Bridesmaids and the new Apatow effect…hopefully

Posted on 15 May 2011 by ShepRamsey

It may sound like a critics’ cliché in search of a movie poster, but some movies really are flat-out game changers. Whether that’s a good or bad thing is a total toss-up. After all, for every movie like Go that Pulp Fiction influenced, there are at least three Lucky Number Slevinsmovies that resort to mimicry because they just plain don’t understand what it was that set the original film apart from the rest of the pack and have no real voice of their own.

One of the newest and most pervasive brands of film to make its mark on the face of mainstream American cinema is the Apatow comedy. Be they the films Judd Apatow himself writes and directs (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Funny People) or the ones he merely produces (Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Pineapple Express), they have spawned countless imitators, all R-rated man-centric comedies under the newly coined label of “bromance.” Some aren’t too terrible. This year’s sci-fi bromance, Paul, was lightweight but enjoyable. Others have a tougher time of it—personally, I couldn’t stand 2009′s Apatow knock-off, I Love You, Man. And let’s not forget this year’s widely shat-upon medieval bromance Your Highness.

Apatow’s movies have received widespread critical and commercial success due in large part to their heart and relatability. They’re about crude, crass men, but they strip them down to explore their vulnerabilities and insecurities. I’ve been saying it for years that Knocked Up plays like a drama that happens to be about people who are really funny. Imagine my sense of satisfaction when Apatow’s next movie, his most dramatic to date, was called Funny People. The humor in his movies come solely from the characters, rather than a series of gags and whacky hijinks.

And the best thing is that they sell. American audiences really aren’t as dumb as the box office numbers for the Transformers movies would suggest. Simply the title of The 40-Year-Old Virgin suggests a goofy, camera-winking farce—the kind of movies that comes out, makes a decent sum of money in the first couple weeks and then disappears. But that’s exactly what the movie wasn’t. It was original and sensitive and funny in a new and widely appealing way. And it was a huge hit. The movie came out in August of 2005; I recall that I didn’t see it until October, when it was still at a first-run movie theater. Pretty damn impressive.

Movies with that level of success have to appeal to a wide range of people. Men and women alike have attended and enjoyed these movies. They aren’t genre films with a specific demographic and niche within the film community. They’re smart, accessible, and funny. Everybody wins.

Now there’s Bridesmaids—produced by Judd Apatow, directed by Paul Feig (creator of the Apatow-produced cult TV show Freaks and Geeks), and written by Annie Mumolo and SNL‘s Kristen Wiig, who stars in the film. It follows what one might call the “Apatow formula” to a tee, although there’s one catch—and it’s the one that the title pretty clearly suggests: this time it’s about women.

Let’s face it: women have it pretty crappy in Hollywood. When they’re not being stripped naked and slaughtered in whatever killer-fish movie is popular at the moment, they’re being sidelined by genuinely talented male filmmakers who don’t know how to write interesting female characters (Chris Nolan comes to mind). Female audiences are fed brainless manufactured crap like Bride Wars and Something Borrowed and Kate Hudson Shames Her Gender Again as if they just came off an assembly line. In the 83 years that the Academy Awards have been given out, a woman has won Best Director only once…for directing The Hurt Locker, a movie about men. Judd Apatow, too, has come under fire for his female characters coming off as humorless shrews. It’s tough going, being a woman.

And to make matters even trickier, most men pretty much won’t go see movies about women. Sure, you may hear a friend say “Ugh, I got dragged to (fill-in-the-blank chick flick). It was awful.” But let’s take a moment of silence for all the young women that got dragged to Fast Five.

But you know what? A lot of them probably liked it. There isn’t as much of a gender bias when it comes to women seeing guy movies–particularly among this generation. Most women will tell you that they liked The Dark Knight every bit as much as their husbands or boyfriends.

Getting men to see “chick flicks,” however, is like pulling teeth. Getting men to admit that they liked a chick flick is like rocket science. You know…because we straight men can’t have people thinking we’re gay or something. It’s the natural conclusion to jump to and because of such assumptions, civilization will surely crumble.

But even if it’s merely a guilty pleasure (and most women will attest to that type of satisfaction on their own part, anyway), every guy has some arsenal of chick flicks that they’re total suckers for. I, for one, love While You Were Sleeping, You’ve Got Mail, and The Holiday. And I’m not ashamed.

It’s one of the key differences between the two sexes. You can get girls to do guy things, but there’s just no way in hell you can get a guy to do girl things. There are plenty of womens’ sports teams, but male cheerleaders get looked at funny. When my wife and I were trying to round up a group to go see Bridesmaids with us, Quaid stubbornly refused on account of the fact that the movie was “about weddings.” He missed out.

Not that I’m so high and mighty. The marketing campaign professed a movie that appeared to be The Hangover for women, and the jokes used in it weren’t too impressive. And I didn’t even like The Hangover. I had no interest. But, movie nerd that I am, I was taken in due to the Apatow pedigree and the 91% on RottenTomatoes. And I was so glad that I went. It’s a fantastic movie and possibly the best that the Apatow camp has churned out yet.

It’s fair to say that it is to women what something like Knocked Up or Funny People is to men. It’s crass R-rated comedy that portrays its characters the way that people really are, and is all the more cathartic for doing so. Ultimately it shows us that, when Hollywood does it right, the average woman is really more interesting than the average man.  Hence all the crying.

However, like I said, the ad campaign does not suggest this movie at all. The laughs aren’t focused on goofy gags, but are rather more character-driven, and the story itself is far more about Kristen Wiig’s character and her struggles with her own tumultuous personal life and as maid of honor than it is about the titular bridesmaids as a unit. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that the script used to be called Maid of Honor, until the widely-panned 2008 rom-com Made of Honor got a jump on the title.

And it should be stated that Wiig is extremely talented and has been great on SNL and in her supporting roles in many popular films of the last few years, and I’m so glad she finally has her own vehicle; and she hits it right out of the park, ably carrying the movie on her shoulders. But that doesn’t mean that each and every one of these women don’t get their time to shine and create familiar, funny, and memorable characters.

And not only is Bridesmaids the most consistently laugh-out-loud funny movie that I’ve seen in a very, very long time, but it has a wholly unique tone, perspective, and honesty that I’ve never seen in any movie before. It sets a new bar for depressing “could-it-get-any-worse?” comedy, finding ways to be both wildly hilarious and emotionally affecting in the same scene the whole way through.  It’s like A Serious Man for gentile women.

At 125 minutes, it’s long for a comedy—most Apatow movies are—and really does feel every bit of it. But I mean that in a good way. Many scenes are like short films unto themselves. I recall noticing when certain scenes were going on way longer than the most ordinary version of this movie would allow them to, but that I was also completely okay with that.

The trick to making a movie like Bridesmaids is knowing that the audience knows how it’s going to end, and that it’s the filmmakers’ duty to make them care about how it’s going to get there. Here specifically, you may know how it’s going to end, but you don’t know where it’s going. Especially if you’ve seen a trailer. It’s a film richly populated with characters I genuinely wanted to spend time with. I can honestly say that I wasn’t ready for it to end.

Bridesmaids has all the markings of an honest-to-god game-changer, and I really hope it is.  Assuming it’s a hit—and if the audience I was with is any indication, it will be—I believe that Bridesmaids will very likely reroute the “chick flick” in a direction it badly needs to go. It may even bridge that wide gap between what guys will and won’t see—or own up to liking. It’s an accessible chick flick–nay, it’s a movie about women–that both genders can and will enjoy.

But if the Tarantino retreads have taught us anything, it’s that just because one movie pulls it off successfully, it doesn’t mean that its imitators always will. Hollywood already tried the crude R-rated chick comedy with 2002′s The Sweetest Thing, and that movie was terrible, so there’s more than enough room for failure. However, that movie’s star, Cameron Diaz, will be seen later this summer headlining Jake Kasdan’s R-rated comedy Bad Teacher—and that looks pretty funny.  Good things could be on the way.

But at this point, it’s too soon to say for sure. I’d say give it a year or so before we are able to determine if we’re entering a new era in terms of smart, funny comedies about women which are accessible to everyone. Perhaps there will no longer be “chick flicks” and “guy movies.” Maybe, from now on, we can all get along and sing a song, and we’ll just have “movies.”

2 Comments For This Post

  1. Quaid Says:

    I love a whole slew of “Chick Flicks.” The Devil Wears Prada, Love Actually (though that one bridges the gap pretty well), Sleepless in Seattle…I just didn’t feel like going to see Bridesmaids this weekend. And it was fun to give Erin a hard time about it, too. ;)

  2. ShepRamsey Says:

    I realize that, but you set yourself up and I had to take the swing. No hard feelings, big guy?

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