Dirty rotten scoundrels are at the center of any number of good comedies. Watching people so boldly disregard society’s mores is the crux of the humor. Sometimes these people are changed and are redeemed; other times the movie is happy enough to let them wallow in their hilariously despicable corner of existence. The comedies that find themselves in trouble are the ones that give us bad people then try to convince us that we should admire them anyway. A lot of potentially good comedies have lost their way by trying to sacrifice laughs for meaning without doing the work of providing the characters with an arc. That’s what does Bachelorette (2012) in.
Bachelorette has a good premise (self-absorbed women in their 30s are asked to be bridesmaids for a less popular high-school friend who only thought she was friends with them, and they proceed to endanger the wedding during a wild, drunken bachelorette party in which the dress gets nearly ruined), a great cast (that includes Kirsten Dunst, Isla Fisher, Lizzy Caplan, James Marsden, Adam Scott and Kyle Bornheimer), and early on it has some real belly laughs during its first act. But it eventually feels like a wedding reception that starts off fun, but then there’s too many speeches, each one longer and with diminishing returns, and you check your watch calculating how long before you can leave without being considered rude.
It’s just that the movie wants it both ways. It wants to be both outrageous and considerable, but it doesn’t want to earn the consideration so the uproariously contemptible behavior, so funny early in the movie, when done by characters we are implored to take seriously, becomes just plain contemptible. It’s hard to attribute too much weight to a movie whose enduring message seems to be “Fuck everyone,” a rallying cry that is roared more than once with the idea of it carrying a certain amount of emotional heft. This disjointing of tone bogs down the last hour of the movie, leaving a sour taste in one’s mouth, which is a shame, becauseBachelorette has more laughs than most.
I know, I’m at it again, bringing words like “tone” and “arc” to a movie whose central dilemma is how to remove blood and semen from a wedding dress, but this is what happens when movies stop being funny and start being real. It’s fine to exploit twelve-year-old cancer patients and strippers for laughs in your movie, really it is, but it does undercut any possibility of exploiting abortion plots and suicide attempts for meaning later on. To paraphrase a beacon of internet film criticism, there’s a reason there isn’t a violent rape at the beginning of Ghostbusters (1984). You can’t start us off with half an hour of casual sex, casual drug use and casual revelations of bulimia (most of which is funny), just to spend the next hour reminding us how harmful casual sex, casual drug use and bulimia can be only to demand that we continue to laugh at casual sex, casual drug use and bulimia. It doesn’t work that way.
The movie wants to be a raunchy comedy with meaning, even going so far as to reference the ultimate raunchy comedy with meaning Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1984), but unlike that movie, it’s not committed enough to forgo a few laughs to develop the characters and the message.Bachelorette stops being funny, but it doesn’t stop trying to be, even after it’s introduced its hard material, revealing its characters as something close to pathetic.
I’m being too hard on it because I laughed a lot, and laughed heartily. Caplan in particular is terrific as the smart-mouthed screw-up. She has, by far, the best part (Dunst’s controlling Queen and Fisher’s party girl, while well-played, are more or less defined in the movie’s first five minutes), and she lands the one-liners and even the weightier stuff admirably. The men are simply obstacles to be avoided or overcome, though I was drawn to Bornheimer’s sweet loser, who can look forward to a lifetime of finishing last. He has a scene where he tries to sing an overdose victim back to health that is both awkward and maternal at the same time.
For all the sermonizing it tries to do, there was one message that came across during Bachelorette that I’m not sure was intentional: society’s emphasis on the perfection of one’s wedding day. The movie wants to say a lot about female behavior, with varying results, but what it says most clearly is that the wedding is often considered the most important part of the marriage. Even Rebel Wilson’s put-upon bride-to-be, who’s supposed to engender our sympathy, can be a real piece of work when things aren’t going exactly as planned.
The movie gives the indication that there’s more material here. The screenplay was adapted from a play by director Leslye Headland, and there are a few loose ends that seem rushed through or entirely forgotten for the sake of running time. Also the artificiality of the stage would help hide some of the wild oscillations in tone (this is a truth that bedevils film adaptations of operas and Shakespeare). Headland’s writing is strong if a little unfocused in Bachelorette, and despite some of the problematic structure issues, hers is a nice new voice that I’d like to hear more of. Perhaps with a little more seasoning (Bachelorette is Headland’s directorial debut), the storytelling will improve to the point where we’re laughing and thinking at the same time, as opposed to laughing, then thinking about why we’re not laughing anymore.