Since Bridesmaids passed $100-million in box office this past weekend, it's now official: Women are funny after all, whatever Christopher Hitchens wrote in Vanity Fair.
Bridesmaids has been called a "watershed" in women's comedy, and according to The New York Times, "irrefutable" proof that women can match men for aggressive and absurd humour. The movie has become a cause as much as a comedy. A Salon writer even referred to a mass e-mail to women urging them to see the film as a gesture of female solidarity.
Though written by women (star Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo), the film was directed by a man (Paul Feig) and produced by another man (Judd Apatow), who commissioned it. Apatow, the comic mogul behind The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, also insisted on the food-poisoning sequence where the women vomit on each other's heads and misuse a sink.
Okay, Bridesmaids is just a small watershed for woman-kind, but the film's champions have a point. For the past decade or two, women have lost ground, as Hollywood's comic genres have divided into two strands. "Real comedies" are male and involve at least one gross-out sequence; in contrast, "romantic comedies" are female and insipid and involve a shopping montage. The twain don't meet. In a widely discussed article in The New Yorker about actress Anna Faris, Tad Friend wrote that "Studio executives believe that male moviegoers would rather prep for a colonoscopy than experience a woman's point of view, particularly if that woman drinks or swears or has a great job or an orgasm."
He must have been describing Sex and the City, the 2008 film which earned $55-million in its first weekend, an event that Variety described as upsetting "decades-old thinking" that a women's film couldn't be a blockbuster. The opening-night audience for Sex and the City was only 15 per cent male.
In contrast, Bridesmaids is regarded as a gender-bridging comedy that manages to work in weddings, baking and fart jokes. Thanks to star Kristen Wiig's popularity from Saturday Night Live, as well as the film's reputation as "the female Hangover" about 33 per cent of the opening weekend audience for Bridesmaids was male, which qualifies it a crossover hit.
In the Hollywood investment system, franchise movies like Pirates of the Caribbean are the cash cows, and inexpensive, raunchy comedies like The Hangover and Bridesmaids are the shooting stars, potentially earning a high return on investment. Since National Lampoon's Animal House in 1978, the success of the R-rated comedy has been cyclic. The Porky's, Revenge of the Nerds and Police Academy films petered out by the mid-eighties. The genre was revived with a sweeter edge by the Farrelly Brothers ( There's Something About Mary) and Chris and Paul Weitz ( American Pie) but suffered a setback in 2000, after Senator John McCain led a Federal Trade Commission study that chastised them for marketing their adult comedies to kids. The studios reacted by becoming more conservative for a few years.
Then, in 2005, the pendulum swung back as studios started to realize the value of R-rated comedies as counter-programming. When New Line released Wedding Crashers, deliberately full of bare breasts and strong language, studio executive Rolf Mittweg explained: "In a summer full of sequels and remakes rated PG-13, we feel an original R-rated comedy will stand out."
Today, that's the role of the R-rated comedy: An alternative to the dominant model of Hollywood summer special-effects blockbusters and animated franchises. Since 2005 (also the year The 40-Year-Old Virgin came out), Apatow and his stable of writers and associates have dominated the genre. Apatow's films have already been described as "chick flicks for guys," though the juvenile humour was a problem. As Katherine Heigl said of Knocked Up, the film was "a little sexist. It paints the women as shrews, as humourless and uptight, and it paints the men as lovable, goofy, fun-loving guys."
Bridesmaids, if not exactly the equal-comic-rights manifesto, is an evolutionary step for the genre: A comedy that can make both women and men laugh, and feel squeamish without favour or prejudice.
"We were looking for an alternative to bromance," said Bridesmaids director Paul Feig. "A 'womance.' "
That's not quite right. The opposite of "bromance" should be "sistance" (from "resistance" the first time). As in: Vive la résistance to dumb boys' club movies and treacly romcoms full of shopping montages.
OPENING NEXT WEEK
The Art of Getting By An alienated New York high-school student (Freddie Highmore) finds a soulmate in popular girl (Emma Roberts) and has to complete a year's worth of homework in three weeks to pass his senior year. Doesn't everyone do that?
Beginners An ailing 75-year-old man (Christopher Plummer) tells his artist son (Ewan McGregor) that he's gay. Director Mike Mills ( Thumbsucker) wrote the quirky time-jumping script, which includes a terrier whose dialogue is given subtitles.
Beautiful Boy Michael Sheen and Maria Bello star as a couple who are forced to confront the aftermath of their son's part in a school massacre. The film, by first-time director Shawn Ku, won the international critics award at last year's Toronto International Film Festival.
Green Lantern Ryan Reynolds stars as test pilot Hal Jordan who becomes the first member of an intergalactic force that keeps peace in the universe in this adaptation of the DC comic book, first published in 1940. Martin Campbell ( Goldeneye, Casino Royale) directs with a cast that includes Blake Lively and Peter Sarsgaard.
Mr. Popper's Penguins An New York businessman (Jim Carrey) has his life turned upside-down when he inherits a half-dozen penguins in this adaptation of Richard and Florence Atwater's 1938 children's book. Carla Gugino, Angela Lansbury and real birds (with CGI assistance) co-star.
True Legend Expect wall-to-wall fists and feet as Chinese fight choreographer Yuen Woo Ping ( The Matrix, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Kill Bill) directs his first feature in 15 years in this story about a peaceful retired general (Vincent Zhao) who gets drawn back into fighting by his evil, adopted step-brother (Andy On). Michelle Yeoh and the late David Carradine are also in the cast.