Silver Screen: Bridesmaids ****

Silver Screen: Bridesmaids  ****
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Silver Screen: Bridesmaids ****
Bryan Miller

Comedy kingpin Judd Apatow has received much criticism of late for his dude-centric comedies, which nitpickers say don't provide plum roles and good lines for women. So it's not entirely surprising that Bridesmaids, a definitively chick-centric comedy, would be perceived as Apatow's attempt to appeal to the yonic set.

Somehow, though, the debate has shifted from "Can Apatow succeed playing to the female demographic?" to "Can a comedy headlined by women succeed?" Even the absurd "Are women funny?" question, most recently reposed by the soon-to-be-late Christopher Hitchens, has stirred back to ugly, stupid life.

Meanwhile, the trailer for Bridesmaids, which focuses almost entirely on the buildup to a grossout sequence and a drunken plane trip to Las Vegas, all but dubs the movie The Hangover for Ladies!

That's a lot of baggage for one movie to carry, especially a movie as agendaless as this one. Bridesmaids is not going to settle the non-issue that is "Are women funny?" (They are.) By the same token, buying a ticket to the film doesn't make you the reincarnated spirit of Simone de Beauvoir or Susan B. Anthony, and to suggest that the filmmakers somehow have a responsibility here to represent all of womankind is to apply the same double-standard as the naysayers. (The fact that Bridesmaids is the locus of attention for this is particularly baffling since, for worse or for worse, the Sex in the City crew already dominated the box office one summer, and Cameron Diaz is fronting her own intriguing comedy, Bad Teacher, in just a couple weeks.)

In other words, Bridesmaids is just a movie-- and a very, very funny one.

Saturday Night Live castmember turned popular big-screen supporting player Kristen Wiig leads an ensemble of talented women as Annie, a down-on-her-luck baker whose shop has gone out of business. She's barely making ends meet working a dead-end retail job while carrying on a deeply unsatisfying fling with a cold-hearted cad (Jon Hamm, hilarious as ever). Annie's own run of bad luck is highlighted by the fact that her best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) is getting married.

Director Paul Feig (Freaks and Geeks), working from a script by Wiig and cowriter Annie Mumolo, plays Annie's reaction to Lillian's revelation perfectly; there's no catty Bride Wars jealousy, but even as Annie is happy for her friend she can't help but see Lillian's good fortune as a counterpoint to her own lack of success.

Whatever self-confidence Annie has left is further shaken when she meets Lillian's rich, beautiful new friend Helen (Rose Byrne), the wife of Lillian's fiancé 's boss and a fellow maid of honor. The prim Helen is dubious of Annie right away, and almost immediately she attempts to horn in on the maid-of-honor duties. Desperate to succeed at something, this rivalry launches Annie into a contest of one upsmanship (upswomanship?) that only further spins her life out of control and leads to a slew of the kind of awkward episodes on which Wiig thrives.

Bridesmaids has a strong ensemble. The standout among the supporting players is SIU alum Melissa McCarthy (Gilmore Girls, Mike and Molly) as the brassy, vaguely androgynous future sister-in-law. She's saddled with most of the movie's broader moments, which she handles ably, but she also brings nuance to a character who could have easily otherwise been relegated to the butt of the joke. Byrne is a subtle antagonist, and Wendi McLendon-Covey and Ellie Kemper do nice work with fairly little screentime as a beleaguered mother of three and a naï ve newlywed, respectively.

But as good as the rest of the ladies are, this is definitively the Kristen Wiig show. Despite the title and marketing campaign, Bridesmaids turns out to be much less of an ensemble effort than, say, The Hangover or Apatow's own Forty-year-old Virgin. Wiig has been funny in smaller parts (notably in the wonderful Adventureland, and also as Dewey Cox's first wife in Walk Hard), and more recently she stole all her scenes while providing some much-needed heart to the Simon Pegg-fronted Paul. Here she fully acquits herself as a star, albeit an unconventional one, with her storky good looks and fondness for mutter-whispering throwaway jokes to herself. She's willing to play her character's flaws as cutting and resonant rather than hammy exaggerations, which has the dual effect of making Annie more sympathetic and sharpening the comedy.

There's a romance, too, and a damn good one between Wiig and relative newcomer Chris O'Dowd, low-key and charming as a good-natured cop intrigued by Annie's quirks and concerned about her plight. Their scenes together are strong enough to make viewers hope for a sequel centered on their characters.

Despite the boys and the rest of the wedding party, the core relationship in the movie is the one between Annie and Lillian. It's the flipside to the bromance theme Apatow has been developing all these years; this time it's 'hos before bros, with Lillian's husband (Tim Heidecker, in a bit of stunt casting) literally never speaking a word through the entire film. Wiig and Rudolph have an excellent chemistry that makes their heavily improvised scenes sing and the friendship ring true. It's the strongest element of a movie that does a lot of things well and keeps its comic momentum going through the final scenes.

Bridesmaids had nothing to prove, but it may have proved it anyway.