It’s the night before Becky Archer’s wedding, and her bridesmaids — Regan, Gena, and Katie, her three best friends from high school — have ruined her wedding dress. They didn’t mean to, they promise. In a fit of drunken meanness, Regan and Katie decided to try the dress on, seeing a clear opportunity to poke fun at its larger size. (Becky is a plus-size woman.) Stumbling like idiots, the two women try to squeeze into Becky’s dress at the same time — and practically rip it in half in the process.
It was supposed to be a joke! In high school, Becky, played by Rebel Wilson, was the resident fat friend: by the rules of adolescent social hierarchy, she was bottom tier. Ten years later, her body hasn’t changed, but her rank in the pecking order is certainly about to. Becky, ostensibly the undesirable woman in the group, who was chased by rumors of bulimia throughout high school, is about to become the first of her friends to get married. To a rich hunk, no less. That’s not why her best friends wreck her wedding dress, of course. On the other hand: Isn’t it?
When Leslye Headland’s Bachelorette was released in 2012, many people didn’t know what to make of it. They were expecting … something else. Bridesmaids, the mega-successful, Oscar-nominated comedy starring Kristen Wiig, had come out just a year before. And the word on the street — not only among the cultural commentariat, but also, apparently, in studio boardrooms — was that raunch comedies for women were in. Finally. We saw a diarrheic bride-to-be take a muddy shit in the middle of the street and said: Give us more. Since 2012, we’ve seen the rise and continued success of shows like Broad City and comics like Amy Schumer, which maybe makes it feel like there’s more of a trend than there really is. But just this week, we’re getting Rough Night from Broad City director Lucia Aniello; later this summer, Girls Trip, starring Jada Pinkett Smith and Queen Latifah, will have four black women reunite at the Essence Festival in New Orleans. Rough Night stars, among others, Scarlett Johansson and Kate McKinnon, and involves five college friends getting together after 10 years for a bachelorette party — meaning it’s yet another ladies’ raunch comedy premised on a wedding. Not that the wedding trope is a bad thing, by the way. Raunch comedies have long felt like refurbished rom-coms, even the ones about men. They’re a chance to trade the cultural dominance of regular romance for the romance of friendship — with a side of poop jokes. They’re movies about all the literal shit you wade through together.
Bachelorette technically came before this wave of raunch comedy; it’s a reimagining of Headland’s play of the same name, which premiered in 2010, a year before there was any Bridesmaids, or any mold, to speak of. New York Times theater critic Charles Isherwood wrote at the time that the play could give you "hangover by proxy" — that’s how boozy, woozy, and self-destructive the material already was. It was the outright success of Bridesmaids, however, that made Headland’s idea for a Bachelorette movie make sense. "When I described the script to financiers," Headland told Rolling Stone, "I was told, ‘You should probably ask your parents for $250,000 for this and shoot the thing yourself.’ Then suddenly, a year and one movie later, it was ‘So about that funny-lady thing you told us about …’" It became her first foray into filmmaking.
That’s all sort of funny in retrospect; it’s no wonder Bachelorette confused people. By the end, Becky’s dress is not only ripped, it’s stained with semen and blood from a cokehead’s runny nose. One bridesmaid almost misses the wedding because she overdosed on Xanax. Sure, there’s gross stuff. But Bachelorette is no woman-centered raunch romance, per the genre; the romance part just doesn’t ring true. Romances, even friend-romances, model fantasies of the relationships we, the audience, want to have — and Bachelorette utterly lacks such relationships. I don’t want to hang out with any of these people. Actually, is the movie even really, at the end of the day, that raunchy? It earns its R rating — but with coke, vomit, and a semen stain. Big whoop? The movie is absolutely nasty — but psychologically so. There’s no cathartic gross-out to wash the wounds away, just a pile-up of deeper wounds, old and new, with a high risk of infection.
Bachelorette was expected to capitalize on the wave spurred by Bridesmaids. It needed to sell tickets, which means, from the studio’s end, that it needed to make sense to the market. (The movie ultimately did good business. It got an early VOD release and became the first film to hit no. 1 on iTunes rentals before getting released in theaters, according to Backstage, raking in more than $8 million in VOD sales and another $12 million in theaters.) Watching it today feels like watching two movies simultaneously, one stacked on top of the other. There’s the movie Headland made, dexterously mean but distinctly intelligent about why its characters are the way they are. And there’s the movie the market needed it to be: a comedy about women who were messy, sure, but who ultimately wanted to feel good about themselves and their friendships and who knew the importance of reconciliation. A movie about women who were always already being drawn, invisibly, toward a happy ending, however circuitous the journey. Bachelorette certainly ends on a high note. But it still manages not to be that kind of movie: it’s not a feel-good friendship comedy. It’s better.
"You know what this is like?" a guy says, tired of being teased. "It’s really just like high school, but instead of French homework, it’s my dick."
"Well that’s not true," says Katie, "because French was actually hard."
Becky’s friends have been playing the same roles since high school — and the movie makes them feel trapped in place accordingly. They’re the bitch, the party girl, the loser, the fat friend. Regan (Kirsten Dunst) is the Princeton graduate with the med school boyfriend who believes she has done everything right — good school, good job, good guy — but still can’t be happy. Katie (Isla Fisher) is a gregarious alcoholic whose method of seducing men typically involves being blackout drunk. Gena (Lizzy Caplan) is a woman who doesn’t entirely seem at home with other women — so she throws herself at useless men.
At times, Bachelorette feels like the grown-up sequel to a teen comedy in which everyone has grown up but no one has really changed. That’s a little different than the arrested-development vibe you get in movies like The Hangover or any number of Seth Rogen or Judd Apatow projects. Headland’s script has a preternatural memory for all the past slights and buried resentments that have been festering since these women were teenagers. These women aren’t immature — they’re stuck. Already, at the movie’s start, we can feel the rifts: there’s the two L.A. women versus the two who stayed in New York, the ones who party versus the one, Becky, who doesn’t. The stripper the women hire for Becky’s bachelorette party, which was supposed to be low-key, slips up and calls Becky "pig face" — her high school nickname; he only could have learned it from one of her friends. Those old slights force their way into the present.
Have I mentioned that the people in this movie are, like, really mean? And not only to each other — these bad attitudes constitute a worldview. This is the stuff that twinges Bachelorette with a discomfiting grossness; raunch comedy grossness feels palatable, by comparison. There is, to start, the fact that the movie is premised on a fat joke gone wrong — and the constant sense that, for all the humor in its many mishaps, we’re always just one hair’s-width away from genuine devastation. There’s the casual racism and classism, too. Regan calls her assistant, an Asian American woman, "Chinatown." The script is full of encounters with the service industry, people Regan, Katie, and Gena need to help them fix Becky’s dress at the last minute. It’s full of encounters with the underclass, in other words, which is the broad subtext of the whole endeavor. Regan, in particular, should be better than everyone, right? She’s white, well-off, beautiful, and played by Kirsten Dunst. "I did everything right," she says.
There’s a reason that I can’t help but think of Bachelorette as a peak for Kirsten Dunst, in particular: she’s the center of the movie. Regan is Becky’s maid of honor and also her polar opposite in status and, to Regan’s chagrin in this case, in circumstance. Everyone sort of hates her — she’s a woman ruled by her own discontent. Her jokes don’t land because no one can tell whether she’s actually joking or genuinely being vicious. Headland has spoken about the fallacy of women wanting it all, and in Regan, she’s given us a character who has it all but realizes, suddenly, how little it seems to amount to. There’s even, at one point, a chance to fix the dress mishap by simply buying another one. But the only one she can find at such a late hour happens to be her dream dress — and she won’t give that up for Becky.
There’s a moment, just before Gena and Katie arrive at the hotel, when we see Regan alone, sitting on a couch in the lobby, her face blank with exhaustion. Weddings are productions, as any maid of honor knows. Perhaps the smartest thing Headland does in this movie is make the whole mess — the ruined dress, the wedding hullabaloo — feel like a backstage drama, a movie about the disaster that inevitably ensues when putting on a show. The wedding is a production in itself, but each woman is a production of her own, too. And during those spare moments that the camera catches them each alone, free from having to put on a show or live up to their archetype, it’s like seeing them with their masks off. There’s a moment when Katie jokes that if she stays in retail until she’s 40 years old, she’ll kill herself. "I know you guys think I’m joking, but I’m not. I would take a shotgun and I would blow my head off." The conversation moves on — but in the background, just before it does, we hear Katie plead: "But seriously, you guys." There’s the joking about suicide — a performance — and then there’s that desperation lurking, always, right underneath: But seriously, you guys.
Bachelorette is full of spare moments like this, moments when a scene ends and a quick cutaway to one of the characters reveals her exhaustion — as if that moment, and not the crude goings-on of the scene, were the real punchline. When we catch the women alone, looking into the mirror, or isolated from the rest of the group in a shot, we glimpse who they are. The latter half of Headland’s script is overloaded with revealing backstories: the high-school bathroom bulimia, the suicide attempt, the abortion. But in truth, these histories were always already just beneath the surface. They become the punchline, and Headland makes a point of letting us see when they rise to the fore.
Bachelorette was released by the Weinstein Company, where Headland once worked as the assistant to Harvey Weinstein. The name is, frankly, revealing; Weinstein is famous for fiddling with movies. "I’m not cutting for fun," he told The New Yorker in 2002. "I’m cutting for the shit to work. All my life I served one master: the film. I love movies." Bachelorette doesn’t quite add up, but in the specifically jumpy, aggravated way of movies that seem to have been tampered with. Sometimes this jumble gives the film a manic energy it needs; other times it makes the movie feel split in two, torn between Headland’s direction and the generic, mid-budget comedy music that tries to convince us that what we are seeing is more outright funny than it is. The movie is funny. Seeing Isla Fisher play a sympathetic ditz, or Kirsten Dunst suck in her cheeks to channel her inner ice queen, is a delight — but, like, Xanax overdoses aren’t? The humor is tinged with acid. You can sense that someone behind the scenes didn’t know what to do with that. Bridesmaids has poop, but you’re never worried the women will actually fling it at each other.
It’s to Headland’s immense credit that, despite what feels like some interference, her vision shines through. Bachelorette survives on the strength of not knowing (or caring) it has to conform to our expectations, even despite the efforts to make it so. The movie still ends with a wedding, of course. In any other wedding comedy, even a raunchy one, that climax would feel like romantic catharsis. But Becky’s marriage was never in doubt — her friendships were. And when the film closes, the sense of reconciliation is there, but a belief that anything has healed, or changed, is not.