Female-Led Comedies Are Finally Fulfilling the R-Rated Promise of ‘Bridesmaids’

Seven years after the game-changing comedy hit, movies are finally catching up to the possibility that women can be wild and funny on their own terms.
Female-Led Comedies Are Finally Fulfilling Promise of 'Bridesmaids'

Girl Talk is a weekly look at women in film — past, present, and future.

Hollywood loves a good trend, and when Paul Feig’s “Bridesmaids” debuted a work in progress print at the SXSW Film Festival in March of 2011, delighting audiences with the kind of bawdy comedy typically reserved for male-driven comedies, people were quick to predict that its charms would suddenly translate to a gold rush of other R-rated comedies featuring talented female stars. When the film opened two months later and made nearly $170 million at the domestic box office alone, the message was clear: There’s a market for these movies.

But more didn’t come. At least, not right away.

On the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the theatrical release of “Bridesmaids,” I was still touting the simple nature of its winning formula, and how it “unleashed some eye-popping scatological humor (from women! of all people! my goodness!) on the mostly unsuspecting masses,” but “also didn’t shy away from something much messier: real human emotion.” It’s been a tough experience to duplicate, though the entertainment industry finally seems to be catching up, seven years later.

There were, of course, some early possibilities for picking up the mantel, including Amy Schumer’s breakout hit “Trainwreck” and Leslye Headland’s criminally underseen “Sleeping With Other People.” But both of Schumer’s “Trainwreck” followups made less than half of her first hit — “Snatched” was good enough to pull Goldie Hawn out of retirement, but earned less than $49 million in domestic returns, while the considerably better “I Feel Pretty” is similarly hovering around $48 million — and Headland has yet to return to the big screen, instead keeping busy in the theatrical world where she first made her bones. (Headland also wrote and directed the even raunchier “Bachelorette,” which also debuted in 2011, though that pitch black comedy didn’t have the same emotional center of “Bridesmaids”; still, we’re losing something by not having Headland, who’s currently working on a Netflix series, behind the camera on features these days.)

The tremendous success of last year’s smash hit “Girls Trip” was the most clear signal that the raunchy, female-led comedy was still a bankable endeavor with an eager audience. That film made over $115 million at the box office last year. And it wasn’t just the first (and only) live-action comedy of last year to break the $100 million mark, but the very first movie that was written, produced, directed, and starring black people to make more than $100 million at the box office in historyIn short: this is a film that appealed to a massive audience, was desperately wanted (and needed), and proved it with its box office might.

It’s also a film that both works the “Bridesmaids” formula — raunch and heart — and turns it into its own thing. Its spunky spin on the material was even more obvious when compared with last summer’s other “Bridesmaids” wannabe, “Rough Night,” which similarly centered on a group of friends on an wacky trip with big emotional stakes. That film didn’t have even a fraction of the box office pull of “Girls Trip,” making just $22.1 million, but that two R-rated films about women gone wild could open in the same season is only further proof that the tide is turning. (As “Rough Night” director and co-writer Lucia Aniello explained last year, “It’s hard-R. It’s a capital R, it’s a beautiful capital R.”)

“Rough Night”

Both “Girls Trip” and “Rough Night” follow a tight-knit group of pals from college who embark on a wild trip in the hopes of re-sparking their fading friendships, though “Girls Trip” leans more firmly into the emotional ties between its leading ladies, versus offing a male stripper within its first act and running with it. That it all ends with a heartwarming reveal doesn’t dilute its more raucous sensibilities; it only makes it more clear why filmmaker Malcolm D. Lee and his cast should think about turning this “Girls Trip” into a franchise that can spawn more uproarious vacations. Now that would be game-changing success: an entire series dedicated to women and comedy like that.

And don’t count Netflix out of the game either, as just last week, the streaming giant released its own version of the “Girls Trip” and “Bridesmaids” magic: “Ibiza.” While Netflix uses television guidelines when rating their films, there’s no question that the raunchy road trip comedy is very much an R, filled with drugs, drinking, boobs, and a dizzying array of very bad decisions. And yet, just like “Bridesmaids” and “Girls Trip,” the film couches its craziness in genuine affection between its female leads. It even takes the formula one step further, doing away with the common trope of making leading ladies fight to stir up some drama (and, often, some major revelations); instead, its ladies (including a breakout Vanessa Bayer) just love and support each other. It’s still funny.

Netflix was also behind Olivia Milch’s stoner comedy “Dude,” which took the concept that women could be funny and messy and continue to have rich emotional lives and obvious growth over the course of a film and applied it to high school. Kay Cannon’s R-rated sex comedy “Blockers” did the same thing earlier this year with even greater success, putting a twist on the typically male-dominated subgenre of “hey, these teenagers would like to get laid.”

While that film also focused on said teenagers’ parents trying to stop them from doing the deed, it also hinged on the bond between a trio of best girlfriends, all of whom were there for each other no matter what crazy stuff happened (from drinking to drugs to heavier stuff, like figuring out their sexuality).

IBIZA Gillian JacobsCREDITAleksandar Letic
“Ibiza”Aleksandar Letic

Making those girls feel real was of paramount importance to Cannon, who told IndieWire:

What I felt like I brought to the table that wasn’t in the script that I read was the heart and the emotion, the real specificity to the daughters…In trying to decide each issue the girls individually had, I was like, “What are young women in high school dealing with right now? And how are they dealing with it?

It’s that kind of specificity and care that elevate the newest class of raunchy, lady-powered films, grounding them in emotion and accessibility, even when things get nuts. It’s something “Bridesmaids” excelled at, another slice of its winning recipe — after all, how many films include a scene that follows its leading lady as she destroys a giant cookie in the middle of a bridal shower and seem believable at the same time?

Older characters — and audiences — haven’t been left out of the fun, either. While the “Bad Moms” franchise stumbled after its own record-breaking first film back in 2016, it translated the themes of “Bridesmaids” to a domestic setting, following three offbeat moms as they bond while trying to be the best parents they can possibly be. The first film made over $115 million at the box office, yet another female-led R-rated comedy to blow past the $100 million mark (and the only live-action comedy to do so in 2016). “A Bad Moms Christmas” put a holiday spin on similar material, pulling in over $70 million during a winter season normally crowded with awards contenders.

Earlier this year, actress Heather Graham jumped behind the camera for her debut, “Half Magic,” an R-rated rom-com that was just as much about female empowerment and friendships than it was about trying to stir up some romance. It’s also a film that’s clearly from a female perspective. “Most movies are written from a male point of view, so they’re like, ‘You’re a stripper,’ or ‘You’re a prostitute,’” Graham told IndieWire in February. “I feel like I’ve been living in this male-dominated world and people don’t even really realize how sexist it is. They just think, ‘Oh, no we’re being equal.’ But it’s so super sexist.”

And though it’s not R-rated, last month’s charming “Book Club” also found the balance between romance and raunch, focused on a group of life-long friends who change their lives by reading the “Fifty Shades of Grey” trilogy. Things only get PG-13 level crazy, but it’s proven to be a crowdpleaser that’s already well on its way to the $50 million mark. That it’s based on real women — it was inspired by the mothers of filmmakers Bill Holderman and Erin Simms and their own adventures reading the books — also speaks to the true appeal of these films: they’re wild, they’re raunchy, but they’re also real. Audiences wanted it in 2011, and they still want it now. Some trends just take time.

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