Girls on Film: How 'Bridesmaids' Became Judd Apatow's Most Successful Film to Date

Girls on Film: How 'Bridesmaids' Became Judd Apatow's Most Successful Film to Date

Jun 30, 2011

As you read this, something pretty phenomenal is happening. Bridesmaids is surpassing the likes of The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Talladega Nights, Superbad and the ever-popular Knocked Up to become the highest grossing film of Judd Apatow’s career. After last weekend, the film had earned a theatrical gross of $148 million, less than $200 thousand shy of Talladega and $700 thousand shy of Knocked Up. Since the film made over $5 million last weekend, and hasn’t even hit all of its international markets yet, all of the world’s movie theatres would have to explode to keep Bridesmaids from dethroning Knocked Up this week.

And that’s only the first part of the news. As The Hollywood Reporter shares, projections expect the blockbuster comedy to kick out Sex and the City and become the top R-rated (domestic) female comedy of all time. Carrie and her plagued marriage to Mr. Big hit theaters back in 2008 and grossed $153 million, which Bridesmaids is expected to pass over the weekend. And the film is doing so not with an established property and fandom, but with excellent word of mouth.

The boys’ club of blockbuster comedy is now facing the hard truth that success isn’t the result of gender supremacy.

40 year old virginOver the last seven years, Judd Apatow has become the undeniable king of comedy. He wet his TV feet producing Anchorman, and then crafted modern comedy in his own image, fueling the rise of the off-beat male hero as soon as Steve Carell’s cherubically virgin smile graced posters everywhere in 2005. Having net $150 million in his first big-screen comedy, Apatow became the "It" man. A year later, he made even more money producing Talladega Nights, and a year after that he earned even more with his personal look at pregnancy with Knocked Up. Though subsequent films like Superbad and Step Brothers attempted to de-throne the Katherine Heigl/Seth Rogen coupling, no Apatow film even reached $125 million again until his next femme-centric feature, Bridesmaids.

It may not be the brainchild of Apatow’s – it was written by star Kristen Wiig and co-scribe Annie Mumolo, and was directed by oft television helmer Paul Feig – but the comedy fits comfortably in the Apatow oeuvre. Reality is mixed with the ridiculous as a down-on-their-luck lead navigates the pesky world of interpersonal communications and everyday life. They tackle it all with humor and the help of a network of highly dynamic friends.

But instead of a stoner slacker, shockingly old virgin, or infantile grown men, Wiig grabs the lead. It’s the Saturday Night Live comedienne’s moment to shine. Though her television work milks her fearless drive and willingness to be grotesque, a wave of supporting, scene-stealing film work revealed that her talents stretched well beyond quirky girls with doll hands who like to sing. It was quite clear that she wouldn’t be one of the female SNL alums who struggle to find feature film footing.

As Annie, Wiig mixes the best of all worlds. In one moment, she can be truly ridiculous and perfectly slapstick. In the next, she can reveal real heart and humanity. Wiig rules during agonizingly long moments of discomfort; where films like Meet the Parents milk unease through over-the-top actions, she finds the desperate humanity that makes her drawn-out moments seem plausible. She can have a romantic or catty fight just as easily as she can interact with her friends or lay down sarcastic one-liners. 

But it’s not some perfectly presented, stereotype-free comedy, and that’s part of the magic. As some detractors note, this is a movie about marriage, with the woman wearing pink and occasionally having cat fights. The lead character is a woman who found a career baking; it’s romance, marriage, and kitchens – the usual, ever-prevalent ‘50s shtick. It’s not the paragon of perfect, stereotype-free characterizations and it’s not meant to be.

Bridesmaids is the bridge to future femme comedy. It’s the film that shows its predecessors what they were missing – the sugar to make modern medicine go down. It takes the tropes we recognize and filters them in ways that begin to reflect real life rather than just perpetuating unrecognizable women. It opens the door to funny so that future films can go nuts and push beyond the stereotypes.

Yes, Annie bakes, but just as much as Wiig’s lead finds strength in the kitchen, it’s not on any man’s terms. In fact, when Officer Rhodes (sweetly) tries to help her get back to baking, she rejects it and him. The women are bridesmaids and are excited for their friend, but they all express it in different ways that not only reflect their interests, but what is happening in their lives – fight clubs, strippers, vacation escape. They’re women who interact with each other, and pass the Bechdel Rule brilliantly.

Perhaps the most discussed aspect of the film is the gross-out humor of the dress shopping scene, one that might seem out of place in a film rife with heart, but one that is essential to this turning of the page. As the women get food poisoning while trying on dresses, they’re not only revealing their ability to partake in gross gags like their male counterparts and blurring the lines between so-called “men’s” and “women’s” comedy – they’re also re-coding the female experience. That one scene wipes away the notion of the perfect woman who doesn’t smell, sweat, or defecate, adding a real human element to the flashy-female Hollywood experience and doing precisely what comedy is meant to – taking its subjects and putting them through unexpected and jolting conditions. It’s the cinematic response to Christopher Hitchens’ appalling Vanity Fair article a few years ago, where he stated: “Whereas women, bless their tender hearts, would prefer that life be fair, and even sweet, rather than the sordid mess it actually is. Jokes about calamitous visits to the doctor or the shrink or the bathroom, or the venting of sexual frustration on furry domestic animals, are a male province.”

Bridesmaids’ power lies in its ability to break through the ridiculous, but unfortunately prevalent, opinion. It takes everything – the absurdity, the stereotypes, the romance, the recognizable tropes – and reframes them in a way that shows modern comedy what it’s missing. It wipes away notions that women have to act one way and men another. It challenges the poorly plotted Hollywood characters whose actions are based on antiquated expectations rather than that character’s life path. (Annie does date the ever-jerk Ted, but not because women are weak and easily manipulated by men, but because Annie is in headspace where she <falsely> feels weak.)  It bridges the gap not only between yesterday’s comedy and the possibility of the future, but also rampant opinions of the male and female experience.

It shows the potential in female characterizations and comediennes. One of Judd Apatow’s biggest strengths is how his films launch funny actors into comedic stardom. Steve Carell, Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Paul Rudd, and more became stars through Apatow. But those career-defining roles (as noted in a recent Girls on Film) haven’t existed for women until the always scene-stealing Wiig found comedic, big-screen stardom, and then saw her spotlight stolen by talent like Melissa McCarthy.

Studio execs have told Nia Vardalos that films like Sex and the City were a fluke. Movie ticket sales are said to be dominated by young men ages 18-24. Yet here we are, with another record-breaking female comedy, one that has proven that our most successful modern comedy producer finds the most success when he offers the world female-driven films.

Yes folks, women are funny, and they have the box office power to back that up.

 

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