Let’s just get this out of the way: Leslye Headland’s Bachelorette is not a Bridesmaids rip-off. Yes, both films revolve around women misbehaving at weddings, but the similarities stop there. One is a jaded, bracingly honest comedy that lets women get mean. The other shows a girl pooping in the street. Where Bridesmaids has screwball shtick, Bachelorette has a pessimist’s bite.
And yet, there’s a short, straight line between the two comedies. Headland’s debut film has gotten a ton of attention thanks to Bridesmaids (and its $288 million box-office haul.) With that attention, though, come expectations. If Bachelorette is supposed to be Bridesmaids gone bad, as it was unfortunately dubbed, it needed to be edgier. The ladies needed be shit-talking bitches, slinging barbs and snorting coke with a degree of self-aware disdain that bordered on the masochistic. How do I know this? Because I’ve seen those characters. Leslye Headland wrote them way back in 2007, when Bachelorette first emerged as a scathing, off-Broadway character study about vice and gluttony. However, where Headland’s play chose to sharpen rough edges, her film buffs and glosses.
Bachelorette is every bit as funny on screen as it was onstage, but it’s nowhere near as blistering as its reputation suggests. Despite the cursing and screwing and varieties of abuse, the film isn’t abrasive. It’s a palatable rebellion.
That’s not to say it isn’t mean, though. When we first meet Regen (Kirsten Dunst), Gena (Lizzy Caplan), and Katie (Isla Fisher), they’re gossiping about Becky (Rebel Wilson), a soon-to-be-married friend. It’s wretched talk with sparse room for humor; they reflexively belittle her weight, gawk about her handsome, wealthy fiancé, and snicker to themselves about her high school nickname, “Pig Face.” None of them seem like particularly good people — and that’s before Regen and Katie, both in a coked-up fervor, tear Becky’s dress the night before her wedding.
From there, the ladies of Bachelorette show inklings of humanity. The narrative revolves around mending the dress, of course, but not before each character’s flaws are mined for intimacy. Regen’s stone-cold attitude saves the day when panic erupts before the wedding. Gena, an emotionally defensive drug addict, confronts the traumatic roots of her self-destruction. And Katie, the dim-witted prom queen, meets a shy boy who isn’t looking for a one-night stand. Thankfully, though, these aren’t life-altering changes. When the credits roll — after, I should add, an unfortunately saccharine ending — Regen is still uptight, Gena is still guarded, and Katie is still a ditz. They’re different, but they’re not fixed.
Did I mention Bachelorette is funny? Because it’s very, very funny. Headland’s dialogue has a fantastically dry wit that runs throughout the film, whether she’s riffing on oral sex (“Why are you gonna spend any time fucking me? You just came all over my face.”), hook-ups (“I’m giving you what you want so let’s get this over with.”) or eating disorders (“Why would you do that to yourself?” “…I wanted to be beautiful.”) Amazingly, that’s not even her niftiest trick. While Bachelorette is busy showcasing blood, vomit, sex and drugs, Headland’s script carefully weaves a story about friends who treat each other like shit and love each other like family.
It’s telling that Bachelorette opens with a sample of Sleigh Bells’ ”Infinity Guitars” — the song is used precisely the same way to introduce an early episode of Lena Dunham’s Girls. Headland and Dunham, it seems, are concerned with the same question: What makes a “good” friendship? I certainly don’t know the answer, but together, these characters weather bulimia, suicide, abortion and drug overdose. What’s a little bitchiness between friends after that?