Kristen Wiig
Credit: Suzanne Hanover

Talk about getting the story wrong! I’m always gratified when a movie that I love kills at the box office, and I can even deal with a little end-zone-dancing studio spin, but really — the notion that Bridesmaids, the terrific new matrimonial comedy of cracked sisterhood, somehow “exceeded expectations” by taking in $26.2 million at the box office this weekend (representative headline on TheWrap: “‘Bridesmaids Over-Performs”) is actually a little insulting. Sure, it sounds like a compliment (people dug the movie so much that they went even more than the marketers were predicting!). But why would a major comedy produced by Judd Apatow, heralded by enthusiastic reviews, featuring a breakout performance by a venerable Saturday Night Live star, the whole thing pitched as a funny, soulful date movie to an audience that regularly turns the worst sort of pandering chick-flick crapola into major hits… why would that movie surprise anyone by making as much on its opening weekend as The Bounty Hunter or Failure to Launch?

What the “exceeded expectations” line is really about is the movie industry, and the media, paying homage to the collective “wisdom” that occurs whenever Hollywood, doing that thing it does, remembers all over again, every couple of years, and with great stunned surprise, that there’s this weirdly esoteric, fringe-group demographic — I believe the term for it is “women” — who actually enjoy seeing their lives portrayed on screen every bit as much as men do.

Speaking of men and women, let me dispose of that other canard — this one made, quite often, in the reviews themselves — that seemed to stick to Bridesmaids like some discarded wad of PR-concept chewing gum. That’s the notion that the film is somehow the female equivalent of The Hangover: a naughty fun bash of a movie, this one for girls instead of guys. Now Bridesmaids, don’t get me wrong, is a naughty fun bash of a movie. But even if you happened to like The Hangover better than I did, that movie is never really more than a riotously over-the-top situational nightmare comedy. It is not, let’s be honest, a movie that attempts to tweak your funny bone, your heartstrings, and your brain-strings at the same time. It’s not a movie that pretends to emerge from, you know (how can I put this unpretentiously?)… actual human experience. Bridesmaids does, and that’s its glory.

Of course, the movie’s real glory is Kristen Wiig. A quick word about the script that she co-wrote with Annie Mumolo, her longtime buddy from the Groundlings comedy troupe. There are moments in Bridesmaids that are zany and shocking and flat-out hilarious — the food poisoning scene set in just the kind of billowy snob-chic bridal boutique that deserves what it gets; Wiig’s plane-ride tantrum under the influence of whiskey and tranquilizers. But I’d argue that for all that, there isn’t a moment in the movie that stoops to caricature. Even the most outsize characters (like, spectacularly, Melissa McCarthy’s blunt and hulky sister warrior Megan) have details, dimensions; every scene, no matter how funny, feels life-size. In today’s Hollywood, that’s a major achievement, and it marks Wiig and Mumolo as exciting new screenwriting voices. With Bridesmaids, they’ve crafted an even more witty and signature piece of work than Tiny Fey did back in 2004 when she wrote Mean Girls.

But, of course, Wiig isn’t just the co-screenwriter; she’s the movie’s star as well. And even if, like me, you’ve always found her to be an inspired farceur-flake on Saturday Night Live, you may not be prepared for what an outrageously good actress she is. The comment boards on make it clear that a lot of folks have a weekly hate-on for Wiig on SNL. They find her penchant for wispy-headed rapid-fire neurotic lunacy too broad, and too repetitive. All I generally want to say to those people is: Find someone else to hate! To me, Wiig is a sneaky creator of verbally intense, solipsistic fruitcakes who gives every sketch she touches a charge. Sure, at times she’s more inspired than others, but who isn’t on SNL? She’s a spark plug, a utility maniac.

In Bridesmaids, however, she scales herself back, creating a fully rounded character who lashes out, more and more hilariously, because of the desperation that Wiig portrays without flinching. The one movie that Bridesmaids reminded me of, just a little bit (at least, emotionally), is My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997), which I wrote a mixed review of at the time but now think is Julia Roberts’ best film. In fact, I think it’s just about the richest and most heartfelt chick flick of the last 20 years. My Best Friend’s Wedding gets deep inside squirmy emotions of jealousy and revenge — and heartache — that most of these movies stylize into trivia, and that’s what Bridesmaids does as well. When Wiig’s Annie, trying to keep her game face on, feels the childhood friend (Maya Rudolph) for whom she’s going to be maid of honor sliding toward another, “better” friendship (with the impeccably, almost subliminally superior Helen, played by Rose Byrne), all the forces of loserdom seem to fuse in her at once. She has no real guy, no career, no money, and now, not even a best friend. And so she starts to wallow. Yet she also gets rip-roaringly angry, and Wiig is brilliant at portraying Annie’s blowout tantrums as high comedy that also express something real — the disgust we can all feel at being outclassed, and maybe at a culture that puts too much of a premium on class. Wiig, as Annie, is the best kind of movie rebel, the kind who’s never more heroic than when she’s making a staggering fool of herself.

To have given this performance, in a movie that she co-wrote; to make audiences laugh the way they did at Bridesmaids this past weekend, yet also to dig this deep into feminine craziness and self-pity — that’s not just expanding your image. That’s aiming high and winning, taking Hollywood to a place that it needs to go, but too often — sometimes for years — forgets to. In Bridesmaids, Kristen Wiig brings the funny, brings the humane, and proves, on top of all that, that she may just have what it takes to become a major screen star. That’s what I call exceeding expectations.

So did you see Bridesmaids this weekend? If so, what did you think of Wiig’s performance, and of the movie itself? If you were already a fan of hers, did she surprise you? And if you’re one of the people who’s never liked her on SNL, did she win you over anyway?

Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman

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