The oddest thing about Judd Apatow's reign of comedy is how he's successfully groomed the likes of Seth Rogen and Jason Segel as not only movie stars, but as successful writer-actors who have crafted such vehicles as Superbad and Forgetting Sarah Marshall. There's a drawback to this, though; as more of these actors move up through the ranks from supporting to leading (as Rogen did from The 40-Year-Old Virgin to Knocked Up and Segel from Knocked Up to Forgetting Sarah Marshall), there's the danger of trying to make leads out of actors for whom a little goes a long way.
Such is the case with Bridesmaids, the first femme-centric Apatow production (Fempatow?) and a spotlight for co-writer-star Kristen Wiig. Wiig walked off with her brief scenes in Knocked Up as an undercutting TV exec, and has become an ever-more-prominent figure on Saturday Night Live and in film in the ensuing years. In the right circumstances she can be hilarious, even sweet—she was the best thing in the wildly uneven SF comedy Paul a few months ago. But her front-and-center role in Bridesmaids might, over the course of two hours, wear out the patience of most audience members.
Bridesmaids has a slightly darker, more intriguing twist on the rom-com premise: Wiig's Annie is thrilled to be maid of honor for longtime bestie Lilian (Maya Rudolph); it's an opportunity for something to go right in a life that's recently seen the failure of her bakery and a love life that's been reduced to self-loathing hookups with an indifferent douche (Mad Men's Jon Hamm, having a great time as the sleaze). Already near broke, Annie's frustration is compounded by the affluent Helen (Rose Byrne from Apatow's Get Him to the Greek and TV's Damages), who openly one-ups Annie with her own lavish gifts and gestures.
The most interesting part of Bridesmaids is how the film acknowledges the current economic disparity in America and problems faced by many small business owners—most rom-coms, such as this week's Something Borrowed, fall into the usual formula of depicting their leads with cushy big-city jobs and seemingly limitless cash. Wiig creates some sympathy for Annie in this situation, such as a scene where she bakes, decorates and eats a single lovely cupcake, or where she has a meltdown on a flight to Las Vegas (arranged by her one-upping nemesis Helen) where she's the only one of the wedding party traveling in coach class.
The problem, though, is that the jokes often go on past the point where they're funny and start to become ugly. There's a few Apatow-based bits of crudeness, such as a sequence involving violent food poisoning, but a bigger problem are the sequences that overstay their welcome, such as Annie and Helen repeatedly one-upping each other's speeches to Lilian, or a very long bit where Annie attempts to get the attention of the nice traffic cop (Chris O'Dowd, the token sensitive blue-collar dream guy) she's previously pushed away. There's a few funny gags, but as the scene goes on for about two full minutes, it feels more like director Paul Feig (creator of the Apatow-produced TV series Freaks and Geeks) using every part of the buffalo when it comes to Wiig's improvisations.
And then there's the problem with Wiig herself, or rather her character. The story's brave in giving us a protagonist whose misfortunes give way to self-destructive self-pity, but it belabors this point to where it becomes a mystery not only as to why anyone would want to pick Annie as a maid of honor, but why they'd want to be within 500 feet of her. For that matter, the film never figures out that the best solution to the conflict would be to have Lilian offer Annie the job of making the wedding cake, which would let her show her baking talents in a dramatically appropriate way.
Perhaps Kristen Wiig has a great role as a leading lady in her future, and perhaps audiences will embrace this as her breakout film, all two hours of it. But it might be that like many comic players, she's best in supporting roles and SNL sketches. If nothing else, though, Bridesmaids rebuts the criticism that Apatow's films are nothing but wish-fulfillment scenarios for schlubby guys; in this one, whininess and low self-esteem are definitely gender-neutral.
Corrections (May 13, 2011): Jason Segel (not Siegel) moved from Knocked Up to Forgetting Sarah Marshall, not Superbad.