Starting with the creation of his breakout sitcom, Freaks and Geeks, and the lead character of Lindsay Weir, Paul Feig has said publicly and shown in his work that he prefers a “feminine sensibility” in his comedy. His role as the auteur for the female comedic actress has been cemented in recent years with his back-to-back critical and box office successes, Bridesmaids and The Heat, and has helped to launch the careers of his stars and supporting players, particularly Melissa McCarthy. So then what is it about Feig’s storytelling and directing style that is so suitable for women performers? Primarily, the answer is that Feig is actively rebelling against the notion that comedy with women equals comedy for women and instead is pursuing the specific strengths of his performers in the goal of servicing some good old non-gendered laughs.
With Bridesmaids, Feig gave the Judd Apatow family of comedies its most needed entry in years. By 2011, after producing/directing a string of successful-but-similar comedies about immature men, what felt fresh and exciting about Apatow’s sensibilities was beginning to feel rote and tired. The most oft-lobbed criticism was the treatment of women in the world of those films, particularly in the riskier, more purely comedic roles. Bridesmaids was a stark departure from all that, and Feig was the right choice to take that project on.
Smartly, Paul Feig chose not to heavily depart from the familiarity of the romantic comedy genre, and on the surface, the film checks many of the boxes that signify that genre. It is about a female friendship stunted by a romantic relationship, starring mostly women, it is about finding love, and it prominently features a wedding. What Feig is trying to do is remove those as signifiers as genre specific comedy. Why should that film only appeal to women, and even that, to a specific type of woman? Thus, by working within that genre, Feig is able to subvert expectations by having his characters play against type, and the charge towards a comedy based around playing against type begins with casting.
Of course, finding the perfect cast has always beens something at which Feig has proven more than capable. We all know how Freaks and Geeks launched the careers of Seth Rogen, James Franco, and Jason Segel to name only a few. In Bridesmaids, the ensemble surrounding Kristen Wiig is built to highlight this idea of playing against type and to comment on the degrees of femininity.
On one end, we have Rose Byrne, who looks like she belongs as the beautiful lead of a lesser romantic comedy and who spends most of the film trying to live up to this very archetype, which is situated as the “villain” in this particular film. She represents and perpetuates the problematic romantic comedy tropes that Bridesmaids is pushing up against. Ultimately, she breaks from her veneer of “perfect” femininity, proving the myth of the cookie-cutter romantic comedy woman. On the other end, we have Melissa McCarthy, who before breaking out as a force to be reckoned with in Bridesmaids was best known for playing the safe and sweet Molly on CBS’s Mike and Molly. In this film, McCarthy plays a character who is not dissimilar from male characters in the Apatow universe in regards openness about bodily functions. However, after establishing the grotesquity of her character, McCarthy also ultimately proves the most capable of providing Wiig’s character with a necessarily heart-to-heart in the film’s climax.
All of this is to say that Feig’s achievement in Bridesmaids is directing actors away from genre tropes. He instead, along with supremely talented women, creates full characters who are able to avoid a specific definition of femininity. A similar comedic tactic is at play in his follow-up project The Heat, which abandons the idea of changing the way a genre typically seen as being for women is perceived and instead charges into a genre typically inhabited by male actors with extreme confidence. With his female leads, Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock, portrayed as tough, in charge, and largely autonomous from the first minute of the film, Paul Feig makes a strong decision by trusting the viewer to need no explanation beyond the characters abilities as good police as to why this buddy cop action comedy stars two women. Of course, by this point, McCarthy is basically on autopilot in a brash, dirty talking, physically imposing role, so it is up to Bullock, who has a specific “America’s Sweetheart” persona in popular culture, to carry the torch in subverting our expectations. It’s no surprise then that by far the most successful comedic moments in The Heat are when Bullock says or does something in conflict with her carefully mined persona, eventually keeping up with the foul-mouthed and very physical McCarthy.
Unfortunately, The Heat does lose some bite because it’s ultimately more interested in Bullock and McCarthy’s non-police related interactions that largely don’t move along the action or procedural element of the film. As opposed Adam McKay’s The Other Guys, which would serve as a proficient action movie even without its comedic elements, Feig does not necessarily prove capable of directing elaborate action sequences. As a result, much of what feels dynamic in Bridesmaids because of Feig’s send up to the rom-com falls flat here because of a general feeling of disinterest in actually making a typical buddy-cop film.
Thus far in his career, Paul Feig has worked with much success to prove that making comedy with women does not need to mean making content specifically for women. Coming from the Apatow tradition of heavy improv and trusting his performers with their unique abilities, Feig has brought out some of the most impactful performances in comedy in the last five years, specifically in his work with Melissa McCarthy. Hopefully Paul Feig continues to devote himself to uncovering talent marginalized to a specific mode of storytelling by Hollywood and works to bring that talent to a mainstream and broad comedic sensibility as he’s done with women in comedy. And hopefully what he has done with women in comedy will no longer be noteworthy five years from now.
Brad Becker-Parton is a film person living in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter; you’ll regret it during Knicks games.