Sunday, May 29, 2011

What We Can Learn from Bridesmaids

You've come a long way, baby.

That was an advertising phrase made popular by Virginia Slims cigarettes back in the late 1960s.  Among the many freedoms women had won in the 20th century was the freedom to smoke cigarettes in public.

If bad breath, yellow teeth, and emphysema are good enough for men, then they were good enough for women.  Right?

Similarly, some people are expressing some doubts about new freedoms gained by women in Hollywood -- the right to make fart jokes and to liberally use George Carlin's seven dirty words.

In a feature article titled "Funny Like a Guy," The New Yorker talked about this trend in relation to the career of Anna Faris.  Her lead role in The House Bunny and her upcoming lead role in What's Your Number? apparently mark a shift in Hollywood's attitude about funny women.  They are being admitted to the Judd Apatow School of Scatology and Bromance.  They are being cast in roles that previously were reserved for Men Behaving Badly -- for instance, one could think of The House Bunny as a gender-reversal version of Revenge of the Nerds.

The article cited Bridesmaids, which is a hit at the box office now, and Bad Teacher, which is due out in June, as more evidence of the trend.  But some people have expressed doubt that letting women be as disgusting as men is true progress.

Funny is as funny does, and I do not care if the characters are men or women.  I do not care whether the jokes are naughty or nice, just so long as they are truly funny.  The trend I really would like to see continue from Bridesmaids is this: the death of the boring ingenue.

Kristen Wiig and Chris O'Dowd in Bridesmaids.
What struck me most about Bridesmaids -- written by Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo -- was the love interest.  He was funny and quirky in ways that complemented Wiig's leading role.  They were good together, and when I saw the film the audience laughed a good deal at the lines Wiig and Mumolo had written for him.

The same thing hardly ever happens for the female love interest in the male version of these films.  For example, Dinner for Schmucks.  By coincidence, I saw that film on DVD just a few days before seeing Bridesmaids, and also by coincidence, Chris O'Dowd is in that film, too, playing a blind swordsman.  But poor Stephanie Szostack plays the protagonist's girlfriend, a role that is far too typical of these type of bromances.

Stephanie Szostack
She says nothing insightful.  She says nothing funny.  Her actions, statements, and motivations drive no scenes.  Her purpose is to enter a scene, react, get insulted by misunderstanding what is happening, and then leave.  All the time her hair, skin, and clothes are fabulous.

The boring nature of her character is not Szostack's fault.  She worked with what she was given, which wasn't very much.

The problem is that the ingenue in bromances (and probably in Hollywood films in general) is never very interesting.  The only reason to win her back is that she is pretty and sweet and willing to forgive the protagonist's boyish pranks.  Rarely is any real chemistry depicted.  Rarely does she have funny lines or any quirkiness.  She is never as interesting as any of the protagonist's male friends.  The only thing the film seems to invest in her is a lot of soft lighting and teeth-whitener.

Her character is rather flat because she is merely a plot device.  She exists because Hollywood cinema requires her.  No one in the audience truly cares if the protagonist gets her back because no one in the audience cares about watching them on screen together.  The audience knows her only purpose is to provide the protagonist a motivation that will bring the story to a close after about 90 minutes -- if he didn't win her back and have reason to leave his goofy friends behind, the movie would never end.

By the way, I am not saying that women know better than men how to write the love interest's character. Two women wrote The House Bunny, and its love interest (played by Colin Hanks) is just as boring as Dinner for Schmucks'.

Chico, Groucho, Harpo, and Zeppo Marx
Zeppo Marx figured out this dead end decades ago.  He left acting after growing frustrated that his role in a Marx Brothers movie was limited to getting the pretty girl -- and he knew nobody went to a Marx Brothers movie to see the love story.  I think something similar can be said today.  Does anyone watch a bromance in order to discover how the protagonist wins back his girl? Is any suspense or surprise generated by that element of the plot?  No.

Like the appendix in the human body, the love interest is present in nearly all Hollywood films but serves no vital function.

A main point of the New Yorker article was that Hollywood seemed to be learning that women could be funny, especially in comedies that appealed to more than women.  The counter-argument is that women are learning that they can be accepted as funny only if they are, as the article title suggests, funny like a guy.  My hope is that Hollywood learns from Bridesmaids that a love interest can be worthy of love and interest.

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