When Hollywood isn't creating roles that fully maximise your comic potential, the only route left is to write one for yourself. That's what Kristen Wiig has done with Bridesmaids, giving herself a platform to finally prove what many have known for years, that she's the sharpest and funniest comic actress currently working in American cinema. As a showcase for Wiig, Bridesmaids is a knockout success, but as a film it's only successful in parts, and those parts don't always form a cohesive whole. On the one hand, this is a rather astute study of female bonds under duress and the doubts and fears that plague a single woman as she watches her lifelong friend move on with her life. On the other hand, it's a film in which women vomit on each other while another shits in the sink. It's almost like watching two different films, and only one of them really works.
More often than not, however, the film does work, and Wiig is a constant marvel to watch, attacking her role with enthusiasm and a complete absence of vanity. She plays Annie, a woman whose relationship and business fell apart at the same time and who now finds herself having to live with a weird English brother and sister (a cartoonish Matt Lucas and Rebel Wilson) and having occasional casual sex with a man who always treats her like dirt afterwards (John Hamm, playing the bastard to hilt). Annie's spiral of insecurity and self-loathing is exacerbated by the announcement that her lifelong friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) is about to get married. Wiig is brilliant at portraying Annie's mixed emotions about this development, her nervous laughter as the news is broken to her revealing the panic lurking under her enthusiastic demeanour. Lillian asks Annie to be her Maid of Honour and this is where the problems begin, for Annie and the film.
At Lillian's engagement party, Annie is introduced to the rest of the bridesmaids who will accompany her down the aisle. The key character here is Helen (Rose Byrne), the rich wife of Lillian's fiancé's boss and a woman whom Lillian has apparently grown very close to, unbeknownst to Annie. There's an instant flash of jealousy in Annie's eyes as she fears her position as best friend and confidant has been usurped. Helen is effortlessly glamorous and ultra-controlling, but Byrne, giving an exceptional and revelatory performance, plays her as a woman whose life is empty despite having it all and whose need for Lillian's affections is as deep and as painful as Annie's, for different reasons. The two become locked in an excruciating game of one-upmanship during the speeches, and the bitter, tit-for-tat competition that will drive the narrative – and drive Annie to further depths of humiliation – is set in motion.
All of which gives the rest of the characters very little to do. Melissa McCarthy makes the most of her opportunity as a randy, rotund bridesmaid, but the other two (played by Wendi McLendon-Covey and Ellie Kemper) barely register as characters at all and when they disappear from the movie in its second half they're not missed. There's also a romantic subplot involving Annie and a kind-hearted policeman (Chris O'Dowd), which is desperately underdeveloped, and some pointless scenes involving Annie's mother. Bridesmaids ends up feeling rather overstuffed and the pace of the film is slack. Many scenes run on a little too long and while there are great set-pieces (Annie's drug-induced misbehaviour on a plane is hilarious) and some fun recurring gags (the joke about men standing next to Annie being mistaken for her partner), the connective tissue between these highlights feels loose, with Paul Feig's TV-level direction doing little to tighten it up.
It's a shame that I felt disheartened when I looked at my watch after Annie's big wedding shower breakdown and saw that there was still half an hour to go, because I generally had a good time with Bridesmaids, it just needed to cut away some of the fat and focus on what's important. Scenes like Annie's aforementioned shower madness and the cripplingly unfunny explosion of bodily functions in a wedding dress shop feel too broad and crass against the subtle, incisive humour of that Lillian/Annie/Helen relationship, which is sometimes in danger of getting a little lost as Bridesmaids strives to have it all – the laughs, the raunch and the fairytale finale. All credit to Wiig and co. for ambition, but that expansive reach does threaten to dilute the very strengths that make Bridesmaids feel special in the first place.