17 January 2009

GIRLS IN WHITE DRESSES

Apparently, January is now the dumping ground, not only for the worst of the worst horror films and Happy Madison productions, but for enormously retrograde comedies about how every girl in the world wants so very much to have a big fancy wedding. Last year: 27 Dresses. This year: Bride Wars, a paean to friendship and conspicuous consumption that is just simply wrong. On a number of levels.

Since a wee age, Liv (Kate Hudson, who also produced) and Emma (Anne Hathaway) have always wanted the exact same thing: a June wedding at New York's Plaza Hotel. It happens that both women become engaged around the same time, and both contract the services of the city's most desired wedding planner, Marion St. Claire (Candice Bergen), who uses her godly powers to get them both slots at that venue a mere three months in advance, three weeks apart. Except that in a hi-larious snafu, some signals get crossed and the girls end up with weddings on the same day at the same time. Cue the outrageous wackiness as these two young ladies turn instantly into the bitterest of foes, with no aim in sight but to make each other's wedding a colossal disaster.

Maybe I'm nothing but a cockeyed optimist, but I can see how that concept turns into a really fine comedy. Really play up the idea that BFFs can turn on each other at the drop of a hat when their long-desired creature comforts are threatened, and you have a really swell dark comedy in the Ruthless People mold, a coal-black celebration of the awful things that people do. Barring that, at the very least there should be a smart, nasty satire of the over-funded wedding industry in America, which has managed to convince so very many intelligent, educated young women that if they don't spend the equivalent of a down payment on a really nice house on one single day that they'll be too stressed to enjoy, they have fundamentally failed in their womanhood. I'd have paid money to see that.

But since I am a 27-year-old male, the movie studios don't really give a damn what I want to see (though it is assumed, I think, that I will be mostly interested in whatever the teenage boys are into). So instead of being any kind of satire about anything, Bride Wars is a big ol' fluffy pile of wish fulfillment. The first warning sign was the PG rating; when you don't even have enough adult content to swing a PG-13, nor the desire to add such content, you've pretty much announced to the world that your movie is as lightweight and breakable as a soap bubble. Thus it is with Bride Wars, which never pursues its characters into any interesting alleyways when it can just as easily be distracted by pretty things, easy signifiers of consumerism, like its 300-year-long scene where Liv and Emma talk about this goddamn Vera Wang wedding gown.

It's tempting to hate on the film all the more for its extravagantly poor timing: there's hardly been a worse time to celebrate the great American sport of buying than now and the past few months. But that's not the filmmaker's fault; besides isn't it true that in the 1930s, people ate up these "glamourous lives of the rich" fantasias by the crateful? Except that a good Depression-era MGM comedy has vitality and wit that couldn't be farther from Bride Wars. Besides, those movies were unabashedly artificial: you didn't go to learn behavior, you went to escape. Escapism is certainly part of Bride Wars, but it's a different flavor: we're expected to agree with the protagonists' musings on how nice it is to have nice things.

But enough of my latent Marxism (which always seems to flare up when I see movies like this). The greater problem with the film is that is just doesn't have any core: take away the pretty women and pretty dresses and pretty wedding gewgaws, and you're not left with a movie at all. Bride Wars is a stillborn comedy at best, with only Bergen and Kristen Johnson able to wring any real humor from their characters at all, in both cases by tapping into the nastiness that the rest of the film seems so eager to keep away from (Johnson's performance especially; she plays a standard issue mean drunk, but she mugs with virtually no shame and provides at least some spark because of it). Hudson and Hathaway are more than useless: trapped to a certain degree by their stock characters (Liv is a control freak! Emma is a doormat!), neither actress does much of anything besides stand in front of the camera and recite lines. This is a disappointment in Hudson's case, as she has proven before to be capable of zingy comedy; it's a tragedy in Hathaway's, given how very recently she proved in Rachel Getting Married that she can be one hell of an actress without sacrificing any of the sweetness that made her so inexplicably popular. I never cared much for her before Rachel, admittedly, but this is still a shocking waste of her time and talents; easily the worst performance I've ever seen her give.

The silver lining - and it is always well to look for the positive in all things - is the director Gary Winick actually seems to have put some vague effort into keeping his unfunny, paint-by-numbers film alive. Nothing here is exactly innovative, but for what the film is - a winter programmer - it's a lot more than the necessary "set up the camera, press record" hackery. I mean, there's some of that, too. But some of the scenes are filmed in unusual, interesting ways, particularly the inevitable "the girls become friends again" moment, which is shot in what would just about pass for avant-garde in this context. On the other hand, I would not go too far in praising Winick, or rather his team of filmmakers: the film also suffers from shockingly bad editing in several places, like it was made in 1916 by people who didn't quite understand this nifty new "continuity editing" system that Griffith and DeMille were all hot and bothered about, but wanted to give it a try anyway.

So basically, it's a wreck: not funny, insulting to both hetero women and hetero men (guys, in this world, are ciphers unless they are jackasses; and the film's treatment of non-hetero people consists of one dude with that marvelous Hollywood "gay people don't have sex" sexuality), socially irresponsible. But by the same token, I don't think it's the worst wreck we'll see all year, and at the very, very worst, it's clear that some people were actually trying. There might not ultimately be anything in the film that counts as "good cinema" besides one of Bergen's early scenes, but it's January, and it could be worse. This could be a horror remake.

4/10

1 comment:

Alex said...

I think the trouble with these "workable premise and hideous execution" comedies is that there are no more Lubitschs or Wilders (or even Hawkses and Cukors) to dig beneath the surface and excavate the Truth of the proceedings. "Pineapple Express" was fun and all, but could you imagine Preston Sturges getting his hands on it?

Perhaps comedy audiences don't want to be confronted with pesky things like wit or believability, or perhaps studios just assume they don't.