Judd Apatow has had his own Hollywood comedy factory for years now, but the charge that comes up again and again is that it's a boy's club — or rather a child-man's club, a place for nerds to write movies about nerds who act like juveniles before growing up and marrying thin, pretty women. Where, many of us have asked, is the female perspective?
Apatow is more responsive to criticism than most moguls, and has now produced his first female-centric comedy, Bridesmaids, from a script by Annie Mumolo and the star, Kristen Wiig — with reportedly heavy input from the man himself. As directed by Paul Feig, it's a killer vehicle for Wiig, who's been glamorized like mad: super-coiffed and dressed in micro-mini-skirts, with the aim of making her part Lucille Ball and part Jennifer Aniston.
Wiig's talent — and it's considerable — is for a kind of neurotic deadpan, a mask of blandness that regularly slips to make way for crazed insecurity and anger and passive-aggression. And she has a good clown face for that, bland but rubbery enough to surprise you with its wide range of expression.
The idea of a "female mask," of women having to keep up appearances, is actually the key to Bridesmaids' best moments. Wiig plays lonely, single Annie, who ran a cake shop that went bust and now works fitfully in a jewelry store. Her best friend for life is Lillian, played by Wiig's old Saturday Night Live cast-mate Maya Rudolph — and their unforced rapport is one of the movie's pleasures. Lillian is newly engaged to a rich guy and Annie will of course be maid of honor. But there's a rival from Lillian's new country-club circuit for Lillian's friendship: the aristocratic beauty Helen, played by Rose Byrne.
The movie peaks early — too early — at Lillian's engagement party, when Annie gives a modest little toast, and then Helen takes the mike and gives a toast that's disarmingly polished. The deeply threatened Annie jumps up and takes the mike back, and soon there are dueling mikes. It's a compulsive competition that of course can't be acknowledged because that's not how ladies behave in public. Wiig's timing is brilliant, and Byrne, who's not as experienced a comedian, turns out to be every bit as pitch-perfect.
But then come more conventional gags. Apatow reportedly pressed for Mumolo and Wiig to add a gross-out set piece, so there's a scene in which the bridal party suffers food poisoning in an exclusive bridal shop and can't control their bodily functions. I laughed a lot — but I'm a sucker for scatological humor. Then Helen sabotages Annie by giving her anti-anxiety pills on a plane to Las Vegas and encouraging her to chase them with Scotch. After that, Annie accosts Helen and Lillian in first class, her jealousy surfacing in a regrettable fit of petulance.
While Kristen Wiig does her slapstick thing, a lot of the movie's potentially more penetrating material is undeveloped — or maybe cut, since Apatow-produced movies tend to come in overlong. A subplot involving Wendie McLendon-Covey as a cynical mom and Ellie Kemper as a ninny newlywed gets short shrift, and the wonderful Melissa McCarthy gets mostly jokes exploiting her girth.
Jon Hamm does a broad comic turn as Wiig's conceited sex buddy that would have worked better if the writing weren't so coarse. Chris O'Dowd, best known for the Brit sitcom The IT Crowd, shows up as an oddly Irish cop — this is Milwaukee — who falls for Annie, and his awkward rhythms are very appealing. But the turning point in their relationship was either cut or never written.
Bridesmaids is often hilarious and likely to be a hit with both women and men. But that might be because it's bifurcated: half formula chick-flick, half raunchy comedy of humiliation. That exclusively female perspective some of us hoped for doesn't come through. It's not "women and men, vive-la-difference." More like split la difference. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.