A Rom-Com Memoir of the 2000s
[17th installment in the serialization of a work-in-progress.]
It’s not that I didn’t get it. I was down with the basic joke in the first draft of what was then called The Untitled Mumolo-Wiig Project when it initially landed on my desk in 2007, as my coverage log line dutifully recorded: “The best friend of the bride, asked to be the maid of honor, must face off with a Bridesmaid-zilla who wants to take over her job and her best friend status.” But what I was reading, as Annie Mumulo and Kristen Wiig have since reported in many an interview, had been written in four days. And it felt like that. My comments noted that the broad farce would appeal to a female audience, but that the premise was somewhat thin, and that “its sweet rom-com subplot isn’t enough to add the necessary tension and interest.”
I was a Kristen Wiig fan. But could she carry a movie, as its star? Judd Apatow thought so. Apatow was becoming, with his deal at Universal, a virtual Godfather of comedy, producing projects by actor-writers Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, and Aziz Ansari, of directors Nicholas Stoller and Paul Feig. He was mentoring Wiig and her partner’s first screenwriting effort, and as subsequent drafts showed up in 2008, 2009, and then in a steady stream during 2010, it was my job to analyze them, comparing each to the next and making suggestions for improvements. Not that Apatow himself paid attention; he was famous for rejecting studio notes. But word had come down, via the executive in charge, that Judd wanted this movie to be grounded, real, with predictable and derivative story lines avoided, so this was the ball that I kept my eye on.
Along with my other work at Uni, “Kristen Wiig’s movie” became a kind of background hum in my ongoing married life with Judith. I would talk to her about it, venting my frustrations about its development, which for at least half of what became a dozen drafts felt all over the place. Apatow was rightly encouraging the writers to try anything and everything as they revised, and at one point it was an unwieldy 140 page-plus compendium of gags, some hilarious, some just… weird. Its comedic center-piece was a prolonged sequence in Las Vegas, with a bachelorette party's topper gag that involved male stripper ball sweat (don’t ask). The main issue, as I saw it, lay in defining protagonist Annie’s character. “Is she a figure-of-fun pathetic loser, or a more grounded everywoman we can really root for?” my notes inquired.
In the wake of The Hangover, the whole Vegas sequence was cut. I lobbied for a different Officer Rhodes, Annie’s love interest, in early drafts a needy caricature who was worse off than she was. I knew in my rom-com gut that Rhodes had to be the good guy prize who in the end was Annie’s earned reward for her growth as a person; otherwise the entire construct didn’t make sense. Though it may've simply been a case of great minds thinking alike, Rhodes did get rewritten. And this, along with the inclusion of a new, Apatow-inspired uproariously gross set piece in a bridal shop, and newly expanded material for bridesmaid Megan (memorably brought to life by Melissa McCarthy in an Oscar-nommed performance) turned out to be the final ingredients, after four days and four years of development, for a comedy with true soul, grit, and contemporary mainstream appeal.
What I hadn’t been able to see, because I was literally too close to it, became immediately apparent when Bridesmaids opened, to rave reviews and a box office that far exceeded the studio’s modest expectations. Wiig’s Annie, a refreshingly relatable, real world version of a wedding comedy’s heroine, struck a cultural chord. Her low self-esteem issues, which had worried me on the page, resonated hugely with a female audience, as did the movie’s keenly observed female friendships. Director Feig’s on-the-set improvs yielded off-the-wall nuggets of comedic truth in moments between women that delighted an audience hungry for such honesty, while its uniformly hilarious crackerjack female cast clearly reveled in sending up a genre that was ripe for such comedic decimation. After the food-poisoned bride Lillian (Maya Rudolph) sank to her knees, bridal gown billowing around her as she shat herself in the middle of a busy city street, the wedding comedy would never be the same.
The movie wasn't merely the year's biggest comedy hit (and Uni's biggest R-rated film, surpassing Apatow's own Knocked Up), it was a phenomenon. And Judith was among the many women who went back to see it again with a friend. She loved Wiig's Annie and her issues. "I totally got it," she said. "What was your problem?" Huh. It could almost make you think that our two genders are like, different.
Not a romantic comedy by definition, Bridesmaids was nonetheless a watershed moment for comedy, period. The framed poster in my Uni office is topped with a Moveline review quote, proclaiming in bright pink that “Chick flicks don’t have to suck!” but more importantly, in one LOL celebration it put a stupid old saw to rest. Can women be funny? After screwballers Hepburn, Lombard, and Stanwyck, TV’s Lucille Ball, stand-up’s Phyllis Diller, Joan Rivers, Whoopi Goldberg, and today’s multi-media threats Sarah Silverman, Tina Fey, and Amy Poehler, you'd think signs point to yes.
But now Hollywood’s ultimate god had spoken: Bridesmaids’ $170 million dollar success made the studios take female comedy stars and the female audience seriously. The male POV had high-jacked the romantic comedy in the 2000s. In a new decade, women were ready to reclaim it. As comedienne Glennis McCarthy put it in a recent NY Times interview, “Anyone who says women aren’t funny is an antiquated grandpa… I think it’ll be a thing of the past. They’ll all die. We’ll wait them out.”
[To be continued]