“Bridesmaids” and the science of female comedy


Warning: You haven’t seen this many spoilers since Fast Five. This isn’t a “10 Reasons You Should Go See a Movie I Like” list where I would purposely make plot points vague and keep repeating “…and then it gets better man oh man JUST. WATCH!” Instead, here is an analysis and one theory for why Bridesmaids is so damn effective.

The phrase “filmmaking is an uphill battle” gets repeated frequently in commentary tracks and promotional interviews by industry pros, and to their credit, clears confusion that the studio “shat out Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon in a month.” However, when the movie is about non-white, non-straight and/or non-male individuals, the uphill battle is littered with landmines, turret nests, and battle-ready gunotaurs.

Artist’s rendering.

Bold concepts force these films into D.IY. or indie production, as very few major studios would dare risk money on what seems to be a limited audience, forgetting that good film is rarely only about plot. A script enters Hollywood as a tender black comedy about a transgendered couple living in Nazi-occupied Poland and comes out as Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon, the original script’s only remnant being the mangled motif of a cold pastry, itself changed to a cold EggoTM.

When a movie is given a wide release by a major studio that doesn’t follow the standard gender genre conventions (more on this later), yet is still successful in the box office across all demographics, it shakes up how movies are produced, advertised, and consumed.  Bridesmaids, though not too far removed from the dominant culture’s comfort zone, raises the question: How does a comedy and character study about a middle-aged woman’s social invisibility win over a summer audience of both men and women? Or perhaps a more prominent question, “Why should I care?”

The romantic comedy formula and “chick filck,” the term’s sexist etymology debated between feminists and post-feminists, have meant exclusivity towards women in jokes, tone and theme. Jokes are derived from the “grotesque” (imperfections and bathroom humor) of the human body and the state of romance in the modern world. Males frequently protest the idea of watching these films, fearing violation of an unwritten man-code and the rescinding of boner rights, yet this hesitance to watch Something Borrowed comes from the reality represented in film being gender-specific. Ghosts of Girlfriends Past belongs in a different universe than masculine comedy, its own logic conflicting with social and cultural expectations of males, but aimed to reaffirm ideas of the female viewership.

This schism can be referred to as genre-specific suspension of disbelief. Matthew McConaughey can drive through a forest to stop his love interest from leaving him, nearly killing himself and his loved one’s entire family in the process, but no one gets hurt and the act is deemed romantic, not goddamn terrifying. In the same genre for the masculine gender, Danny McBride straight-up murders people in Pineapple Express and it’s funny. While it lacks pot-driven action and McConaugheys, Bridesmaids helps patch this schism.

99% of success is showing up shirtless.

Bridesmaids succeeds by acknowledging a relationship between feminine comedy has with the masculine comedy. Writers Kristin Wiig and Annie Mumolo never directly make fun of the masculine comedy, instead using what Russian formalist Mikhail Bakhtin calls “Dialogic,” also known as “intertextuality.”  The cornerstone to understanding how parody works, the dialogic compares how two genres, references, works, tropes, and anything else inherent in stories play off each other. Forcing two separate genres together enunciates their strengths and weaknesses in relation to each other, but also their similarities and differences. It’s making something new by combining two things that are already understood by the public.

Someday, Nicolas Cage will play Bakhtin.

To summarize dense-ass theory using the paintball episodes of Community as an example, the storyline still follows Community’s form and self-designated genre, but combined with a foreign language (the action movie genre), the jarring concoction creates laughter by forcing nonsense into meaning. Bridesmaids, constantly aware of audience expectation for a feminized version of its masculine counterparts, stands next to the path of destruction of Superbad and the carnival of The Hangover only to give said expectations a big ol’ middle finger.

The film strips away power from the masculine ideas and symbols through Chris O’Dowd’s performance as Officer Rhodes, who laughs at his own lack of manliness and inability to intimidate. One scene that comes to mind is when he asks Kristin Wiig’s Annie if she’d like to go on patrol with him. The film cuts to both characters on the side of the road, the camera framing Annie’s upper body.  She is standing with her hands down in front of her and a look of determination. In any other comedy, she would be holding a handgun, and that’s precisely the goal. A firearm is expected in comedy. It’s become a trope for easy laughs above unexpected danger (Superbad, Life Aquatic,  the only funny scene in Semi-Pro), but it’s still a masculine, phallic (read: dickish) symbol.

Moreover, the same setup is used in Superbad to give Christopher Mintz-Plasse‘s Fogel power, in the same context it’s used in Bridesmaids. Like an 8th grade party doomed to tragedy, Bridesmaids confuses Russian roulette and Spin the Bottle, turning the gun trope around on masculine comedy to set itself apart ideologically. In perverting the “conventionally unconventional” gunplay by revealing a traffic gun, Annie doesn’t gain power through possible violence. Instead, she finds calming comfort by having power via observation and ordering.

Perversion of masculine comedy conventions continue during the trip to Las Vegas. A few overeager (read: dickish) reviewers referred to the film as “The Hangover for women!” and here is why that’s terribly ill-informed. The bridesmaids board the plane in Reservoir Dogs-style badass slow-motion, building up the anticipation for a no-holds-barred comedy that never comes for good reason. Fully aware that the film would enter “drunken debauchery mode,” the script denies Vegas in favor of grounding the plane with Annie’s sedative-fueled emotional breakdown. Annie, publicly airing her hated for Helen (Rose Byrne) pushes forth ideas that let Bridesmaids stand as total opposite of The Hangover. Hangover is a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story of destruction and irresponsibility.

Wait, they took care of a baby? ARGUMENT RETRACTED.

The wolf pack is “othered” from themselves, allowing for humor to come from realizing what they were capable of in regards to Ed Helms’ emotional frankness and the group’s wake of chaos. However, this chaotic trail of destruction plays purely for laughs, divorced from the actual moment and represented in the hilarity of hindsight. The tragedy of Bridesmaids comes from Annie’s consciousness during her destructive bouts, living a sober nightmare.  The tragedy of consciousness appears again at Lillian’s (Maya Rudolph) wedding shower, yet her physical attack on her surroundings, like her plane ramblings, appear pathetically ineffectual for laughs. There is no strength in destruction, only pettiness at its peak.

Annie’s fear of invisibility and the wide visibility of her terrible moments are lightened by her foil Megan (Mellissa McCarthy), the middle ground between masculine and feminine comedy. Megan’s masculine habits within the group of bridesmaids allow her to be a hybrid of the two genres. She’s the only character that’s happy throughout the entire movie, and beyond Annie, is the only other bridesmaid shown working (during the Las Vegas phone conversation montage). She doesn’t complain about husbands or sex like Helen (Rosa Byrne) and Becca (Ellie Kemper), choosing to instead trouble the feminine gender with her ideas (Fight Club-themed party, stealing puppies, pooping the sink). Compared to the role of Zach Galifianakis as Alan in Hangover, or Mintz-Plasse as Fogel, Megan’s difference comes from not striving to be liked by others.

I got giddy when I realized she was Sookie from Gilmore Girls. No clever turn in this sentence. Just feelings.

Starting as a joke character inhabiting the grotesque, how she lives her life becomes the exaggerated goal of the movie. Unlike Alan or Fogel, she receives the most laughs while delivering the most pathos. In this, Megan becomes the parodic double of the underpowered, single-serving side character by being well written.

Bridesmaids, like any film marginalized by focusing on anyone but white straight males, defines itself in relation to what the dominate culture finds comfortable.  As a comedy, it achieves its goal beautifully through parody, using a language recognizable in popular movies to show how it sets itself apart. The parodic separations from masculine comedy in Bridesmaids show why the gender-defined genres must be different. To simply recreate a masculine movie as a “chick flick” discredits any positive influence of the female voice. By dissecting differences, it frames women’s issues in something easily digestible to the average comedy fan, regardless of gender. Gunotaurs be damned.

  • JimB

    I was hoping that while she was riding in the cop car, she was holding her massive penis.
    Now THAT would be funny.

    • MikeHaverty

      At the very least, that title of the article would have to be changed.