by Jake Mulligan

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday September 7, 2012

Isla Fisher, Kirsten Dunst and Lizzy Caplan in "Bachelorette"
Isla Fisher, Kirsten Dunst and Lizzy Caplan in "Bachelorette"  

Regan (Kirsten Dunst,) Gena (Lizzy Caplan,) and Katie (Isla Fischer) are in trouble, and I'm not referring to their mid-life crises, their bulimic tendencies, or their drug habits. Having ripped their "friend" Becky's wedding dress mere hours before her early morning wedding ceremony, the three have to sprint through the town and its many distractions, "After Hours"- style, in an attempt to right the wrong. Their problem is that they can't stop doing coke long enough to avoid nose-bleeding all over the dress, and they can't ignore their own myriad collection of internal doubts and fuck-ups long enough to do anything for someone else. If you can't tell, this is darker than your average maid-of-honor movie.

The thing is, at first glance, this is another broad bodily humor comedy, another punch line-fest like "Bridesmaids" that sends women into the street shitting their pants in hopes that all the bathroom-references will tickle our funny bone where absent wit does not. But "Bachelorette" is something more: loaded with subtle insights and details about the cracking faÁade that is its characters (once beloved as the "B-Faces" in High School, our girls are now a ragtag collection of incredibly attractive psychological problems,) its comic set-pieces, from "reviving a fucked up bitch" in a bathroom to an enlightening journey to a strip club, feel like pieces of a whole rather than strung together scenes from an episode of "SNL." American comedy cinema use to have a layer of sophistication, both in the craft and the humor - look at the screwball tradition - but sadly now it's little more than sketch comedy.

Indeed, too often I use this space to complain about how American comedies have been corrupted by the influence of Judd Apatow, devolving into a stage where scripts are little more than guides for improvisation. That's what makes director Leslye Headland's debut feature an invigorating shock - it's a comedic gut punch that reminds you that movies can be uproarious without needing to be lazily constructed. Yes, I'll admit up front, it has its fair share of flaws. But it's actually about something (many things, actually,) it has an intricately drawn script full of callbacks and repeating gags, it rights all the wrongs the similar-but-unrelated "Bridesmaids" committed, and it flies by at an impeccably paced 80 minutes. What's not to love?

Look, this is hardly one of the great debuts in cinema history, but it's an incredibly exciting first film none-the-less. The economy with which Headland introduces her characters - Regan is seen bragging about her work with "cancer kids," then calling Katie (working at Club "Mon-Ah-Ko," as she pronounces it) and Gena (waking up next to a stranger, and lamenting the fact that his Jack Johnston t-shirt confirms that "he sucks") about Becky's impending nuptials - is more than impressive, its kinetic prowess is shocking in our era of under-edited humor.

And she avoids the stagey pratfalls that hold back other play adaptations (she also wrote the source material), displaying a combination rare in first timers: a strong, decided voice coupled with a command of the craft itself. I almost hate to admit this, but "Bachelorette" makes my other favorite play adaptation of the year, William Friedkin's "Killer Joe," look like lazily-lensed television in comparison. Take a scene where Gena first discovers her old boyfriend (Adam Scott) across the hall, and Headland turns up the soundtrack while slowing the footage down to Scorsese-esque slow motion. It's admirable to watch her reverse the male gaze - for once, she notices him - without calling attention to herself, and this film does it constantly, putting women in positions of power or as central figures in scenes that are normally (even in "women's movies") reserved for men. But before you think of all that, you just think that the scene is really cool. That's the beauty of well-made, exciting cinema. You feel things before you process them.

And it helps, because with the wrong point-of-view, "Bachelorette" could come off as incredibly depressing. In fact, it's basically "Mean Girls at 30", studying how those iconic little brats would've handled middle age, and with the pesky "everything will work out" ending taken out in favor of something slightly more cynical. Dunst is the alpha-woman, the Rachel McAdams - a queen bitch; the master manipulator hidden behind the face of a goddess.

Lizzy Caplan, as Gena, is the "Gretchen," the best friend, the less traditionally beautiful also-ran, her insecurities dooming her to a fate of mediocre hookups, club drugs, and morning-after headaches. Isla Fischer is our Amanda Seyfried, the dumb comic relief, but Headland mines even that for something emotionally truthful, diving headfirst into studying the self-loathing that comes along with such a bubbly attitude. It'd be a stretch to set-up Rebel Wilson as the Lindsay Lohan stand-in, but considering the way she explodes at the end, revealing she's every bit as dark, self-centered, and unforgiving as the other girls, the parallels between her and Lohan's character in that seminal Tina Fey script are probably more apparent than I originally thought.

The clashing personalities leave the film a bit uneven - it's as if no one was on the same page as to how serious to play this. Dunst, with her monologues about being miserable and her eternally dissatisfied gazes into the mirror, seems to be using this comedy to depict depression with the same vigor and seriousness she did in "Melancholia" (put that on your poster!) Fischer, with her cartoonish antics and sub-human intellect, seems to be playing it as broad as can be. Caplan lands somewhere in the middle. It almost throws the film off balance - but the girls and the writing are so honest, and Fischer so damn funny, that I can't help but ignore the fact that it doesn't totally click tonally. This film gets you into its spirit, and by the end, I'd rather dance along with the girls than nitpick.