Kristen Wiig is a very pretty, very funny woman with reassuring crow's feet etched around her surprisingly anguished blue eyes. Saturday Night Live fans know Wiig can act out (Target Lady!), but if you've been paying attention, she can also act — she played, of all things, a steadying force in Drew Barrymore's underrated roller derby movie, Whip It. The warring impulses within Wiig set a wonderfully skittish tone for the painfully hilarious new movie Bridesmaids, a screwy tale of female friendship and wedding planning from hell. Were it not for some atonal meddling from co-producer Judd Apatow that's clearly designed to put male bums in the seats, Bridesmaids would qualify as one of the most groundbreaking mainstream movies of the past decade — an indie women's picture sneaking in under summer-blockbuster cover.
The movie, ably directed by Apatow collaborator Paul Feig (Freaks and Geeks), was co-written by Wiig with her longtime friend and collaborator Annie Mumolo. Armed with a terrific ensemble plucked from the cream of current comedy, the two take a sharply affectionate scalpel to the chick-flick myth of earth-mother female friendship.
Of course you won't find much textbook feminism in Bridesmaids; Wiig's Annie, a stalled Milwaukee pastry chef, owes a lot more to Bridget Jones than she does to, say, Erin Brockovich. With her downtown bakery felled by recession, Annie takes a job selling jewelry, only to throw her dreary new gig into daily peril by assailing customers with her jaundiced views on love and marriage. Dumped by her boyfriend, she sleeps with a cheerfully uncommitted lout (Jon Hamm, happily parodying his hunky self) who thinks nothing of greeting his on-demand lover with "Hi, f - - - buddy!"
To make matters worse, Annie has no choice but to play good sport when she's drafted to be maid of honor at the wedding of her best friend, Lillian, played by Wiig's SNL BFF, Maya Rudolph. Plastering on a brave smile that's constantly cracking to reveal a wounded fury beneath, Annie goes to war with Helen (Rose Byrne, superbitch — who knew?), a filthy-rich young country-club type who takes charge of planning the nuptials and threatens to replace Annie as Lillian's best friend.
From there on, Bridesmaids is pretty much a sinus-clearing remake of George Cukor's 1939 bitchfest The Women, minus the fascinators and handicapped mildly by the need to make its way, however unsteadily, toward a sunny ending. You may forgive that failing, however, when you meet Annie's legit love interest, a slightly cross-eyed cop (played by Irish comic Chris O'Dowd) whose gift for turning life into fun and goodwill naturally makes Annie turn tail and run back to Hamm's faithless heel.
Wiig, who plays Annie mostly straight, if with regular eruptions into giddy shtick, is quite moving as a woman trying and failing to put a mature face on as she watches her dominoes fall. (As is the late Jill Clayburgh, visibly ill but gallantly staggering through her role as Annie's dotty mother.)
Honestly, though, neither women nor their dates will flock to Bridesmaids to watch yet another 30-something fight her way through a recessionary world filled with unreliable studs. No, we want to see girls behaving badly — though preferably without the vomit and poop scenes that Apatow reportedly shoehorned in for fear of losing the guy demographic. That stuff played just fine in Knocked Up, but it's not needed here.
And at its loony best, Wiig and Mumolo's script hurls a torrent of bridesmaid-zilla set pieces at us, playing out like a Sex and the City 3 read-through gone deliciously awry. There's Wiig and Byrne, in a competitive toast-off to the hapless bride-to-be; an ineffable group shopping trip to a high-end bridal boutique; a frustrated stay-at-home mom (Wendi McLendon-Covey) graphically disabusing the ingenue newlywed (The Office's Ellie Kemper) of her motherhood fantasies; a drunken in-flight tirade for Wiig, topped by her final faceoff with Byrne's Helen (and a monster cookie) at an impossibly lavish wedding shower. The real showstopper, though, is Melissa McCarthy (of television's Mike & Molly) as a beefy nuclear engineer, resplendent in golf cap, pearls and an admirable outlook on life.
I love how the women of Bridesmaids — direct descendants of the neurotics in the black comedies of Nicole Holofcener (Please Give) and Tamara Jenkins (The Savages) — take ownership of female aggression and competition, of our radical insecurities and the predicaments of being female in a post-feminist world. I love how the movie walks its crazy line between satire and realist drama. Most of all, I love seeing a bunch of talented female performers come together to do physical comedy their way. (Recommended) Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.