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Dustin Putman

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Bridesmaids  (2011)
3 Stars
Directed by Paul Feig.
Cast: Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Rose Byrne, Melissa McCarthy, Chris O'Dowd, Ellie Kemper, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Jon Hamm, Matt Lucas, Rebel Wilson, Jill Clayburgh, Michael Hitchcock, Johnny Yong Bosch, Kali Hawk, Andy Buckley, Ben Falcone, Annie Mumolo.
2011 – 120 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for strong sexuality and language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, April 7, 2011.
It takes a rousingly smart, thoughtful, imaginatively witty, all around fun side-splitter like "Bridesmaids" to really put into perspective just how sorely lacking the vast majority of mainstream studio comedies are in the twenty-first century. Make no mistake, this is not another screechy, shallow, smug, hair-brained—for lack of a better term—"chick flick" like 2007's insufferable "License to Wed" or 2009's equally detestable "Bride Wars," nor is it a female version of 2009's overrated, mean-spirited "The Hangover," as so many are already labeling it as. "Bridesmaids" tells a fully-formed, well-developed story, rich in astute character work and deeply-felt, legitimate themes involving the sometimes difficult struggle to get it all together—life, work, relationships, self-esteem—at an age when your friends and peers seem to be passing you by. From all of this comes a surprising emotional resonance that makes its consistent laughs and unbridled lunacy all the sweeter. Credit must be paid to director Paul Feig (2006's "Unaccompanied Minors"), best-known for creating the much-loved, short-lived television series "Freaks and Geeks," screenwriter Annie Mumolo, and co-writer/lead actor Kristen Wiig (2011's "Paul"), who has received her first solo headlining gig and not only knocks it out of the park, but out of the whole hemisphere. Let's not mince words, either; Wiig is brilliant here—hilariously uninhibited, effortlessly appealing, instantly relatable, and truly touching. She makes nearly every male comic performer working in feature films today look like an inferior slacker.

Annie (Kristen Wiig) is thirtysomething years old and stuck in a major rut. She's been working at a jewelery shop since her beloved bakery went out of business, she shares an apartment with two oddball British siblings (Matt Lucas and Rebel Wilson), and she is regularly sleeping with handsome prick Ted (Jon Hamm), who would prefer that she not spend the night. When lifelong best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) excitedly announces that she is getting married, Annie's insecurities about where she currently stands in her own existence are only punctuated. As Lillian's maid of honor, Annie agrees to organize all of the events leading up to the big day, subsequently meeting the rest of the bridesmaids: Rita (Wendi McLendon-Covey), a harried wife and mother looking to let loose at the eventual bachelorette party; work pal Becca (Ellie Kemper), a Disney-loving newlywed who hasn't yet discovered the realities of marriage; the groom's sister, Megan (Melissa McCarthy), a brash, straight-talking government worker; and Helen (Rose Byrne), trophy wife of Lillian's boss. Right from their passive-agressive first encounter at the engagement gathering, Annie feels threatened by Helen, who seems to have it all together and immediately begins to horn in on Annie's turf as Lillian's closest friend. As Annie gets further into all of the traditional pre-wedding planning, mini-disasters begin popping up at every turn and her sanity grows frayed. She only wants to give Lillian the best, but before she can she may have to take a long look in the mirror at herself and the hang-ups that have led her so personally astray.

"Bridesmaids" accepts and embraces its R-rated nature, not in a strenuous, all-the-cool-kids-are-doing-it kind of way, but with honesty and no compromises. Director Paul Feig and writers Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo treat the story and characters with the care they deserve, and in Annie is a complex protagonist whose flaws allow the viewer to love her all the more. In one facet or another, she will be identifiable to everyone in the audience, and her quick-witted, unassuming sense of humor is a trait that we should all wish we had to the degree she does. The film progresses wonderfully, carefully and naturally setting up Annie and her downtrodden current standing as a woman who sees herself as a failure—her cake business has gone belly up, the tattered exterior of the store still flaunting a painted portrait of her face above the door—and doesn't bother to try shielding her pessimism over relationships when couples drop by the jewelry shop. Otherwise, she prides herself on outwardly keeping things together—when her mom (the late Jill Clayburgh, in a nice tribute of a final role) offers to let her move back in with her, Annie lovingly yet bluntly turns her down—and it is only through her failed event-planning and wickedly amusing passive-aggressive interplay with Helen that the seams of her emotions start to show.

If a tinge of levity and poignance tends to follow some of the wholly earned big laughs, that is only in staying true with characters—not just Annie, but also Helen and Lillian—who might jump to conclusions or make mistakes, but are good people underneath who know when they've messed up. Feig, Wiig and Mumolo are too adept to even consider holding their audience in contempt with dumbed-down plotting or unbelievable actions. When characters do things, it is understandable why; they aren't just pawns pushing the narrative along or creating conflict just to create it. And, lest one start to think the movie sounds a bit too self-serious for its own good, think again. The comedy works again and again like gangbusters, often building methodically over time for maximum impact, or paying off material that is slyly set up earlier on. Indeed, there is scarcely a scene in sight that isn't genuinely funny in some way, and plenty that will leave the viewer guffawing. Broader humor, like a dress fitting coinciding with the effects of food poisoning that strike the ladies after lunch at a questionable Brazilian restaurant, intermingle with acerbic one-liners and masterful physical comedy Kristen Wiig knows exactly how to pull off (she displays just as much each week on TV's "Saturday Night Live"). When nervous flier Annie learns the hard way why pills and alcohol don't mix while on the flight to Las Vegas for Lillian's bachelorette party, her ensuing reign of terror on the airplane, played with pitch-perfect timing by Wiig, is an undoubted loopy highlight.

It's been stated many times already, but let's say it again: Kristen Wiig is outstanding in the lead role of Annie, as able to get underneath her character's skin and find the pathos as she is in locating the humor in each situation. When she gets pulled over by Officer Rhodes (Chris O'Dowd) for driving erratically and having no taillights, she turns the process of walking a straight line into a crazy dance routine to prove she's not drunk. It's easy to see why he falls for her right then and there. Another set-piece where Annie and Helen become competitive about one-upping each other in their speeches at the engagement party goes on and on, the longer it stretches out the more chortle-inducingly ridiculous (in the best way) it gets. The same could certainly be said for a late scene—and perhaps the movie's best—as Annie goes to every length possible to break driving laws in order to get the attention of Officer Rhodes, who she's been seeing and is now on the outs with. Another moment, movingly subtle, where Annie realizes how much her behavior has let Lillian down is just as memorable in its dramatically resounding simplicity. No matter what she's doing, Wiig never fails to impress.

Supporting the star attraction are a knockout ensemble of supporting performances. As she proved with her sneakily irreverent turn in 2010's "Get Him to the Greek," the usually serious Rose Byrne (2011's "Insidious") lets loose a secret gift for comic material as Helen. It would have been easy to paint this character—Annie's main adversary—as a snotty shrew, but she grows into a textured, sympathetic person. As much as she'd like people to think she's got it all figured out, she doesn't, not by a long shot. Byrne and Wiig play off each other perfectly. So, too, does Wiig and Maya Rudolph (2009's "Away We Go"), as bride-to-be Lillian, whose real-life friendship carries over with depth and ease on the screen. Melissa McCarthy (2010's "Life as We Know It"), disappearing into her part as the slightly butch, sexually voracious Megan, is ace with delivering punchlines, hitting the bullseye nearly every time. Beyond her brash nature, however, is an authentic person as well, one who hopes to help and befriend Annie if only she'll let her. As Rita and Becca, Wendi McLendon-Covey (2007's "Reno 911!: Miami") and Ellie Kemper (2010's "Somewhere") have the least to do out of all the bridesmaids, but still receive winning time in the spotlight to strut their stuff. Finally, Chris O'Dowd (2010's "Gulliver's Travels") is a charming, innately good-hearted catch as Annie's central love interest Officer Rhodes, and Jon Hamm (2011's "Sucker Punch") is at his magnetically smarmy best as the suave yet tactless Ted.

It's difficult to imagine anyone not being won over by "Bridesmaids," a destined comedy classic that knows how to be crowd-pleasing without sacrificing itself to empty-headed callousness or shoehorned distastefulness. The script evolves organically as Annie grows and starts to learn about herself through the errors of her way. There is a truth, as well as an eye-opening specificity, to her that transcends even some of the best movie heroines. Kristen Wiig is the invaluable secret ingredient. She is blessedly absent of vanity and, as an actor, never selfish, connecting with the other people sharing the screen while nimbly turning comedy into tragedy (and vice versa). A happy but not pat ending is provided to Annie, upbeat enough to satisfy but wisely and accurately signifying that she is still a work in progress. She doesn't have everything figured out and maybe never will, but she has learned to embrace herself and begun the process of letting others in. The final moments between Annie and Lillian are sublime, a glance between the two that says everything about their bond without a syllable needing to be spoken. Even the key locations—Milwaukee and Chicago—are a fresh breath from the typical NYC/LA setting, adding flavor and personality to what could have fallen victim to the same old, same old. "Bridesmaids" is like that throughout, dodging the expected for something even better. Amen.
© 2011 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman