Ten years ago, Paul Feig’s uproarious comedy centered the lives and relationships of women in revolutionary ways.
Come back to a simpler time. A time when people were left shocked and awestruck when a remarkable pop culture event occurred, one that dumbfounded many and helped inspire a cultural shift, one where viewpoints that had previously been derided and ignored were placed at the center of an increasing number of narratives.
This is not an exaggeration. It’s pretty much the sum of the reactions to Paul Feig‘s 2011 comedy Bridesmaids. At the time, it was so revolutionary that a movie which was all about women to have such wide (broad?) appeal that the largest, most inspirational pull quote for the poster proudly declared, “CHICK FLICKS DON’T HAVE TO SUCK.” In case the message was unclear, the one underneath reads, “These are smart, funny women,” hammering home a concept which was apparently just as startling – that women being smart and funny weren’t mutually exclusive.
Take Peter Travers’s Rolling Stone review of the film, which embodied the general response, in which critics acknowledged genre sexism, hilarity, and barriers broken while bestowing backhanded compliments such as marveling that the film couldn’t be dismissed as niche, said niche consisting of about half the planet. And bemoaning that the cast dared to get as messy as the men. “Frankly, the only time Bridesmaids loses its footing is when it acts like The Hangover in drag,” Travers complained. “Guys and gross make a better fit. Who needs to see bridesmaids puking up lunch and shitting their pants?” Many disagreed, with this gross-out sequence quickly becoming iconic.
Such a reaction seems almost foreign, demonstrating a lack of self-awareness that trolls have long since very awarely harnessed in favor of clicks and money. In one sense, many critics could only react with shock, given that Bridesmaids told a more complex story of female friendship, one that centered…well, female friendship, with men taking a secondary role.
Annie (Kristen Wiig) is certainly an unlikely heroine, neither aspirational nor cute in the way that stories about female protagonists typically were. A resident of Milwaukee, she’s not trying to make it in the big city, and she doesn’t work at any kind of office, but rather at a local jewelry store. Her boyfriend has left her, she’s in her 30s and living with two obnoxious roommates who are dismissive and disrespectful of her, and she’s short on funds, having lost all her money when her bakery failed due to the recession. She’s even refusing to do the baking which once brought her such joy.
It’s not where she thought she’d be in her life, and Annie has gotten so used to misery that she’s become addicted to it, furthering her downward spiral by self-destructive behaviors, such as her casual fling with Ted (Jon Hamm), a self-absorbed, sexist jerk who always makes her feel even crappier about herself.
Friendships can last, Bridesmaids indicates, but they change as we do.
It’s probably the worst time for Annie’s childhood best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) to announce her engagement to her longtime boyfriend Doug (Tim Heidecker), further cementing her upward trajectory. When Lillian asks Annie to be her maid of honor, Annie feels she has no choice but to accept in spite of reservations about her ability to fulfill the social and financial expectations of the role. But things don’t truly kick off until the engagement party, where Lillian’s success and status are very evident and Annie meets the other bridesmaids, among them the film’s breakout, Melissa McCarthy’s Megan, and Helen (Rose Byrne), the woman who will become Annie’s rival for much of the film.
Helen is condescending to Annie from the beginning, subtly belittling her and emphasizing her own growing bond with Lillian. In another movie, Helen and Annie would be competing over a man, but Lillian is the prize here, and the question is who will be the last, best friend standing. All the comedic gags spring from this conflict, with Helen flaunting her wealth and privilege and continually attempting to sabotage Lillian and Annie’s relationship. Traditional romantic narratives are so sidelined that when Annie does find a love interest in the sweet and supportive cop Rhodes (Chris O’Dowd), they mostly discuss the women in Annie’s life.
It can be difficult to imagine just how radical a departure this was in the age of the womance and gender-swapping. It’s not that female friendship hadn’t ever been the subject of films before, but movies like Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion felt like outliers. More typically, they still often revolved around their relationships with men, as was the case with The First Wives Club, where the goal mostly involved getting revenge on their respective husbands, who had tossed each of them aside for a younger demographic they found more appealing.
It’s a goal I can respect, but if the friendships weren’t all about the guys, on-screen portrayals as wide-ranging as Mean Girls and Single White Female often focused on their potential for toxicity. Female bonds could even be such a radical threat to a patriarchal society that even groundbreaking feminist visions like Thelma & Louise condemned its titular characters to death. But more typically, and far less fatally, the best friend was sidelined so that the protagonist could focus on her romantic prospects.
The whole point of this movie is that not only Lillian but most of the other female characters have already found a partner, and it’s not exactly a good thing. Bridesmaids might not exactly be the most diverse film, with only one woman of color among its ensemble, but the women in the bridal party are mostly representative of the many ways to be unhappy in relationships.
The newly married Becca (Ellie Kemper) is unable to find sexual satisfaction with her husband, as is longtime wife Rita (Wendi McLendon-Covey), who also has difficulty connecting with her children, while the materialistic Helen feels alienated from her husband and stepsons and is unable to form any real friendships. It’s Annie and Lillian who are able to be themselves with each other, and the key to their reconciliation near the end of Bridesmaids is Lillian’s need to confide in someone about her insecurities and fears in her new life and discovering that Annie is still the person she’s able to be the most vulnerable with.
But perhaps the most radical plot element is that the outrageously sexual and downright weird Megan is the happiest and most successful member of the group. For much of the film, Megan is generally the comic relief, the one who should be relegated to the sidelines and reduced to a joke for her general status as too much – too loud, too confident, too big, and too foul-mouthed.
Not only did Megan overcome a number of hardships, but she may also even be richer than the more conventionally beautiful, eternally poised Helen. She is also the most confident, unashamedly pursuing the men she’s interested in, and seems to get the most sexual satisfaction from it, unlike the others. Sure, it involves sub sandwiches and hungry bears, but to each their own, right?
Megan is also the one who comes to Annie’s rescue when she’s at her lowest and wallowing in self-pity, both due to Helen’s sabotage and her refusal to own up to her actions and choices. Megan is even the film’s mouthpiece, serving up the tough love and even tougher truths, forcing Annie to fight for herself, turn her life around, and realizing she may even have a new best friend and fellow weirdo in Megan.
It’s a surprisingly complex resolution, with both Annie and Lillian resolving their estrangement while acknowledging that their lives are going in different directions, even if they resolve to stay friends. And the more unconventional Megan is the one who will probably take a more central role in the similarly offbeat Annie life’s, with Lillian becoming more a part of an elite group she’s clearly at home with.
Friendships can last, Bridesmaids indicates, but they change as we do. Annie’s happy ending may not involve getting her old life back, but rather, overcoming her worst tendencies and finding new love and support as she embarks on a hopeful new phase.
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