It reduces the hilarious humanity of Bridesmaids to sum it up, simply, as the comedy that proved that girls in a movie could be just as gross and raunchy as guys. Yet there’s no denying that it did prove that. The movie, for all time, busted down that door. Bachelorette, a long-sloshed-night-before-the-wedding comedy that’s as caustic and brittle and high-strung as its damaged-princess heroines, zooms through the door that Bridesmaids kicked open without ever looking back — and, while it’s at it, it busts open half a dozen new ones. In Bachelorette, girls behaving badly isn’t just a joke, it’s a way of life.
In the opening scene, set in Los Angeles, Becky, who is sweet and plus-size and deeply self-conscious about it (she’s played by Rebel Wilson, Kristen Wiig’s cockney freak of a roommate in Bridesmaids), informs her best friend, the lovely platinum-blonde ice queen Regan (Kirsten Dunst), that she’s engaged, an announcement that Regan greets by just about choking on her lunch with jealousy. That’s what a petty, lacquered bitch she is. Most of Bachelorette takes place six months later, in Manhattan, on the eve of Becky’s nuptials, which is of course the perfect occasion for a drug-drenched bachelorette party that spins wildly out of control. But this isn’t a daffy clockwork farce like the Hangover films; it’s more like a relentless, revved-up pageant of naked feminine dysfunction. The setting may be New York, but at heart Bachelorette is a very L.A. movie, one in which vanity has become toxic. It’s a comedy of values about young women who don’t have any.
Regan, who’s the maid of honor, is joined by Becky’s two other childhood friends. There’s Gena (Lizzy Caplan), a gothy motormouthed neurotic who it would be hard to insult, since she revels in being a completely wasted skank. She describes her philosophy of performing oral sex — basically, it’s her way of trading favors — with a clinical bravura that makes it sound like she’s working her way up to launching her own amateur porn site. Then there’s Katie (Isla Fisher), a suicidally insecure ditz who sells clothes at Club Monaco, where she can barely restrain herself from ridiculing the customers to their faces. These two spend the film snorting enough cocaine to give an elephant a heart attack (which only heightens their nattering narcissism). As for Regan, who at one point is described as being to other girls what Hannibal Lecter is to serial killers, she doesn’t need drugs — she gets high on hating others, and hating herself too. The whole movie is an overdose of wrecked party-girl masochism.
The three bridesmaids, during a woozy late-night prank, end up tearing Becky’s humongous wedding dress asunder, and so they go out on the town, dragging the increasingly sorry garment around with them, trying to find a way to repair it even as it’s being subjected to blood, semen, and other nasty mishaps. Bachelorette has a script as cutting as a serrated knife; it was written by its first-time director, Leslye Headland, who based it on her Off Broadway play. Headland’s dialogue has a nasty misanthropic zing that ups the ante on Mean Girls and Heathers. Yet the most distinctive feature of Bachelorette is that while the characters’ behavior may seem over-the-top, the movie isn’t. It’s staged realistically, with crisply lit shots and elegant flowing camerawork and a tone of matter-of-fact dissolution that says: This is no mere satire! It’s the way these girls — and, by implication, a lot of girls — really are.
But are they? Some of the movie is funny in a merciless, this-is-a-chick’s-brain-on-drugs sort of way, yet it’s kind of unsettling to watch a comedy in which each of the three main characters could be the messed-up, self-pitying token loser in another comedy’s far more agreeable wolf pack. Each of the trio has a guy she’s passively pursuing (they’re played by James Marsden, Kyle Bornheimer, and the always droll Adam Scott), yet their encounters devolve into the most frantic of hookups, so that we can barely tell if we’re supposed to be rooting for things to work out. In this movie, bad sex and good sex look like pretty much the same thing.
Bachelorette, when it premiered last night, was probably the most hotly anticipated movie of the festival. It’s not just the Bridesmaids connection; it’s that the film so gleefully pushes the envelope — of shock language, of giddy self-destructive coarseness. There’s a kind of rush in seeing actresses as charming and accomplished as Kirsten Dunst, Isla Fisher, and the saucy Lizzy Caplan take on characters who are this essentially dislikable. One sequence is set at the Scores strip palace, where two of the women come close to blending in, and that makes sense: Though they keep their clothes on, they kind of seem like strippers. The question I have is: When a comedy like Bachelorette rubs our noses in the maniacal, Snookie-style, Jell-O-shot decadence that a generation of women, competing with the guys they’re after, now regard as their birthright, is that movie asking us to see through their antics — to understand the hunger that’s being masked? Or is it merely reveling in the new numbness? Bachelorette takes the form of a romantic ensemble comedy, but it’s purged of any real romantic feeling. You’ll laugh, maybe a lot, but you probably won’t feel great about it in the morning, because the movie looks at love the way a bulimic looks at food.
Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman