Written and directed by Leslye Headland, based on her play of the same name, Bachelorette is like a car wreck from which it’s difficult to look away. That the movie is good is part of the problem; Headland, in her first feature film directing gig, moves the story with a sharpness and speed that’s nearly pitiless, for both her characters and her audience. The quick editing and snappy dialogue contribute to the film’s dark humor, but I suspect it also serves to unbalance spectators so that we can’t think too hard about how despicable these characters are to one another and themselves, or about the shallowness of the misanthropic lives they lead.
Three so-called friends, Regan, Katie, and Gena, gather for the wedding of a woman they went to high school with, who was a peripheral part of their clique, the “B-girls.” (Although it’s never explained, the “B” no doubt stands for “bitch.”) Becky (Rebel Wilson, terrific in a thankless role) couldn’t really be one of the gang because she’s overweight and much too nice to understand that nothing matters but being mean for the sake of the thrill and the power.
For some reason, Becky has remained friends with Regan (Kirsten Dunst), the alpha girl of the group, who’s dating a med student we never see, who got a scholarship to Princeton, and who’s known for her smarts but really only wants to be married. In one of the film’s more despicable speeches, Regan complains that she’s done everything right. She stayed thin and beautiful and still, the underwhelming “fat” girl is the first of their crowd to marry—and a handsome, nice, rich man, at that.
Regan agrees to be Becky’s maid-of-honor, which requires that she plan the wedding and the bachelorette party. Katie (Isla Fisher) and Gena (Lizzy Kaplan) return to New York from Los Angeles, where they’ve been living, for the party and the wedding. These two are the real comic couple of the film. They’re both quirky and unusual and spend the first half of the night snorting cocaine and drinking. Gena’s an old hand at this sort of debauchery, but Katie is a novice who can’t quite hold her stuff. That she keeps drinking and doing drugs—moving from cocaine to pot to an inadvertently consumed half-bottle of Xanax—lets the already clueless woman lose what few inhibitions she has. When the women meet the groom’s friends at a strip club, Katie is already so high, she finds the strippers beautiful and sexy and talented, and she decides she, too, wants to be a dancer.
Gena is marginally smarter. Her virtue in this vicious satire seems to be that she can hold her drugs, though she gives away a baby powder bottle full of cocaine to the lap-dancer who holds her erstwhile love interest, Clyde (Adam Scott), hostage so that he can leave without paying his bill. But Gena has a self-reflexive streak that provides much of the film’s less sophomoric humor. She realizes somewhere through the bachelorette party’s long night of the soul that she’s been attending a 10-year-long concert of a band she never even wanted to see. To play it for laughs and undercut what might be an honest, important intuition, Headland has Gena repeat her insight twice, once to Clyde and once to Regan. But at least Gena ends the movie with a bit more self-awareness than at the start.
The plot, aside from its march toward the wedding that naturally ends a film like this, is set in frantic motion when Regan, Gena, and Katie ruin Becky’s wedding dress the night before her nuptials. Because Becky isn’t much of a partier and because the eager male stripper Gena and Katie hire to entertain her (Andrew Rannells, very funny in a small Magic Mike-lite part) calls her by her high school nickname, “Pigface,” the bachelorette party per se ends early. But the three bridesmaids continue to play, snorting and drinking themselves into more hot water when Regan and Katie decide they should try on Becky’s plus-size wedding gown—together. The gown rips, which requires an after-hours trek through New York, looking for a quick sew and cleaning job.
Their less than picaresque journey shows off the women’s least flattering sides. They start in the hotel’s housekeeping department, confronting a wry African American worker (Shauna Miles) who staunchly refuses to fix the gown, though she does offer to clean it if they can get it sewn. When the women complain, she cracks, “This is Housekeeping, not Project Runway.” Headland has Gena and Regan leave the scene commenting, “I don’t think she can even speak English that well,” although it’s clear the woman is American. Likewise, Regan over-enunciates to her Asian-American assistant (Sue Jean Kim), the wedding planner who helps her manage the affair, even though she, too, is obviously American. This racist behavior is no doubt supposed to signal that Headland is purposefully piling offenses on to her distinctly unlikeable characters. But how does it all add up when none of the major characters in the film are people of color? And when, in fact, the few African Americans on screen are just peppered across the background as extras? Doesn’t the filmmaker risk being as racist as her characters?
I know I shouldn’t be dogmatic or hard-nosed about a movie that presents itself as a satire. I know that we’re not supposed to like these women. Regan is a competitive ice-queen whose only talent is talking on her cellphone while she’s having sex in the bathroom of a club with the film’s alpha male, the also unlikeable Trevor (James Marsden). Dunst offers a terrifically edgy performance, totally unconcerned that her character be likable. But that doesn’t make Regan any less detestable.
Katie’s cluelessness is played for repeated laughs. But after the third or fourth time the poor woman admits that she truly doesn’t understand the nuances of a pretty uncomplicated conversation, you begin to feel like she’s a child being abused. Joe, the guy she’s paired with by the mercenary Trevor, can’t shake his leftover from high school crush on her. He used to do her French homework for her and sold her pot. But Joe’s chivalry only softens the blow of Katie’s childishness so far. Played by the empathetic and decent Kyle Bornheimer, Joe refuses to take advantage of Katie sexually, even when they find themselves alone in the hotel pool, swimming in their underwear. Katie expects him to have sex with her; it’s the only kind of relationship with a man she understands. When he refuses because he thinks she’s too drunk, she pouts. Fisher is excellent as the hapless Katie, but are we supposed to laugh at her inability to respect herself? Well, yes, I guess we are.
Lizzy Caplan, with her dark round eyes and lush dark hair, her slightly deep voice, and her slightly bemused expressions, steals most of her scenes as Gena. Her monologue about the fine art of giving blow jobs, delivered on the plane to a too-eager, not handsome enough seatmate (the character, billed as “Barely Attractive Guy,” is played by Horatio Sanz) is funny and no doubt supposed to be daring. After all, here’s a woman going into great and loud detail about the fine art of oral sex during a plane ride. But . . . so what?
The wedding party is complicated by the fact that Gena and Clyde will see one another for the first time since high school, when their relationship imploded because Gena had an abortion to which Clyde didn’t come. Regan took her instead (when Katie finds out, she says, “We had an abortion and I didn’t get to go?”). Gena’s been furious with Clyde for ten years, but during their long night before the wedding, he admits that he didn’t come along because it was all too sad. [Spoiler alert.] They of course wind up sleeping together again and rekindling their relationship, a happy ending that I suppose is meant to redeem the night’s decadences. Of course Clyde realizes Gena’s the love of his life and announces it to everyone at the wedding; of course Gena throws her arms around him and lives happily ever after.
Regan sees to it that despite their mishap with the dress, the wedding goes off without a hitch, all things considered. She also saves Katie when she finally ODs in their hotel room bathroom. To rouse her unconscious friend, Regan puts her fingers down Katie’s throat to induce vomiting. As a life-long bulimic, Regan knows just how it’s done. Her bridesmaid’s dress stained with Katie’s vomit, Regan makes sure that Becky gets to walk down the aisle.
The film could have ended with the three friends watching the “fat” other marry her nice beau, but Headland caps the evening with the party. Clyde publically and graphically declares his love for Gena; Katie and Joe dance romantically; Regan mouths to Trevor that he should call her. That Clyde and Gena get back together seems contrived. But because Becky and Dale can’t really be the romantic couple, since they’re already getting married and because Becky is fat, the film needs another couple to pin its hopes on. Katie and Joe are played for laughs, even though Joe is the most decent character in the film. And Regan is too much like Hannibal Lector (as the other characters call her) to be redeemed. So Gena and Clyde win the happy ending.
Bridesmaids looks like a children’s bedtime story compared to Bachelorette’s Grimm’s fairy tale. The gross humor in Bridesmaids was situation-based; in Bachelorette, it’s character-based. Is it radical to see women behaving badly? Maybe, but it’s not behavior I need to see to even out gender inequality. (I don’t go to movies in which men behave badly either. It’s just not my thing.) Is it radical to see women drink to excess and do enough coke to make their noses bleed? Maybe, but again, I don’t need to see that to believe that women are as tough as men. I don’t mind seeing women characters who are mean and emotionally ugly (I liked Young Adult very much); I love a good satire as much as the next person. And Bachelorettes made me laugh, in spite of myself. But as Owen Gleiberman said in his Entertainment Weekly review, “You’ll laugh, maybe a lot, but you won’t feel great about it in the morning.”
Headland’s play got mostly positive reviews when it was produced at Second Stage in New York in 2010, especially in the New York Times, where Charles Isherwood praised Headland’s “incisive humor and insight.” The Backstage reviewer found the play shallow. On the basis of the reviews I read, I remember deciding not to see it.
But the buzz-worthy film did very well during its on-demand release, becoming iTunes’s No. 1 movie rental three weeks before it opened in movie theatres (see ABC.com). It broke a record and some think it might set a new trend for film distribution.
I want to be glad for a film written and directed by a woman that’s getting so much notice. But Bachelorette makes me feel mostly queasy.
The Feminist Spectator