Question: Can a woman who loves foul language, moderate substance abuse, and random dick ever be the heroine of a romantic comedy?
Bridesmaids told us yes, but it lied. Trainwreck made a similar promise but didn’t deliver. Yes, both films allowed its female protagonists to spew filthy jokes and engage in general bad behavior, and both films eventually give the women their ultimate prizes (Chris O’Dowd and Bill Hader, respectively). But to reach wifey status, both Kristen Wiig’s and Amy Schumer’s characters had to realize that their general mess-making was not “healthy” or “OK.” They had to grow up and shape up before being rewarded with Prince Doofy.
There are many more. The Proposal couldn’t let Sandra Bullock have both the high-powered career and Ryan Reynolds’s abs. (So many abs.) She’s All That? wouldn’t let Rachel Cooke have both Freddie Prinze Jr. and her weird art-school life. I’m so tired of films (and TV shows, and books, and general life scenarios) that trumpet “difficult, messy women,” only to make them clean up their acts at the end. I’m tired of then having to embrace those films as some sort of feminist comedy coup, when in the end they just force the same traditional feminine ideals as every other standard rom-com, just with a couple extra c-words. Not that I’m above the Kate Hudson universe, but there’s another way — and that way can involve complicated emotions, chaotic lives, and casual sex. It can also involve female characters who embrace said chaos, maybe even revel in it, and still get all the gifts a rom-com promises. (Dudes.)
I will be honest: I’m surprised to be recommending Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates as the movie that is a triumph of the atypical rom-com heroine. The screenplay is brought to you by two of the writers responsible for Neighbors 2, my mortal fake-feminist enemy. And the source material is about as bro, bruh, brah sleazy as you can get: Real-life brothers Mike and Dave Stangle put out a Craigslist ad trolling for wedding dates, landed on Today, and wrote a not-great memoir, and now Zac Efron and Adam Devine are playing them in the spiritual cousin to Wedding Crashers. But somehow, this film is the rare rom-com that rewards a party girl rather than forces her to change.
The fictional Mike and Dave face a similar situation to their real-life inspirations. After destroying one too many family functions (retirement parties, wedding anniversaries, octogenarian birthday throwdowns) with frat-boy antics, Mike and Dave’s parents give them an ultimatum: find dates to their sister’s wedding in Hawaii or don’t bother coming. Also: They can’t be just any dates; they have to be good girls — parent-approved girls who are also capable manbabysitters. The respectable women they end up inviting to the wedding are Tatiana (Aubrey Plaza) and Alice (Anna Kendrick), who see Mike and Dave on The Wendy Williams Show and decide they can pretend to be good girls if it means landing a free trip to Hawaii. But as you can see from the trailer — which features heavy drinking, booty dancing, and an awesome-looking ATV action sequence — they are really, really not.
Let’s talk about the idea of the “good girl” for a second. You know her from the Drake song, or the musical Grease, or yes, a romantic comedy. In every rom-com, from How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days to How to Be Single, the good girl is thin and beautiful, or at least one makeover montage away from being beautiful. She’s Meg Ryan or Sandra Bullock or Rachel McAdams or Kate Hudson — or any other white woman with a megawatt smile. She’s usually a magazine editor, or is in some other creative profession or a maternal one like schoolteacher. She’s not very slutty, and if she ever exhibits any symptoms of flooziness, some come-to-Jesus moment will clear that right up. The good girl is never genuinely foul-mouthed or particularly funny; she rarely parties or has weird sex or does much of anything fun. The colorful (read: fun) stuff is left to the sidekicks — brassy clubheads like Rebel Wilson in How to Be Single, snarky casual daters like Judy Greer in 27 Dresses, or batshit crazies like Isla Fisher in Wedding Crashers. They are certainly more fun to watch, but the sidekicks never end up with the James Marsdens or Owen Wilsons. Leave them to the good girl.
Trainwreck was a nominal rebuke to this narrative, trying to meld sidekick antics (she drinks! She has sex!) with a protagonist’s love story. But in the end, Schumer’s character is forced to realize the error of her ways (and also, no shit, pretend to be a cheerleader). The result is a sort of punishing portrait of a woman who had a little bit of a hedonistic streak before she met a killjoy doctor. Trainwreck’s resolution says: “You can’t be a party girl and be worthy of a date.” “You are not worthy of love until you’ve done a self-help-style 180 on your life.” “You can’t enjoy the less-than-perfect aspects of your personality and expect a Mr. Right.” That narrative is definitely a slut-shamey Debbie Downer.
For the record, Mike and Dave is not here for the good girl. Plaza, with her shit-eating grin, apes stereotypical feminine expectations — modest A-line dress, virginal white heels, and saintly child-rearing profession — to trick Mike (a shrieky Devine) into thinking she’s “falling” for him. (Then she hooks up with his female cousin instead.) Kendrick’s character, a recently jilted bride, doesn’t even try — she just mutters “hedge funds” to convince Dave (Efron) that she’s every parent’s dream. The women tolerate the act just long enough to end up exactly where they want, drinks in hand: on a tropical vacation bankrolled by two dudes who are so desperate for the Apatowian boost that the good girl typically provides.
Surprise: Plaza’s and Kendrick’s characters drop the saintly act faster than you can say “perfect credit score,” and the rest of the movie delights in letting them out-party and out-raunch — and also out-ATV, out-curse, out-watch porn, out-get high, out-cock-block — their male counterparts. The bits get stale, but it is refreshing to watch two women who are more interested in having fun than getting the guy. When Kendrick pops a bunch of MDMA, you sort of want to roll with her, literally (as does the bride, who eventually joins in on the party). The central premise of Mike and Dave is that the vehement avoidance of growing up is a right equally for all genders. It’s immaturity as equality, which means that neither of our party-girl heroines have to let go of their deeply flawed, MDMA-loving personalities. Better yet: One of them (Alice) still gets to bone Zac Efron. Isn’t that the fairy-tale rom-com ending we all deserve?