If you ever get the opportunity to spend some time in a religious order’s novitiate I would highly recommend it. A novitiate is, of course, the place where budding, hopeful religious men and women learn the ins and outs of daily living of their particular order—Jesuit, Dominican, Franciscan, etc. You also spend a lot of time with the same handful of people; frequently a lot of navel gazing occurs, but more importantly, like it or not, you learn to become a member of a community.
But there is a difference between community in the generic sense and the Christian understanding. In the Christian sense of the word, there is continual movement, a trajectory of sorts; growth occurs both individually and collectively as members paradoxically carry and are carried. Mutuality, generosity and charity are learned, but those tenets are frequently hard won and a collage of spiritual bumps and bruises are often acquired along the way.
Sister Theresa, who was on staff during my time in the novitiate, referred to my class as a “motley crew.” (I doubt if she was aware of the heavy metal band of the same name.) There were 14 of us, ranging in age from 22 to 50, from varying socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds. We fought together, we laughed together and we even drove hundreds of miles to Denver together (for a nationwide Jesuit novice gathering). By the grace of God we built a community together, but our community was hard won. There were many bombastic car rides and equally silent dinners along the way, though in retrospect Sister Theresa also referred to the Apostles as a “motley crew,” so I guess we were, as they say, in good company.
Community building isn’t something you often see on film, but this summer has provided a welcome exception. Bridesmaids has been perhaps the biggest surprise of the early movie season, both a critical and commercial success. The film was made for around $30 million, but it has already moved past the $100 million mark in its first month of business and has set up Saturday Night Live star Kristen Wiig—who also co-wrote the screenplay—as a major comedic force. What’s most intriguing about “Bridesmaids” is that it seems to have single handedly redefined the “chick flick,” a heretofore derogatory term, almost always employed by male moviegoers and critics who see their masculinity threatened when a problem on screen isn’t resolved by blowing something up. “Bridesmaids” succeeds by liberally borrowing from the (up to this point) exclusively male-driven genre of the gross-out comedy and demonstrating not only that woman can be just as gross as men, but can do so while maintaing depth and intelligence as well.
Two other summer offerings, “Something Borrowed” and “The Hangover Part II,” a traditional “chick flick” and gross-out comedy respectively, are less than successful and look like dusty antiques in comparison to the fresh, fast and bold “Bridesmaids.” While all three are about friendship, only “Bridesmaids” examines the significance and complexity of these close relationships. All three follow the traditional narrative trope of the lead up to a wedding, though the weddings themselves are tertiary. While “The Hangover Part II” and “Something Borrowed” stay well within the parameters of their respective genres, “Bridesmaids” takes big risks and recklessly careens from genre to genre, be it “chick flick,” “gross out,” slapstick or farce. And the payoff is impressive indeed.
The story of a down-on-her-luck baker, Annie (Wiig), who’s been asked to serve as maid of honor in her best friend Lillian’s wedding, “Bridesmaids” examines the bonds of friendships, old and new, as it follows Lillian’s bridal party (a ragtag group of misfits if there ever was one) through a series of offbeat adventures leading up to the nuptials. The film owes its comedic pliability to a well-written script that offers a coterie of fully realized, fully human women who never fall into easy cliché; but the film succeeds especially due to the performances. Wiig’s timing and delivery are wondrous. Few performers have ever been able to wring as many laughs out of a simple line reading. Maya Rudolph, in the thankless role of best friend and bride-to-be, proves to be ever ounce Wiig’s comedic equal. A nod should also be given to Megan McCarthy, of CBS's “Mike and Molly,” for her wonderful turn as the outrageous sister of the groom.
Running over two hours, exceptionally long for a comedy, “Bridesmaids” needs every second to explore those experiences that forge relationships. A scene between Wiig and Rudolph eating breakfast at the beginning of the film, which would normally be a standard exposition sequence, is both hilarious and beautiful. Wiig and Rudolph find the bond of friendship through mutual affection and sheer joy, and it is a sight to behold. Wiig’s character has similar moments of grace with McCarthy and Rose Byrne, who plays Helen, Wigg's rival for Rudolph’s friendship. In the end, “Bridesmaids” becomes more than a summer vehicle and moves into a comedic meditation on the grace of friendship and the building of community.
By contrast, The Hangover Part II has little to recommend and garners laughs primarily from the goodwill accumulated by its superior, albeit overrated, predecessor. Sequels are rarely better than the originals, but “The Hangover Part II” is not just inferior to the original product, but offensive on multiple levels. Its shtick, the alleged wish-fulfillment of the middle-aged white male, is a negligible device to begin with, and the film is not helped by a mean-spirited script which takes aim at any and all easy targets it can find. The three protagonists from the original (Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis) head out to Bangkok for more of the same.
Making an audience love the unlovable and morally bankrupt can be done, as evidenced by numerous Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorcese films, but director Todd Phillips is hardly up to the difficult task. The shallow, self-serving natures of the three main characters make any prolonged investment from the audience impossible. The first film succeeded because the jokes and concept were funny and new, the second retreads the same material. And what’s left is a big unlikable, boring mess. But perhaps what is most offensive about “The Hangover Part II” is the disposability of relationships, as no character seems to have any interest in the others as they move from one ridiculous caper to the next.
Something Borrowed compares in many ways to “Bridesmaids.” Both feature a plucky, downtrodden heroine (Ginnifer Goodwin) and her beautiful, near-perfect rival (Kate Hudson); but while “Bridesmaids” takes risks, “Borrowed” plays it safe. Goodwin’s heroine is too bland to root for and spends the majority of the film smiling sweetly. The real laughs come from Hudson, who has all the verve and flash of her mother, Goldie Hawn. By the film’s end you wind up rooting for her despite the fact that she is the villain, primarily because Goodwin’s character and performance are so tepid.
Neither Goodwin nor Hudson’s characters appear to like each other much, though they are supposed to be childhood friends. Their rather flimsy rapport makes for little plausibility in terms of plot and even less in terms of audience interest. Unlike “Bridesmaids,” which insists on exploring as many facets of friendship as can be found, “Something Borrowed” moves in a paint by-numbers manner, with no thought given to what makes the characters who they are.
“Bridesmaids” succeeds and the others fail because of heart, or a lack of one. “Bridesmaids” has a heart as big as the sky and you feel it beating in every moment of the film. Much like the highly successful “Sex and the City” franchise, the film explores the relationships that make up a community and the role they play in our lives—how they feed us, challenge us and help us become the people God intends for us to be.