My Picks for the Most Overrated and Underrated Movies of 2011
Most Overrated: Bridesmaids
April and I had plenty of opportunities to see Bridesmaids. Living in LA we somehow stumbled onto an email list for free advance screenings every week. Several invites came for Bridesmaids in the months before it opened and each time we kind of sort of wanted to go but ended up spending the evening with Don Draper instead. When the film finally opened and scored 90% on Rotten Tomatoes we started kicking ourselves. (Jon Hamm was even in it in a very Draper-esque role!) Yet somehow our friends insisting it was funnier than Superbad failed to propel us to walk 10 minutes down the block.
Now it turns out that our laziness -- a kind of entertainment sixth sense? -- was correct. The culture and our peers had promised a female version of The Hangover -- gross-out humor and drunken debauchery except now it's the women's turn to show that yes, testicles were not required for actors to humiliate themselves in self-destructive spectacles for our comedic enjoyment.
But while Hangover, Superbad, and others in this genre of R-rated gross-out comedy require many elements for success there is a glue that holds them all together: the strength of the characters and their relationships. Say what you will about the judgment of the protagonists in Hangover, they're all at least likable, decent guys trying to be friends to one another. There's a sense of camaraderie that viewers can lose themselves in, imagining that they too are one of the guys, and recalling their own wild parties from youth.
But Bridesmaids is just Phyllis Chesler's Woman's Inhumanity to Woman reenacted by Saturday Night Live actresses.
When April and I finished Bridesmaids I thought that my problem with it was primarily technical. Just that the characters were not developed enough and the jokes inadequate. The sequences between Kristen Wiig and her police officer love interest were refreshing but seemed like they belonged in another movie. The dialogue didn't have the smart crackle of Knocked Up, 40-Year-Old Virgin, or Funny People. There were a few chuckles and clever exchanges but no catch phrases I'd ever reference in public. Still, it wasn't boring or unpleasant -- I'd at least give it a C+.
Having thought more on the themes and characters of the film, though, the film's genuine problems come into greater, distressing clarity: the terrible ideas it puts forward about both friendship and marriage. Here's a question for those who have seen -- and especially those who like -- Bridesmaids: are any of the characters friends? The Bridesmaids defender might answer, "Well, they might not be very good friends much of the time but they're trying and certainly by the end of the movie they're being better friends."
****WARNING SPOILERS FOLLOW****
Wrong. Rule number one of being a friend: you do not facilitate and encourage self-destruction. If you are someone's friend then the first time you meet their fiance should not be after they're engaged. Friends watch very carefully when someone they care about -- man or woman -- is in a relationship. And real friends are honest with each other when they're involved with an evil man or vampiric woman. As a friend it is your duty to judge the ethical, moral, and competency level of your friends' potential mates so they do not end up broken and victimized. You do not stand by while your friend marries someone who will ruin his or her life.
But that's what the women in Bridesmaids do. Notice how the Bride Lillian (Maya Rudolph) has a husband-to-be Doug who is not an active character in the film at all? Recall how his own sister Melissa (Megan McCarthy), describes him as an "asshole" in a discussion. And what does it say about Doug that his mentor's wife, the film's evil, "too perfect" antagonist rich girl Helen (Rose Byrne) is a lonely, deeply unhappy, abandoned woman? You know a man's character by the company he keeps. (And also observe Bridesmaids' subtle Marxism of the protagonist being a recently bankrupt proletariat and the antagonist a bourgeoisie lady who did nothing to earn her wealth but marry strategically.)
Lillian prepares herself for a life married to a narcissistic, workaholic man who will probably cheat on her. And her supposed friends are too busy obsessing over their own self-doubts and meaningless, junior high social life pecking order contests to notice.
And observe the film's other cynical caricatures of marriage, each foreshadowing the doom awaiting Lillian: there's Rita (Wendi McLendon-Covey in a riff on her Reno 911 "cougar" persona) who complains of her three disgusting teenage boys and their father who ignores her sexual needs. The film juxtaposes her with a younger vision of marital apocalypse, Becca played by Ellie Kemper is the dorky Christian Gen-Y newlywed of the bunch, a virgin on her wedding night now married to an uber-nerd who we later learn is also incompetent and bizarre in bed. (The writers' inter-generational jab of her pathetic character is clear: "These optimistic millennials getting married too young can't possibly be happy! They must have weird, dysfunctional sex lives.") Later these two women supposedly oppressed by the patriarchy bond over alcohol. Their story lines are not resolved at film's end and they just resume their miserable lives.
Of the Bridesmaids featured on the poster the only one depicted as having any level of happiness and consistent sexual satisfaction is Melissa who lives her life in imitation of a man, making sacks of money with her elite government intelligence career and kinky public sex adventures with whoever she wants. The film's themes might as well have been cribbed from Jessica Valenti, Naomi Wolf, and Amanda Marcotte: marriage leads to unhappiness, men will not love you, the path to fulfillment is in casual sex (an opportunity for the sexually aggressive, enlightened woman to exploit and dominate over a weak male) and financial independence. Can anyone name a film that more proudly champions the bleak nihilism of Gen-X, third wave feminism?
Another of the open secrets about the Judd Apatow comedies is that vulgarity and nudity only act to hide very socially conservative plots. The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Funny People, Get Him to the Greek, Superbad, and Pineapple Express all promote abstinence, fidelity, pro-life values, and the consequences of irresponsible drug and alcohol abuse. Bridesmaids goes in the opposite direction, viciously caricaturing the very institution it pretends to celebrate. Three years ago I described the phenomenon of social conservatism embedded in R-rated raunch fest as "stealth conservatism." Let's hope that Bridesmaids is an aberration in the House of Apatow's usual steadier course. But given its overrated levels of critical and financial success it's hard to be sure.
Also see Roger and Lionel's take on Bridesmaids in this episode of Poliwood:
So there we have my first pair of cinematic heresies for 2012. But the gaps in my 2011 viewing are still large. Anybody else have recommendations for other underrated films to seek out and overrated to avoid from last year? Or disagree with my choices?