Unpopular Opinions is a new weekly column in which a writer takes a stand against popular opinion, whether it’s asserting the true merit of a supposedly guilty pleasure or dissenting against the universally lauded.
The inescapable hum of buzz that has surrounded Bridesmaids since the film’s release peaked at the end of January, just in time for its exclusion from the Best Picture race to generate outrage in critical circles. The Atlantic decried the snub as evidence that the Academy hates broad, raunchy comedies, while director Paul Feig was quoted in the Huffington Post saying that the film was too “relatable,” a dig at the kind of artsy fare that normally garners Oscar acclaim.
The one thing that none of the film’s defenders actually did, however, was take a critical look at Bridesmaids. If they had, they might have spotted the fatal flaw lurking at its core. For a movie written by women, with a cast made up of some of the funniest females on the planet, its core female characters are offensively reductive stereotypes: a rich bitch, a reactive adolescent, and the world’s most passive bride.
Let’s start with our protagonist, Annie (Kristen Wiig). When you start to look closely at the critical response to Bridesmaids, you can see critics actively avoiding Annie’s passivity and childish behavior. She’s “praised” for her realism in words that get less flattering the more you look at them. Annie is an “everywoman you can believe in,” “unfailingly interesting […], a paragon of antic energy,” and, most damningly, “a woman trying and failing to put on a mature face as she watches her dominoes fall.” She’s “relatable” and an “everywoman,” but she’s never strong, smart or successful. Her attempt to “put on a mature face” implies childishness, and “a paragon of antic energy” brings to mind nothing more than a kid hopped up on sugary juice. Plus, she’s “interesting,” which any writer knows is a word you only use when you can’t think of anything positive to say.
These reviews implicitly recognize what none of them will say outright: Annie is not so much a woman as a passive, immature girl. She spends the movie getting stepped on by everyone from her douchey fuck buddy to her strange British roommates to Helen. On the few occasions she isn’t getting stepped on she’s throwing a tantrum. The scene where Annie makes an ass of herself trying to one-up Helen’s speech the engagement party doesn’t play as funny; it’s the behavior of a child who is jealous of a younger sibling, a trait that stops being acceptable well before puberty.
Annie can’t even be active when standing up for herself. The moment that, unfortunately, defines her character is her attempt to win back Nathan (Chris O’Dowd). Instead of acting like an adult and addressing their issues face-to-face — which she had many opportunities to do, as evidenced by the multiple unanswered calls he makes — Annie bakes Nathan a cake. Which is a nice gesture that doesn’t mean much once we see her chosen method of delivery: the doorbell ditch. Even when Annie is trying to change, she exhibits the emotional maturity of a teenage girl.
It’s instructive, at this point, to compare Annie with Meghan, the film’s breakout character who earned Melissa McCarthy her justly deserved Oscar nod. When Megan wants something, whether it be Air Marshall Jon or a totally impractical number of puppies, she goes after it and she gets it. Comparing Megan’s bold pursuit of Jon to Annie’s timid cake gesture is like following up several shots of whiskey with a white wine spritzer — they’re both trying to accomplish the same thing, but one of them is considerably more upfront about it.
I’m not saying that Annie needs to be tough and action-oriented all the time. The character is supposed to be something of a mess; she lost her business and life savings, after all. The real issue here is that Annie’s passivity and childish tantrums don’t fit with the “before” picture we’re given of a confident, talented, independent businesswoman. Annie’s inability to apologize to Nathan in person or talk to Lillian about her problems makes all the talk about Cake Baby’s success difficult to swallow.
Her lack of communication with her supposed best friend, however, is not entirely her fault. Annie might be a childish, passive adolescent, but Lillian’s presence makes her look like a tough-minded adult. Lillian is bland and weak-willed to the point that she almost fades into the walls, which is a pretty impressive feat when the character is played by the incomparable Maya Rudolph. She spends the entire movie blindly following Helen’s lead, even when it ends with her alienating Annie for the sake of a wedding. A running thread involving Lillian’s father, which is supposed to be funny but comes across as sad, shows the bride spending lavishly despite his protests, much the same way she passively endorses Helen’s expensive choices without stopping to think about the fact that her best friend just lost everything and probably can’t afford a $600 bridesmaids dress.
Which brings us to Helen. The really frustrating thing about Helen, more frustrating than her constant need to be the center of attention and the way she bends everyone to her will, is the fact that somewhere under the mean girl mannerisms and impeccably tailored clothes, there is a really fascinating character. Helen is trapped in a marriage with a rich, neglectful man and despised by her own stepchildren. She’s possessive of Lillian because she only has one friend. Helen could have an honest portrait of an isolated woman trying to make friends the only way she knows how, and failing because she doesn’t understand that money isn’t the same thing as generosity. That’s the Helen that we see apologizing to Annie, vulnerable and crying because she knows she’s only there to plan parties. Instead, we get a stereotypical rich bitch whose one real moment gets her a last-minute redemption that, given her previous behavior, feels superficial and unearned.
You might think I’m the only pouty contrarian trying to ruin Bridesmaids for everyone, but despite the overwhelmingly positive response to the movie, there are others. The Atlantic’s Miriam Krule wrote an excellent piece debunking the movie’s supposed feminism, in which she points out that the central conflict is based entirely on who gets to be Lillian’s maid of honor. The piece might not hit on passivity of the film’s leads, but Krule’s analysis is otherwise spot-on. You can applaud the film’s merits until you’re blue in the face, but Krule’s piece shows that, beneath all the talk, Bridesmaids is basically just Bride Wars 2. So keep that in mind on Oscar night, because no one wants Bride Wars 2 to win Best Picture. Even if it would be a better choice than Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
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Alex Israel is a graduate student at the University of Chicago. In her limited free time, she writes about television on her blog, Pencils Down, Pass the Remote.