Swatting It Away
by ARIANNA STERN
dir. Paul Feig
Annie (Kristen Wiig) is having casual sex with a rough-yet-clumsy partner (a totes ridic Jon Hamm). Even before he says the handful of mean-spirited things that define him, the audience is asked to dislike Hamm's character because he's inconsiderate in bed. He ignores Annie’s repeated pleas to slow down and her anguished facial expressions. Vilifying a man who wouldn't even try to please a woman: It's not that other filmmakers do the opposite, it's just that it's a point they might not think to make.
Bridesmaids follows Annie, a 30-something single woman with a dull job. Her childhood best friend, Lillian (Maya Rudolph), gets engaged and asks Annie to be the maid of honor. A rivalry develops between Annie and Helen (Rose Byrne), a new friend of Lillian’s, as the two compete for maid-of-honor status. Meanwhile, the other aspects of Annie's life fall apart, from her shitty retail job to her callous friend-with-benefits to her budding romance with a friendly cop.
Bridesmaids offers the audience well-rounded reasons to like some of its women characters: They’re funny, perceptive, good friends. But with two of its major characters, the film uses a metric of vulnerability to endear or distance the characters from the audience. I never found Annie to be especially likeable. She fucked up her best friend’s bridal plans, time and again, in ways that could have been avoided. In that way, she’s a little like Anne Hathaway’s character in Rachel Getting Married, except she gives everyone food poisoning.
“You're like the maid of dishonor,” says Annie's unassuming cop manfriend when they meet for drinks. He says that because Annie had such a huge, drug-induced panic attack that the bridesmaids' plane had to land early. In a somewhat cliché scene about airplane anxiety, Annie takes a pill with alcohol to calm her nerves. Instead, she starts hallucinating and accosts the airline personnel, spotting "a colonial woman" on the wing. A lot of people don't love flying – myself included – but for your best friend, wouldn’t you keep your shit together a little more?
Still, it's a very funny movie, and one that doesn’t underestimate the talents of its mostly-female cast. In contrast to the manic trailers, Bridesmaids has a mix of comedic styles that blends slapsticky physicality, potty humor, and clever dialogue. "Just swat it away," says Lillian on the topic of unwanted blow job propositions. In that early scene, Lillian and Annie talk about sex and relationships in a candid, caring way. Their friendship seems loving, mature, and real – satisfyingly devoid of competition. I wish every film had a friendship like this. I wish every woman did.
Over the course of the film, Annie has temper tantrum after temper tantrum, including once instance where she snaps at her cop crush, "This was a mistake." To make us like the character, Bridesmaids shows us that Annie's going through a lot – she loses her baking business, then her retail job. Her closest friendship is in danger, she has little money, and sustains few romantic prospects.
Annie has some redeeming qualities – namely, her sense of humor and her sincerity – but the film focuses more on her misfortunes than her personality. The development of Annie's character reminded me of Rachel Simmons' suggestion that relatability for female characters is based on pity. Is it a coincidence that the script underwent heavy editing by Apatow and other seasoned Hollywood dudes?
Annie and Helen (the antagonist) first meet at Lillian’s engagement party, an elegant and expensive-looking affair that betrays the wealth of Lillian's fiancé. Helen is married to his brother, who also makes a considerable sum of money. These details are relevant because of the girl-on-girl jealousy that Bridesmaids tries to inspire. The first shot of Helen has a stylized, slow-motion effect that highlights her neat curls and expensive dress. Some version of this villain appears in every movie targeted at women. She looks immaculate, and is therefore suspect. She’s mannered, invulnerable, and intimidating – "too perfect," in other words.
When the time to raise toasts arises, Annie and Helen compete for closeness with Lillian, culminating in a sing-off. The scene exhibits a hallmark Apatovian quality where situations seem to be as awkward as possible, and then the characters somehow make them more uncomfortable by doing exactly the wrong thing.
I had trouble hating Helen based on her invulnerability. (In the scene where the bridesmaids get food poisoning, she is the only one who doesn't.) While Helen says rude things (on an airplane: "there's more of a sense of community in coach") and assumes that everyone can afford what she can, she never does anything truly cruel. Lillian seems to have a good head on her shoulders, and likely wouldn't remain friends with a mean-spirited sadist.
At the end of the film, when Helen breaks down in tears about her loneliness, the audience is finally supposed to pity-like her. As in all the ways that Bridesmaids tries to manipulate you into liking or disliking someone, Helen’s transformation feels contrived. In an otherwise bold film, this pity-based likability seems stodgy and conventional, making the two major character arcs feel oddly unresolved.
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