It’s not surprising, but it is disappointing, that a movie like Bachelorette (just out on Blu-ray) can be dismissed as just more girls behaving badly following Bridesmaids, which itself garnered a vaguely insulting “The Hangover for women” tag. Why The Hangover gets to be patient zero of raunchy comedies, I’m not so sure; it’s basically just a remake of Dude, Where’s My Car? (and not even the best remake: that would be Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle). But similarities between guy-centric R-rated comedies often go unmentioned (or at least mentioned less prominently), even though, paradoxically, there are far more of them than female-driven enterprises like Bachelorette.
For the record: Bachelorette is based on a play by Leslye Headland, written well before Bridesmaids turned the idea of women fighting at a wedding over issues that cut deeper than who gets to get married at the Plaza into something that seemed, however briefly, marketable. For another record: the film adaptation of that play is also directed by Headland, representing an unfortunate rarity (even the excellent Bridesmaids was directed by a guy). I haven’t seen Headland’s play, but I have a suspicion it works even better on film – if only because Bachelorette does work exceedingly well.
Even more than Bridesmaids, Headland’s film riffs on the wedding milieu of so many female-driven Hollywood comedies. It opens intercutting a conversation between Regan (Kirsten Dunst) and her less skinny, less icy friend Becky (Rebel Wilson) with Reagan conference-calling their other high school friends Gena (Lizzy Caplan) and Katie (Isla Fisher) to share Becky’s news: she’s engaged. The rest of the movie takes place over the 24 hours leading up to Becky’s wedding; maid of honor Regan tries to put a steely smile over her deep and angry discomfort over her less glam friend beating her to the alter, while Gena and Katie enthusiastically self-medicate to get themselves through the event.
Headland’s tart, occasionally broad script observes the regression and hostility the wedding dredges up in these women—who snipe at each other even when united in disgust against the happy event. Actually, Fisher’s Katie doesn’t do much sniping; her id, less unpleasant but just as dangerous, is spacier and more free-associative than the sarcastic and self-loathing Gena or the tightly wound Regan—and that’s before they all do a bunch of cocaine. And that self-loathing sniping takes place before even a catastrophe befalls Becky’s wedding dress, and her three hapless, mean friends take it upon themselves to fix what they may have ruined.
This may make Bachelorette sound like an empty exercise in ante-raising nastiness, a decathlon of unlikable behavior. But once you get past the drug use (heavy, troubling) and raunchy dialogue (more familiar, less shocking), the movie itself isn’t particularly sour or mean. The (mostly) behind-the-back cruelty heaped on Becky upon closer look indicates a metastasized familiarity, the insecurities of young women left to fester as they approach their 30s.
Becky has clearly grown apart from her high school friends; one reason their initial fits of awkward toasts and inappropriate comments don’t immediately torpedo the pre-wedding festivities is that Gena, Katie, and even Regan are too far on the periphery to pay much mind. The movie has a vivid undercurrent of sadness, even when it appears to revel in misbehavior.
It’s also very funny, the kind of comedy where stars perfectly amplify their personas and strengths. Dunst plays the sort of Type A personality rom-coms like to treat as a quirky perfectionist with a dash of klutz, but her Regan is harder and sadder than this archetype—and, hilariously, still an expert at running the show, even when brimming over with contempt. In a bravura late-movie sequence, she storms through a hotel suite in circles, buying time for her waylaid friends and that missing wedding dress.
Caplan gets to play both cutting and wounded opposite her Party Down partner Adam Scott as Clyde, her high-school ex (they’re “the Tracy and Hepburn of shit no one sees,” Headland enthuses on her commentary track), and Fisher is wonderful as the ditz who calls almost everyone she meets ‘beautiful’, while barely learning anyone’s names. A too-short blooper reel and Headland’s commentary track noting when the actors improved one of her lines confirm the cast’s strengths.
Being a writer first, Headland spends a lot of her commentary talking about the film’s screenplay, moreso than the visuals: she speaks at length about the theme of using drugs or eating disorders or other seemingly self-destructive behavior not to actually destruct, but to “appear perfect or feel perfect”, as she puts it. But Bachelorette has a degree of visual sophistication you might not expect from a first-time director coming in from theater; Headland knows how to frame her actors, together and apart. Perhaps the best shot of the movie shows Gena and Clyde side by side, listening to the Proclaimers on an old mixtape (the movie is awash in ‘90s reference points). Headland holds the shot for a full two minutes, attuned to her actors’ expressive silence.
Headland also mentions on her commentary that she likes movies that “assume you’re interested in the characters and just go”, and that confidence may be why Bachelorette doesn’t seem self-enamored of the bad behavior it depicts (it makes the smirking subtext of The Hangover actual text, and if that sounds less than subtle, recall how little The Hangover really says about anything). Ultimately, the movie isn’t about a bachelorette party gone wrong; it’s about three lives gone wrong in a measure of increments, and the flailing attempts to repair them.