[25 May 2011]
Spring has sprung, and with it the annual shower of wedding-centric films arriving in theaters one after another. From Something Borrowed to Bridesmaids to Jumping the Broom, 2011’s crop of springtime romantic comedies expose the intricacies of sex, class, and race in the wedding film genre. But these three new releases share more than a wedding theme; they remind us that the discourse of marriage often spins on issues of female desirability and value, matters that cross race and class. They also affirm that a woman’s marriageability can determine, if not bolster, her class status. The lavish cost of most weddings alone is a recipe for conflict, and sometimes laughs, in these rom coms. Though Borrowed and Broom tend to reinforce the gender and class tropes that underlie marriage, Bridesmaids’s irreverence toward all the wedding frou-frou offers a glimmer of hope that the genre’s conventions can be subverted from within.
As far as black-acted and -directed films go, some critics and audiences alike found Jumping the Broom, to be a welcome change from films featuring black men doing exaggerated drag acts as their “big mamas”. The title of the film is taken from African American wedding rituals dating back to slavery, when legal marriages between enslaved couples were prohibited. Director Salim Akil’s opening sequence featuring vintage wedding photos stresses the important role that marriage has played in African American history, a history that is also bound to class and the politics of respectability.
At the center of the film’s marriage plot is a pretty standard family class war, except that specifically intraracial class differences are rarely featured in African American-centric films. The spate of black wedding films in the last decade—The Best Man (1999), The Wood (1999), and The Brothers (2001) showcased a black “brat pack” (Taye Diggs, Sanaa Lathan, Morris Chestnutt, and others) playing mostly middle-class characters. Conversely, the interracial love plot in Sanaa Hamri’s “Something New” (2006) took precedence over the class conflict.
In Jumping the Broom, two African American families from different class backgrounds meet for the first time on Martha’s Vineyard when, after a brief romance, wealthy Sabrina Watson (Paula Patton) and upwardly mobile Jason Taylor (Laz Alonso) decide to marry. From the moment the well-heeled Watsons send a car to retrieve Jason’s working class family from the ferry dock, conflict ensues. Threatened with losing her “baby” to bourgeois values and people, Jason’s mother Pam (Loretta Devine) sets out to forestall the wedding. Claudine (the stunning and ageless Angela Bassett) is more than a formidable match when it comes to protecting her daughter Sabrina from Pam’s venomous insults.
Though some of the markers of class distinction are heavy handed—Pam wonders why greens aren’t being served at the wedding and Claudine peppers her speech with French—the characters don’t slip into stereotypes. Take Jason’s uncle Willie Earl (Mike Epps), an inexplicably folksy name for a Brooklyn-based character, but I digress. Willie Earl accompanies Pam to the wedding along with the rest of her uninvited entourage, her best friend Shonda (played smartly by Tasha Smith) and her nephew Malcolm (DeRay Davis). The effortlessly funny Epps could have easily become the film’s one-dimensional comic relief as the “sleazy” uncle trying to hook up with the wedding party’s young women, but the film balances out his character by also making him the voice of reason. He rightly calls out Pam on her divisive behavior and tells her she’s not behaving as the Bible-toting Christian she purports to be.
Jumping the Broom
The film’s gender politics are another matter. While Sabrina is a successful attorney who’s just landed a gig in China, she comes across as an airhead throughout much of the film. Deflated from failed relationships, she promises God she will save her “cookies” for marriage and God promptly rewards her by putting a handsome investment banker in her path, or rather the path of her car. One of the film’s producers is megachurch Bishop T.D. Jakes so the constant mentions of a celibacy pact don’t come as a complete surprise. But this subtle moralizing isn’t nearly as obnoxious as a grown woman referring to her sexuality as “cookies” and pinky swearing with her fiancée in an infantile voice.
The ditzy bride-to-be in Something Borrowed (directed by Luke Greenfield) is the predictably blond and conventionally pretty best friend Darcy (Kate Hudson) of the brunette and brainy Rachel (Ginnifer Goodwin). Borrowed is basically a retread of P.J. Hogan’s My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997) except the quirkier, smarter (and equally if not more attractive) woman wins the groom and the film’s cast isn’t nearly as likeable as Roberts, Diaz, and Mulroney were. Writer Jennie Snyder (who adapted the screenplay from Emily Giffin’s novel) adds a twist to the usual love triangle plot by revealing former law school chums Rachel and Dex’s (Collin Egglesfield) attraction in the beginning of the film instead of at the climax. But the rest of the film treads on hackneyed antifeminist tropes.
The “successful” heroine of the film lacks confidence and is self-deprecating because she’s turned 30 and is still single. The blond bride-to-be is sex-obsessed, self-absorbed, and vacuous. We never really understand why Rachel and Darcy are friends to begin with because female friendship is not as important as “getting the man”. Rachel’s betrayal of her so-called best friend doesn’t exactly endear her to the mostly female viewing audience though. While Darcy is obnoxious, she’s not exactly an evil adversary we can root against. And the wishy-washy Dex doesn’t come across as much of a prize but rather a weakling who can’t decide for himself. The only redeeming character is Ethan (the witty and cute John Krasinski). If anything, Borrowed, set between New York and the Hamptons, lays bare the neuroticism of the young, white and privileged.
For some, Bridesmaids is the feminist alternative to the antifeminist Something Borrowed—if by feminist, we mean that women can cuss, burp, and fart with the boys. A gross-out comedy with a female cast was a risk for director Paul Feig, producer Judd Apatow and writers Kristin Wiig and Annie Mumolo, but one that paid off at the box office and with film critics.
Like Rachel and Darcy in Something Borrowed, Annie (Wiig) and Lillian (Maya Rudolph) have been friends since childhood, yet their lasting bond is believable. The film also weaves in Lillian’s biracial background and both women’s working class status seamlessly. Their enduring friendship is tested when Annie signs on to be Lillian’s maid-of-honor, an overwhelming job for any woman no less one whose business fails, boyfriend bails, and the remaining threads of her existence humorously unravel over the two hour film. Add to that a wealthier, prettier socialite Helen (Rose Byrne) who is a much more competent event planner and threatens to usurp Annie as Lillian’s BFF.
Much of the feminist hype around the film seems intent on disproving Christopher Hitchens’ infamous 2007 Vanity Fair declaration that women aren’t funny. Lucille Ball disproved that assertion a long time ago and countless comics from Tina Fey, to Wanda Sykes, to Jane Lynch continue to debunk that bunk. But the fanfare over Bridesmaids really implies that women have to be funny in a “guy” way (read crude and scatological) in order to get the bros out to the chick flicks. While a bout of collective diarrhea does deromanticize the typically sappy and overly sentimental wedding movie (a scene that was Apatow’s idea not Wiig and Mumolo’s) it was more disgusting than funny. By far one of most humorous moments in the film was Wiig’s incredibly awkward sex scene with Mad Men hottie Jon Hamm, a laugh-out-loud sequence a lot of women can identify with. The rest of the film felt like a drawn out episode of “Saturday Night Live”, but with poop.
The female ensemble cast does share a lot of screen time with one another focused on something other than men; two women also wrote the script. But Bridesmaids is not exactly a feminist breakthrough, nor does it necessarily have to be. If it widens the playing field for female driven comedy, it will be a great achievement, but hopefully the gross in the box office will not rest solely on the grossness on screen.