In 10 For The ’10s, The A.V. Club looks back at the decade that was: 10 essays about the media that defined the 2010s, one for every year from 2010 to 2019.
Think of Bridesmaids today, eight years after its debut, and one scene leaps to mind: the dress-fitting, a symphony of spewed bodily fluids and unsavory noises that culminates in Maya Rudolph crouching outside on the pavement, as her character, Lillian, defecates in an ornate wedding gown in the middle of the street. Melissa McCarthy uses a sink as a toilet, and Ellie Kemper barfs into Wendi McLendon-Covey’s hair. It’s breathtaking, manic, and hard to forget (even if you wanted to).
But the scene also does Bridesmaids a disservice, overshadowing the movie’s more meaningful moments to come. These grotesque results of an ill-advised Brazilian steakhouse lunch occur fairly early in the runtime, leaving a full hour to explore the movie’s main theme: what it’s like to lose your best friend in the face of losing everything else, too.
This is what a lot of the “women gone wild” comedies that popped up in Bridesmaids’ wake missed. A few, like the Tiffany Haddish star-maker Girls Trip, came close to matching the radiance crafted by Kristen Wiig and her co-screenwriter Annie Mumolo, producer Judd Apatow, and director Paul Feig. But latecomers like Netflix’s Ibiza and Someone Great are more content to fling a group of women into drug-filled parties in exotic locations, leapfrogging over the vital thread that made Bridesmaids so valuable in the first place.
Rudolph and Wiig were already friends as members of the Saturday Night Live cast when they filmed Bridesmaids, and that affection comes through in the first few scenes. After a beyond-awkward sexual encounter with Jon Hamm’s nefarious Ted (“You know what to do”), Annie (Wiig) scams an exercise class from Terry Crews and has breakfast with Lillian, her childhood best friend, who is an ideal pal right out of the gate. She underlines that Ted is no good for Annie and commiserates over the loss of her bakery. There’s an immediate interest in the relationship, and a desire to see Annie succeed in her maid-of-honor duties for Lillian, even though she goes on to fail spectacularly at every turn.
The beauty of Wiig and Mumolo’s script is that its humor only enhances the heart at the center of the movie. Annie’s solitude is hilariously highlighted at Lillian’s engagement party, as partygoers repeatedly assume that she’s with whatever man she’s standing next to. There her competition for Lillian’s friendship is kicked off with the introduction of Rose Byrne’s Helen, the cringe-inducing one-upmanship of their toasts familiar to anyone who’s felt threatened by an intimidating addition to an old friend’s social circle.
At her job at a jewelry store, although Annie risks her employment by warning customers about love’s fickleness, she doesn’t get fired until she spars with a teen over a “best friends forever” necklace. “Friends grow apart,” she says. It’s evident from that sentiment and her ideas for the wedding that Annie is looking toward Lillian’s past, not her future: She lobbies for a bachelorette weekend at a family lake house, rather than the Las Vegas trip favored by Lillian’s new friends. Her shower gift is a collage from the girls’ past, trumped by Helen’s flashy gift of a trip to Paris. As we see from those childhood photos and the Wilson Phillips CD Annie gifts Lillian, the two share a special bond, making their mid-film estrangement more devastating than the end of any romantic relationship. It’s easy to blame your looks, or a romantic rival, or a lack of commitment for a breakup, but the loss of a friend—so inherently personal—is leagues more painful. “I feel like her life is going off and getting perfect,” says Annie, whose own life is anything but.
But this is a major motion picture, so reconciliation is inevitable. There’s a pep talk from McCarthy’s indefatigable Megan—“You’re your problem, Annie, and you’re also your solution”—which is also a reminder that Annie has another friend standing right in front of her. On the day of the wedding, Lillian vanishes, so Helen has to recruit the only person who can find her: Annie. The two settle their differences, the wedding goes off without a hitch, and everybody dances to Wilson Phillips—the actual Wilson Phillips, booked by Helen in one last act of one-upmanship.
It feels both fresh yet familiar, and with good reason. While Bridesmaids’ gross-out gags might be what the film is best remembered for, what’s more remarkable is how it mapped the beats of a romantic comedy onto a story about female friendship, a quality that’s been mimicked more by its successors on the small screen than those in theaters. It’s an inversion of rom-com tropes, too: Annie’s love life runs parallel to Bridesmaids’ main threads, but it’s the type of background concern another movie might have made her relationship with Lillian into. When the movie’s love interest, Nathan (Chris O’Dowd), makes a charming attempt to get Annie baking again, instead of melting like a Hallmark Channel heroine, she lashes out, “I don’t need you to fix me!”
O’Dowd is also the movie’s sixth-billed cast member. Bridesmaids is not about him, nor is it about Ted, and we barely see the groom, Dougie (Tim Heidecker). They’re incidental, as is the fact that the movie ends with Annie riding off in Nathan’s cop car. She’s already gotten her happy ending: Reunited with Lillian, the most important relationship in her life has been repaired, and she’s also forged bonds with Megan and Helen along the way.
Bridesmaids made over $288 million worldwide. It was one of 2011’s only movie hits that wasn’t a sequel, and the rare R-rated comedy to nab multiple Oscar nominations: Best Supporting Actress for McCarthy and Best Original Screenplay for Wiig and Mumolo. A flurry of similar movies followed, Bridesmaids’ success paving the way for lesser, mean-spirited releases like Rough Night, as well as the more positive Bad Moms movies. You can feel its effect as recently as Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart, a funny, heartwarming comedy of debauchery following two best friends (Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever) on the night before their high school graduation.
Few scenes will ever match the level of bodily function gross-out of Rudolph shitting in the street, but Girls Trip’s zipline-mounted pee shower came close. But learning how to incorporate grapefruit into your oral-sex routine is not the true draw of Girls Trip: As with Bridesmaids, it’s how these friends stick together, finding true strength in their support of each other. For decades, women-led movies spent a ton of time focusing on the happily ever after with a handsome prince: Bridesmaids showed us that princes come and go, but if we’re lucky, best friends really are forever.