women, and are there any obvious implications in this portrayal? Clearly 2 and 3 are linked, but I actually think that using 2 to do a little clearing away will help us think about 3.
1) Is it a good film?
Short answer? Not so much. Screenwriters Wiig and Mumolo don’t really create characters as much as they manifest odd collections of quirks that will be especially funny when put into a tense situation with conflicting odd collection of quirks. This is a great formula for sketch comedy that has allowed both women to shine in SNL and the Groundlings respectively, but it’s a poor foundation for a 2+ hour film. They might have even been able to sidestep this folly if it didn’t lean on the characters to be emotional anchors in the second half of the film, but alas.
The script hangs the performers out to dry at points, though often the ensemble cast is able to make up for it admirably, especially Melissa McCarthy and Maya Rudolph as noted elsewhere. Kirsten Wiig and Maya Rudolph also have an amazing rapport that establishes their friendship better than any exposition ever could. But, despite her crack comic timing, Wiig is the weak point in the cast, betraying her own script with her complete and total lack of range outside of quirky bit characters. Her protagonist lacks any sort of pathos or distinctive worldview, made crystal clear as the dramatic reveals pile up in the back half. In the same way that she’s able to supply that sort of lived in ease when interacting with Rudolph, she seems completely lost in her attempts to convey grief, struggle or any sort of inner life.
The plot, such as it is, is mostly excuses for Rose Byrne (playing bride Rudolph’s other good friend) and Wiig to conflict and for Wiig to affably err. The subplots of Wiig’s personal life never realistically interact with any of the occurrences surrounding the wedding or with one another and the world the film creates is far from interwoven. There are 30 or 40 minutes of wonderful sketch comedy (a rather high yeild for one film) but the parts do not add up to a whole.
2) Is it a feminist film?
I don’t find this to be a helpful question. It depends on subjective and fantastically diverse definitions of what feminism is. I think of feminism as a political project, about power, meaning, equity and self-determination. This film does not fit my definitions of feminist. BUT, that doesn’t mean that it’s not aligned with feminism in crucial ways, including giving voice to women in highly unusual and subversive ways. Which leads to the third question . . .
3) What’s notable about the film’s portrayal of women, and are there any obvious implications in this portrayal?
This, to me at least, seems a question that is more likely to yield fruitful discussion. This is also *the* strength of this movie, the crux of its notability and why it’s worthwhile. Women do things onscreen in this movie that are extremely rare. In part, this is about getting to tell jokes and participate in gross-out situations normally reserved for men. The most striking moments for me, however, were the casual moments, like when Wiig and Rudolph are bantering back and forth how much they hate it when sexual partners surreptitiously attempt to coerce them into oral sex by wagging their genitals near the women’s faces or pushing the women’s heads down. This is a fantastic bit of observed humor (and something gay men do, too) and an incredibly subversive thing to see in a studio film where it’s fully reasonable to expect total and complete invisibility, if not outright denial, of women’s sexual agency. There are other moments of sexual agency, as well, like when Ellie Kemper’s character admits to dissatisfaction with her husband’s sexual germ phobia or the ongoing jokes about Wiig’s sexual encounters with Jon Hamm.
The plot revolves around women’s anxieties that aren’t centered on their body/sexual self image or kids, but instead around woman-to-woman friendship, creating a new standard for the Bechdel Test. We get to see women having full social lives not centered around men or heterosexual families! There are all kinds of moments of performance this creates that feel shocking, even though if you encountered them outside the theater it would be called . . . having female friends. Wiig gets to do all kinds of little gender comedy that would normally be scrubbed from a Julia Roberts film, like when she mock-flirts with the cop who pulls her over. There are many many examples, hopefully (and likely) far more than I caught, of women doing things women don’t normally get to do on screen.
The implications of this are that we now have an example we can point to of a profitable film that conceives of women in ways equatable to the ways men are normally conceived. And that is no small thing. The implications are huge and far-reaching, far greater than I have the expertise or energy to pursue here.
And I felt like that was almost inadvertent. Wiig didn’t think of her performance as groundbreaking or subversive; she’s a comedian first. This in no way subtracts or impinges on what the film accomplishes, but I believe it attests to the relevance of question 3 over question 2.
So, ultimately, where are we left? We have a so-so comedy that I don’t judge as feminist portraying women in ways that are mind-boggling in the context of a studio film. Is that enough? Of course. I just think we should be clear about what the film’s merits *are* and not claim that it’s notable for reasons it’s simply not. It does the film a disservice.
PS. The film has some interesting things to say about class that I wasn’t able to cover here. You can find a quirky, glancing take on those things here (thanks to zunguzungu for the link)
This post brought to you by Sam, who has never been a bridesmaid.
This review originally appeared on his own blog, Choose Your Attachments Carefully.