Indiewire’s Girl Talk column is a bi-weekly look at women in film — past, present and future.
When Paul Feig’s “Bridesmaids” debuted a work in progress print at the SXSW Film Festival in March of 2011, the female-driven comedy instantly struck a nerve, delighting audiences with its unexpectedly raunchy comedy and a cast seemingly entirely comprised of breakout talents (from a post-“SNL” Kristen Wiig to rising stars like Melissa McCarthy, Ellie Kemper and Rose Byrne). The bawdy feature happily upended comedy tropes typically utilized by films that normally starred guys (from “Bachelor Party” to the “Hangover” franchise, being bad in a funny way was long the territory of men), and was rewarded handsomely, earning over $288 million at the box office when it opened worldwide two months later.
Even those early reviews focused on the down and dirty nature of the film, using terms like “rude and crude” and “exuberantly raunchy” and “not afraid to mix women with potty humor” to express the full scope of the film’s depravity. Mostly mixed in with admiration for such choices, the success of “Bridesmaids” was soon believed (or at least hoped) to be the dawning of a great new period in cinematic history: the age of the raunchy woman. Surely other films like “Bridesmaids” would follow, and soon, but five years on, that’s not what happened.
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While “Bridesmaids” unleashed some eye-popping scatological humor (from women! of all people! my goodness!) on the mostly unsuspecting masses, it also didn’t shy away from something much messier: real human emotion. While the biggest laughs of the film surely came from scenes involving bathroom mishaps and a particularly awful incident with a chocolate fountain, Feig’s film also featured achingly honest segments about love and, perhaps most satisfyingly, female friendship. Kristen Wiig’s Annie is subjected to endless tiny tragedies and minor indignities throughout the film (the least of which involve toilets or fountains), many of them meted out by Byrne’s deliriously involved Helen, hell-bent on taking off with Annie’s best friend Lilian (Mya Rudolph), and still more of them coming at the hands of the mostly well-meaning Lilian, who is unaware how much she is hurting her already wounded friend.
The great tragedy of “Bridesmaids” isn’t a romantic one, and when it comes time for heartfelt reunions and plenty of tears, it’s because a pair of friends are coming back together. Penned by Wiig and her own close friend Annie Mumolo, “Bridesmaids” may have initially stuck out because of its raucous humor, but its keenly observed female friendships really set it apart. And that’s what became the real legacy of “Bridesmaids.”
McCarthy ultimately emerged as the real star of “Bridesmaids” (despite her comedy roots, Wiig has opted for a diverse lineup of roles post-“Bridesmaids,” while Byrne continues to round out her resume with a variety of parts, from comedy to musical to even a superhero franchise, and is often the best thing in them), and her meteoric rise to become one of Hollywood’s most bankable comedy stars, male or female, is at least partially owed to her star-making performance in the film. Although McCarthy hasn’t wholly cast off the raunchy roots of “Bridesmaids,” her latest string of hits still hews surprisingly closely to the emotional aims of Feig’s film. From “The Heat” to “Identity Thief” to last week’s box office winner “The Boss,” McCarthy’s films always find room for relationships, often ending with mismatched (and formerly at odds) characters coming together to form off-kilter families borne from bizarre circumstances.
Both “The Heat” and “The Boss” offer big, wild comedy set pieces, but they also hinge on the bond between their female leads, and both films end with McCarthy’s oddball outcast finding a self-chosen family alongside her newly minted best pal (Sandra Bullock in “The Heat,” Kristen Bell in “The Boss”). “Identity Thief” explores similar territory, though it matches McCarthy up with a male comedic counterpart (Jason Bateman) who, again, eventually accepts the wacky character into his actual family.
Even “Tammy,” while widely considered McCarthy’s least successful feature, still includes a hefty emotional aim that finds resonance in the bond between McCarthy’s eponymous character and her hard-living grandmother, played by Susan Sarandon. Plenty of comedies include funny gags about people playing dead, but “Tammy” is probably the only one in recent memory that plays that kind joke for actual tears.
The emotion-driven formula extends to other established comedy stars, too, as last year’s Tina Fey- and Amy Poehler-starring “Sisters” frequently went wild and wooly (the best parts of the film followed a “Bachelor Party”-style bash that goes increasingly off the rails), while sticking close to the familial bond between its stars who, of course, play a pair of mismatched siblings who are closer to each other than anyone else.
Upcoming offerings like “The Meddler” mine for laughs in overbearing mothers and reluctant daughters (Byrne, incidentally enough, stars in that one too, alongside a very charming Susan Sarandon). Rebecca Miller’s festival hit “Maggie’s Plan,” due to hit theaters in May pulls a quirky re-direct, eventually bonding together two very different women (Greta Gerwig and Julianne Moore) after one of them makes off with the other’s husband and attempts to set things right.
Elsewhere, the “Pitch Perfect” series, though jazzed up with a bevy of impressive musical numbers from the Barden Bellas a cappella group and their many rivals, still found the time to concern itself with the emotional well-being of the various Bella bonds. The central conflict of the first film wasn’t even if the Bellas would win the big competition, it was if Anna Kendrick’s Beca would realize the importance of sticking with her squad of “awesome nerds.” (Spoiler alert: She did, although that didn’t stop her from essentially working through those same issues in the film’s sequel.)
The raunchy DNA that helped bolster “Bridesmaids” to a new level of comedy (and box office supremacy) hasn’t been wholly pushed aside, however, as recent films like Amy Schumer’s wild “Trainwreck” and Leslye Headland’s “Sleeping With Other People” didn’t balk at getting dirty (and doing the nasty) on the big screen. (Headland, funnily enough, also helmed “Bachelorette,” which came out mere months after “Bridesmaids,” and pushed the envelope so far past “raunchy” that it was almost wholly rejected by audiences; “Sleeping With Other People” added in some very welcome sweetness to much better effect).
There are, of course, outliers to the new formula. Garry Marshall’s latest lady-centric holiday movie, “Mother’s Day,” may feature an all-star cast of actresses (from Julia Roberts to Jennifer Aniston), but if it follows the path of its predecessors, will likely be totally devoid of actual heart.
It’s even unclear where Feig, again accompanied by McCarthy and Wiig for his take on the “Ghostbusters” mythos, will go next. Early looks at the July feature have leaned heavy on the action and the nostalgia, and seem to be less beholden to bonding the ladies together than watching them battle beasties together. How that will shake out remains to be seen, but as one of the shepherds of this new wave of emotion-driven female-centric humor, we’re certainly hoping that Feig and friends remain where to aim those proton packs: at the heart. The funny bone will follow.