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PARK CITY – While it may be seen as a heartless attempt to board the Bridesmaids bandwagon, Bachelorette derives from a 2010 Off Broadway play that predates the release of last summer’s surprise blockbuster by a year. But the hit-and-miss screen adaptation, written and directed by the playwright, Leslye Headland, suffers less from that unenviable comparison than from its own flawed conception and execution. Still, its wedding theme and flavorful cast should secure this tart comedy a foothold in the marketplace.
The specter of Bridesmaids looms large in the setup of a wild girls’ night out before the knot gets tied. It’s also there in Becky, the bride herself, played by the wonderful Rebel Wilson, who was also a scene-stealer in the Kristen Wiig vehicle.
The movie starts out with real promise. At lunch in New York, Regan (Kirsten Dunst) orders a Cobb salad, requesting that pretty much everything except the lettuce be held. Becky goes for a cheeseburger and fries, welcoming the addition of whatever didn’t make it onto her friend’s plate. That contrast of joyless refusal vs. exuberant embrace defines the breakdown of their unlikely bond.
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When Becky interrupts Regan’s self-absorbed prattle to blurt out that she’s marrying her successful, handsome dream guy (Hayes MacArthur), a priceless grimace clouds Dunst’s face, as if she’s accidentally ingested a carb.
Regan’s shock is shared by pals Katie (Isla Fisher), a ditz festering in clothing retail, and Gena (Lizzy Caplan), whose life in L.A. is a blur of booze, recreational drugs and regrettable hook-ups. Reuniting in Manhattan, all three wonder how the girl cruelly nicknamed Pig Face in high school could be first among them to walk down the aisle. That honor was always destined for Regan. Aggressive perfectionist, Princeton grad, girlfriend to a future doctor and vicious, controlling ice queen, she is embodied to cool perfection and with precision timing by Dunst, whose Melancholia this time around manifests not as misery but as scorn.
In Headland’s play, Becky was absent until very late in the action and had remained friends only with Regan, her maid-of-honor. By introducing the bride from the start, and with such warmth and sweetness, the writer-director raises a question that the movie can’t answer. Why would this adorable zaftig girl want these skinny bitches around on her big day when there’s so little evidence that they ever liked her? Having Katie and Gena also sign on as bridesmaids only feeds that nagging doubt.
Despite this, the establishing scenes have terrific energy and humor, with razor-sharp dialogue flying back and forth and incisive character definition from the cast. But the tonally inconsistent movie steadily acquires an odor of toxicity as the laughs become more mean-spirited.
On stage, the characters’ insensitivity carried an underlying pathos about the deep dissatisfactions of their lives. That dimension is fully realized here only by Fisher. Katie’s insecurities about her superficiality and intellectual limitations are both funny and touching. Fisher also is the most comedically gifted of the key performers. She goes off the rails after too many Cosmos (which she drinks “not ironically,” as Gena points out) and too much cocaine. This throws her together with Joe (Kyle Bornheimer), a besotted former classmate she remembers only when reminded that he was her weed dealer.
Dunst’s brittle, often bluntly malicious Regan and Caplan’s sarcastic trash-mouthed Gena are both enjoyably acerbic characterizations. But they remain mean girls, despite the script’s mechanical efforts to give them an inner life and a hint of humanity as they scramble to fix the spiraling mess they created.
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Headland’s writing is strongest when it’s dialogue-driven; her grip on chaos comedy is less assured. While the play was confined to the girls’ wedding-eve hotel suite party (infiltrated by a couple of dates), the action spills out into the New York streets here, to dissipating effect.
Basically, the pre-wedding blowout planned by Regan & Co. fizzles when they inadvertently wound Becky. But the trio continue partying alone until a mishap with the wedding gown sends them on an emergency salvage mission from hotel housekeeping to bridal boutique to strip club to ex-boyfriend’s home. This section is almost a female answer to the similarly crazed odyssey of Martin Scorsese’s After Hours. But Headland doesn’t have a feel for the accelerated rhythms vital to this kind of farcical nightmare, so it hiccups from episode to episode without momentum.
The wrap-up also is unsatisfying, with catastrophe looming at every turn, requiring all of Regan’s dictatorial gumption and Gena’s try-anything resourcefulness.
Headland has no discernible visual sense, so the film lacks a distinctive look, traveling a New York City that could be anyplace. What saves it to some degree is the cast.
The guys are mostly along for the ride. With James Marsden’s best man Trevor a suitably venal male counterpart to Dunst’s Regan, it’s a given that they’ll be humping in a bathroom. As Gena’s still-burning old flame Clyde, Adam Scott goes mano a mano in the cynicism stakes with Caplan, splitting many of the film’s best lines. (An early scene in which Gena breaks down the dynamics of fellatio on a 1-10 scale to her flight seatmate will be widely quoted.) Best of the male cast is Bornheimer, whose scenes with Fisher hint at how much better this frequently inspired movie might have been with a dash more compassion.
The girls are a delight, but all of them, even the monstrous Regan, deserve to be treated with a little more affection by the script. It’s unfair to keep going back to Bridesmaids for comparison, but that film succeeded because the writers genuinely loved their characters, defects and all. Headland instead comes off as feeling superior to hers, so why should we want to hang out with them?
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Production companies: BCDF Pictures, Gary Sanchez Productions, Strategic Motion Ventures
Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Isla Fisher, Lizzy Caplan, James Marsden, Adam Scott, Kyle Bornheimer, Rebel Wilson, Hayes MacArthur, Ann Dowd, Andrew Rannells
Director-screenwriter: Leslye Headland
Producers: Will Ferrell, Adam McKay, Jessica Elbaum, Claude Dal Farra, Brice Dal Farra, Lauren Munsch
Executive producers: Chris Henchy, Paul Prokop
Director of photography: Doug Emmett
Production designer: Richard Hoover
Music: Michael Wandmacher
Costume designer: Anna Bingemann
Editor: Jeffrey Wolf
Sales: CAA, Elle Driver
No rating, 91 minutes
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