Friday, June 3, 2011

How girls do gross-out comedy

There is nothing much to say cinematically about Bridesmaids (2011), but it may mark an interesting moment in social-cultural history. Obviously, The Hangover is the template, and the looming and immovable date of a wedding provides a strong narrative "clock" that dozens of production executives, producers and screenwriters find irresistible. But whereas the male "get me to the church on time" movie focuses on the zany shenanigans of the men in question, the female version--as one would expect--focuses on the dynamics of the relationship among the women in the wedding party. Bridesmaids is no exception, and the principal plot constitutes a competition between an old friend (Kristen Wiig) and a new (rich) friend (Rose Byrne) for the affection and attention of the bride (Maya Rudolph).

Wiig and her co-writer Annie Mumalo smartly raise the stakes by having Wiig's life (and sanity) circle the drain throughout the movie. In the sequence in question, maid-of-honor Wiig has arranged for a lunch at a questionable looking Brazilian barbeque restaurant prior to a group fitting at a swanky boutique. Although the food is apparently delicious, extraordinary repercussions follow during the fitting as shown in the clip above. What follows is every variety of gastric distress experienced in some very expensive clothing.

From interviews with director Paul Feig and Ms. Mumalo I glean that this sequence was not the original one written for this place in the story. Ms. Wiig had her character getting lost in a long romantic fantasy, which, as described, seems difficult to picture on screen. Producer Judd Apatow insisted that Wiig's character needed to make a large mistake at this point and proposed the food poisoning scenario, although Mesdames Mumalo & Wiig, accepting the idea, wrote the actual sequence.

I'm pretty immune to poop-and-vomit humor, which delights two-year-olds of all ages. And Bridesmaids has the courage of its conviction. It doesn't turn its head (although I turned mine) at the sight of bodily fluids washing over its characters. The film certainly wanted to cash in on the transgressive nature of putting women in the kind of low comedy sequence previously reserved for the boys (not men). We're in the land of Comedy of Discomfort which via programs like The Office has become a dominant subgenre today.

For all the nausea and hysteria and some very funny ad-libs, especially those by Melissa McCarthy, the real power of the sequence comes from the humiliation and embarrassment of these now-well-established characters, rather than the pre-adolescent wonder at the strange things our bodies emit that one finds in the man-boy movies. The centerpiece is the truly perversely lovely image of Maya Rudolph in a gloriously white wedding gown, heading across a city street in search of a functioning bathroom, moving into a crouch as her lower intestine begins (we presume from her face) to betray her, gradually shifting into a Groucho crouch under that voluminous gown, until it is all too late, Nature has triumphed over civilization, and Rudolph collapses near the curb, the disaster having happened -- happily unseen, with Defeat writ large on her crumpled and disappointed face. The juxtaposition of the beautiful fantasy of the princess bride in her unstained whiteness concealing the truth of what exactly our bodies do with food is the kind of Bergsonian incongruity that makes for comedy that is bigger than gross-out jokes and gags, comedy that is real and human and universal and grand for all its pettiness.

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