Saturday, November 12, 2011

Chick movie

One of the most surreptitiously meaningful moments in the hit comedy Bridesmaids (now out on DVD) comes during a tennis match sequence; it’s a doubles game, and the focus is on the competition between two of the film’s stars, played by Kristen Wiig and Rose Byrne. The other two actresses have no dialogue; they’re just space-fillers. But Wiig’s partner, notable only for her grotesque facial expressions, is played by Melanie Hutsell, who was a regular on Saturday Night Live for several years in the early 90’s. Since then, as far as I can tell, she’s had little meaningful film or TV work. Of course, many males must also look back on their SNL years as a never-replicated highpoint, but I don’t think you ever see their subsequent estrangement from the spotlight summed up so starkly and unsentimentally.

Jill Clayburgh

And then the late Jill Clayburgh makes her last screen appearance in the film, as the mother of Wiig’s character. Clayburgh at least has an actual speaking part, but it’s one of those weirdo old person roles, as a fuss-bucket who obsessively attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings even though she’s never taken a drink. Clayburgh enjoyed a brief vogue as a leading star, with best actress Oscar nominations in both 1978 and 1979 (for An Unmarried Woman and Starting Over), but it petered out after a few years; in the context of her last two decades, the Bridesmaids role actually seems like a relative highlight. Again, it’s not that men don’t suffer similar reversals – just look at her Starting Over co-star Burt Reynolds – but if nothing else, it usually takes longer.

These twin reference points help you to appreciate the fragility at the centre of the movie. Wiig’s character Annie is on a downward slide - she lost all her money in a failed bakery venture, can’t pay her rent, her relationships are going nowhere. Her best friend, played by Maya Rudolph, gets engaged, enlisting Annie as matron of honour; she has the enthusiasm for it, but not the skill, and more seriously not the money. In contrast, another member of the wedding party, Helen, a best-friend-come-lately played by Byrne, virtually lives for such events, and has a bottomless supply of money. This can only lead to friction, embarrassment, gross-out screw-ups, and so forth.

Highs and lows

The movie, co-written by Wiig and directed by Paul Feig, ably blends contrasting comic styles and techniques into a pretty sturdy concoction. At times it’s pleasantly distinctive and naturalistic; a flirtation between Annie and a traffic cop doesn’t feel at all like off-the-shelf cuteness. At other times it’s about the high-concept set-pieces – my favourite was the ludicrously excessive wedding shower, where guests ride up to the house on white horses and then receive a Labrador puppy (in a pink beret) as a party favour. Melissa McCarthy, playing the groom’s sister, hangs out in her own surreal universe and wrestles everything within it into submission. Wiig seldom breaks out the scene-hogging qualities she sometimes displays on SNL, meaning that when she does, it makes sense as an expression of a largely stifled inner life momentarily busting loose.

Bridesmaids is good enough, scene to scene, to remind you how much you miss the mature, meaningful, expansive comedies of past decades. It doesn’t get there though, mainly because it doesn’t want to. A comedic classic like The Apartment might be considered almost laughless by contemporary standards, which intertwines with its effectiveness in evoking mood and character. Bridesmaids can’t take the chance of going more than a few minutes without tweaking the audience, and willingly pays the price for that. So for example, it leaves us in no doubt about Annie’s dire financial situation, but doesn’t bother to explain how she scrounges together the money for a trip to Vegas (albeit that she’s the only one of the group sitting in coach). She hits a bottom, and then a worse bottom, and no doubt you feel sorry for her, but you don’t feel her pain. This is probably the right calculation from a commercial perspective, but the movie’s highs might have been much more resonant if it hadn’t sugar-coated its lows. (I also can’t help wishing her passion was something other than baking. Not that there’s anything wrong with baking. But there’s nothing wrong with software development or engineering either.)

Relevance of feminism

It’s remarkable that a comedy built around women is still viewed as something of a novelty, if not a major commercial risk. The movie pounces on the opportunity as if it might never come again, setting out a dire gallery of maleness. The men on view – excepting of course the Irish cop who embodies all hope - are either mind-numbingly bland or ineffective, such as the fiancée, or nastily self-serving. Helen’s marriage is seemingly an emotional wasteland, with a husband who’s always away and two step-kids who ignore her; another of the bridesmaids paints a verbal picture of unbroken grinding misery, verging on abuse really; yet another, a newly-wed, eventually admits the aridity of her supposedly dream relationship. One might have surmised there’s little or nothing here for the male viewer, but the indictment doesn’t really bite very deeply; despite all the bumps, the closing sense of things is to keep persevering and holding on, because as Woody Allen put it, we need the eggs. The movie’s final scene, a coda running under the end credits, depicts McCarthy’s character and her new boyfriend preparing for an erotic experience; the specific details will be a turn-on to virtually no viewer (I assume so anyway), but somehow the scene manages to seem celebratory rather than (or maybe I should say as well as) squirm-inducing. See, there’s a perfect partner for all of us.

The day after seeing the film, I happened to see snippets of a recent interview with Gloria Steinem, touching on such issues as whether feminism is still a relevant concept. Even if that issue were in any sense settled, I suppose we’d keep resurrecting it periodically; sexual difference is probably too alluring and charged a commodity ever to be left alone. Sometimes a movie like Bridesmaids seems astonished anything might ever go right for a modern woman who isn’t a complete sell-out. One’s life experience seems to say this pessimism is overdone, which is partly why the movie can be categorized mostly as a fantasy. But then you think of Hutsell and Clayburgh. Maybe the broader story of their lives is that they put other things above their careers, I don’t know. But that would only take us to other familiar territory, about the difficulty of balancing legitimate professional ambitions and biological determinism.

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