Girl Talk is a weekly look at women in film — past, present, and future.
Sandwiched in between the summer’s biggest blockbuster offerings and superhero tentpoles are a pair of outrageously funny outliers — comedies that, for all their raunchy gags and wild behavior, center squarely on women and their friendships — in the form of “Rough Night” and the upcoming release “Girls Trip.” Although both films lean hard on their comedic trappings, often in the form of booze-fueled bad behavior from their leading ladies, they also both find unexpected heart and charm in their deeper explorations of the relationships between the very different women that populate them.
But even with films like “Rough Night” and “Girls Trip” hitting the multiplex with a welcome dose of girl power, it seems that even this summer isn’t immune from the most tired and toxic of lady-centric comedy tropes: the dicks before chicks sub-genre. “The Layover,” bafflingly directed by William H. Macy (and penned by two men), will close out the season when it hits DirecTV on August 3 and theaters on September 1, packing a played out and retrograde plotline that aims to reduce female friendships as nothing more than way stations on the way to something much, much better.
The first trailer for “The Layover” sets out the pieces: Kate (Alexandra Daddario) and Meg (Kate Upton) have both just lost their jobs — notably, because they’re both really bad at them — a life upheaval they decide to mitigate by heading to Florida for a fun girls’ trip. On their flight, an attractive stranger (Matt Barr) is seated in between them, and his tight abs and flowing locks are enough to send the long-time pals into a tizzy, eagerly jumping into a love triangle that finds most of its drama in seeing just how wickedly each woman is willing to hurt her supposed best friend. The film’s trailer eagerly offers up a slew of taglines for the feature: Misters before sisters. Testes before besties. Dicks before chicks.
It’s a persistent theme in romantic comedies, though it’s one that’s been relatively dormant in recent years — the last big spike came around the turn of the decade, when “Bride Wars” arrived in 2009, followed two years later by “Something Borrowed” (both of which, funnily enough, star Kate Hudson). Both films hinge on the predominance of the central friendship to play up the eventual drama that these ladies are going to rip each other to shreds in pursuit of a man. But what’s most upsetting and toxic about those films (and, based on our first look at “The Layover,” Macy’s film, too) is that they aren’t just having fun with female desire and competition, they’re built around the destruction of a relationship that’s initially presented as the most important one in the respective ladies’ lives. Presented with the possibility to bag a good-looking dude? Suddenly, those don’t matter anymore, and viciousness reigns supreme.
In “Bride Wars,” childhood best pals who have spent most of their happiest moments together dreaming about their future weddings are suddenly torn asunder by the twist that they’ve booked the same fairy tale venue on the same day for their respective weddings. The only answer to this particular pickle? Fuck the friendship, somebody has to plan her dream wedding. (And that’s hardly the worst of it, as “Bride Wars” finds it essential that Anne Hathaway’s Emma and Hudson’s Live actually ruin each other’s weddings, even after they’ve bitterly fought over them at every turn.)
That’s tough enough, but the film also builds in a wacky love triangle of its own, as Emma is also fixated on Liv’s brother (even though she’s engaged to someone else), again putting a man between two women who supposedly love each other. (Oddly enough, the script for the film was partially written by real-life best pals Casey Wilson and June Diane Raphael, who later went on to make another film about best friends, the charming and genuinely funny “Ass Backwards.”)
“Something Borrowed,” adapted from the bestselling Emily Giffin novel of the same name by Jennie Snyder Urman, at least attempts to place a smidge of blame on one of its central ladies before her supposed best friend gets down to banging her fiancé. The real problem, the story attempts to lean on, is that Hudson’s Darcy isn’t very nice, and Ginnifer Goodwin’s Rachel is (in addition to being a covetous pushover), and thus more deserving of the one man who thrills both of them. When Rachel finally lands her man — again, Darcy’s fiance — it’s presented as a dreamy, romantic victory.
Each film’s conclusion takes a different view on the final state of their central friendships, though neither are particularly satisfying and both sets of friends emerge as emotionally damaged villains who have sacrificed much. At the end of “Bride Wars,” the pair make up, but the film ends on a cheeky bid for a sequel (read: more trauma), when it’s revealed that both of the ladies are now pregnant, and with the same due date to boot. “Something Borrowed” finds it better to keep its gals apart, though it ends with a heart-wrenching final confrontation that doesn’t do much to make up for the pain both Darcy and Rachel have inflicted on each other.
In “Rough Night,” the fraying best friendship between Scarlett Johansson’s Jess and Jillian Bell’s Alice eventually becomes the primary storyline in a film that is, on its surface, about a bachelorette party that kills a dude. Something similar happens in “Girls Trip,” where a pack of long-time best pals are forced to come to terms with various wrongs they’ve inflicted on each other over the years, while also crafting one of the most raunchy sex comedies in recent memory. They are funny, raucous, wild rides — but they also portray the power of female friendship in realistic and empowering ways. They are designed for girls’ night consumption, but they’re not throwaway stories, there’s real heart to both of them, and a real affection for women and their unique bonds. No man can tear that apart.
Both “Rough Night” and “Girls Trip” offer up canny explorations of the tensions that can exist even between the best of friends, yet neither film sees its leading ladies turning on each other in hopes of bagging a hot dude. Instead, issues are rooted in personal anxieties, professional head-butting, and a desire for friends to do what’s best for them (in “Girls Trip,” much of the film’s drama follows three of the women as they attempt to cajole Regina Hall’s character Ryan to leave her cheating husband; notably, none of her friends have slept with him). In “The Layover,” Upton’s character locks Daddario’s in a seedy bathroom so that she might stand a better shot with the hot stranger they just met.
Other recent comedy offerings have explored a similar space, placing an emphasis on the importance of its leading ladies’ friendships without tearing it down in the process. In “Bridesmaids,” Kristen Wiig’s Annie struggles with jealousy and separation anxiety when her best friend, Maya Rudolph’s Lillian, grows closer to another friend (Rose Byrne) while planning her wedding. Annie behaves terribly (though amusingly) throughout the film as she grapples with her emotions, but her affection for Lillian never wavers, and she certainly doesn’t toss her over so that she can steal her fiancé.
Jamie Travis’ delightful “For a Good Time, Call…” follows mismatched roommates who grow into a deep friendship that’s so vivid and essential to them that it leads to a proclamation of affection that charmingly riffs on love stories, giving the same weight to the platonic bond between gal pals that most films would only ascribe to a romance. Modern classic “Romy and Michelle’s High School” reunion also follows a friendship that’s more important than any romance, and even when its titular characters are fighting, it’s never with the same grasping viciousness that “Bride Wars” and “Something Borrowed” portray with such relish.
On the small screen, Netflix’s newest series, the ’80s wrestling comedy “GLOW,” tackles similar material with a deft touch, as its central relationship and primary conflict follows estranged best friends Ruth (Alison Brie) and Debbie (Betty Gilpin) after it’s revealed that Ruth slept with Debbie’s husband. While the ladies duke it out in the ring, a pretty nifty way to work out big issues in productive fashion, their relationship inches its way towards something resembling normalcy. By the end of the first season, the pair haven’t totally made up, but they do appear to be flirting with the possibility of reconciliation. It’s not easy, but “GLOW” realizes that both Ruth and Debbie will be better, healthier people (and much more compelling characters) if they use the betrayal as a way to explore their relationship and themselves.
Plenty of other female-centric comedies have played with love triangles and girl-on-girl crime, from “Mean Girls” to “Clueless,” “The Devil Wears Prada” to “Easy A” (and those are just recent titles), but such features don’t use their deep friendships as kindling, but instead as a relatable piece in a broader picture. Even “Bachelorette,” Leslye Headland’s big screen adapation of her cunningly funny stage play of the same name, trades in purposely bad people, but it doesn’t derive its drama from supposed besties beating each other senseless in order to land a generic man who happens to sport a solid set of abs. Robert Zemeckis’ star-packed “Death Becomes Her” follows childhood pals who literally kill each other for a man, and that film ends with the pair made up and approaching actual eternity together.
In the first trailer for “The Layover,” Upton throws a “kill shot” at Daddario. If only we could land a similar punch this toxic take on what women “really” want.