Liv and Emma are best friends — the sort of cloying best friends who show up in cloying movies about best friends. They appear in an opening flashback as little girls, dreaming of their future weddings: their cute little girl hands appear in close-up, caring for cute little girl mementos, after which they pretend to marry one another. Emma, playing the groom, gushes, “I want to dance with you until we have six babies and a house.” Putting aside the question of how she got this idea of what a marriage might be, you are filled with dread watching this fuzzy-lighted memory. You are, after all, watching a movie called Bride Wars, which means that all this sticky cuteness is doomed. Soon, these adorable children will grow up to be brides at war.
When they’re 26, Liv (Kate Hudson) and Emma (Anne Hathaway) still call themselves best friends — until they’re competing to be married at the Plaza in New York on the same day in June. This ludicrous coincidence occurs courtesy of the city’s most sought-after wedding planner, Marion St. Clair (Candice Bergen), who duly blames it on her assistant. Marion serves as narrator, snobby and less than wise (“Three months away is a blink of an eye in wedding time”) as well as the film’s one older-woman role model for the brides-to-be. (Liv’s parents are dead, a point she milks for sympathy, whimpering that they never saw her graduate from law school, succeed professionally or, of course, become engaged, and Emma’s cliched prop of a mother doesn’t even appear until the wedding day, along with her slightly more energetic husband [John Pankow]). As the designated adult-in-the-room, Marion is a bit frightening, since she is easily as selfish and childish as either of the selfish children she’s observing.
The story Marion tells is part cautionary tale, part fairy tale, and part Jerry Springer episode, as Liv and Emma’s so-called dreams are wholly conventional and their antics are increasingly outrageous. As each bride-to-be conjures devious schemes to ruin the other’s big day, their fiancés appear blandly clueless, young professionals in nice-enough suits who offer warm support or wisecracky comedy. The plot is jumpstarted when Liv’s Daniel (Steve Howey) and Emma’s Fletcher (Chris Pratt) — ostensibly friends — propose right around the same time but somehow neglect to share this info with one another. Once their girls grind into battle gear, the boys’ reactions range from bemused to dumbfounded, remarking repeatedly how little they know about their live-in girlfriends.
These girlfriends are supposedly equally surprised — by themselves and each other — as revenge tactics escalate, a tedious process abetted by secondary players. Because none of their friends can “take sides,” both brides are forced to take on maids of honor they essentially despise. Liv hires her mealy-mouthed executive assistant, Kevin (Michael Arden) and Emma cuts a deal with a coworker at the elementary school where she teaches. Deb (Kristen Johnston) is yet another female caricature, manipulative, obsessive, and catty, encouraging Emma to see the worst in her rival.
As annoying as these underlings are, they tend not to have much to do with the main competition action, which ranges from verbal throwdowns (“If I were your wedding, I’d sleep with one eye open!”; “Your wedding will be big, just like your ass at prom!”) to tit-for-tat sabotages. Each sneaks into the other’s beauty salon to switch body dyes or hair colors; one sets up the other for a montagey nightmare of a dance lesson with an instructor cloned from Bring It On‘s Sparky Polastri; and special deliveries of high-caloric treats have one competitor stretching the seams of her designer gown (even though she’s warned on the day she buys it, “You don’t alter Vera to fit you, you alter yourself to fit Vera!”). As each skirmish leads to the next, this one-joke movie is running increasingly on fumes, its end inevitable and its triteness perturbing.
All this comes to a head in the film’s more-or-less explicit announcement of its point: weddings (and husbands) may come and go, but girlfriends are forever. “She’s completely crazy,” Fletcher says of Liv. “I feel sorry for Daniel, “He’s not going to be able to control his own wife.” As Emma here begins her predictable pondering (gee, who is this guy I’m marrying?), the broader question turns inside out. If such gendered thinking is plainly archaic, so too are the girls’ attitudes, from their covetousness and spitefulness to their vulnerabilities and fears. Everything they do is on cue. And it is excruciating.