Who will be the savior of the American female-driven raunch comedy? Judd Apatow? Cameron Diaz? Tyler Perry? Jerry Bruckheimer?1 Can Bridesmaids and Bad Teacher conquer The Hangover Part II and its bromantic ilk? Or can they all learn to coexist peacefully, like cowboys and aliens?2
After the Cameron Diaz-led comedy The Sweetest Thing (notable for a humiliating oral-sex-gone-wrong gag and endless cut-to-ribbons replays on Comedy Central) bombed in 2002, it was cited thereafter as “proof” by studios that moviegoers had no appetite for R-rated comedies starring women.3 Nine years later, Bridesmaids finally seems to have disproven that theory with near-perfect reviews and grosses bigger than every other Apatow movie ever (save for Talladega Nights and Knocked Up). Bridesmaids has been praised as a game-changer, leveling the playing field for women in comedy. But has it really changed anything in terms of the kinds of films that are developed and sold?
And now, hot on the heels of Bridesmaids, comes another raunchy R-rated comedy, this one starring the perennially up-for-anything Cameron Diaz as an asshole who takes a teaching job so she can afford breast implants and flatter (real-life ex) Justin Timberlake into thinking he should keep making comedies.4
If Bad Teacher is bad (and it is, according to most reviews), what does that mean for the Bridesmaids Effect? Nothing, hopefully. If the critical and box-office failures of Green Lantern and The Green Hornet don’t stop the endless push of superhero movies,5 certainly one less-than-stellar R-rated female-led comedy shouldn’t stop the development of all R-rated female-led comedies. Just because Cameron Diaz and Christina Applegate starred in The Sweetest Thing, the Ishtar of raunchy female comedies, doesn’t mean you couldn’t make a great Diaz- and Applegate-starring raunchy female comedy.
Comedic movie actresses have to be allowed to not be hot.6 Not like, high-heel-stuck-in-a sewer-grate, frizzy-flyaway-hair, Anne Hathaway-in-nerd-glasses not-hot. I mean genuinely not-hot. Full-attack mode physical-comedy not-hot. John Belushi not-hot. Not-pretty enough to be actually funny, because vanity contraindicates comedy. And this was the most revolutionary aspect of Bridesmaids; the pratfalls are actually pratfalls, the dick jokes are legitimately obscene.
It’s not that Cameron Diaz in a bikini can’t be funny, but the joke has to be about more than just Cameron Diaz in a bikini. Cameron Diaz, in or out of a bikini, is an incredibly gifted physical comedian. You couldn’t just swap in a generic blonde hottie in There’s Something About Mary any more than you could swap in a generic bumbling nebbish for Ben Stiller. While Bad Teacher may not be the star vehicle that resuscitates Diaz’s comedy career, I hope she won’t be relegated again to girlfriend and wife roles. She’s always been too weird and spastic to convincingly play boring, and most dramatic female roles are sadly still that.
The only real connection between Bad Teacher and Bridesmaids is that they are rated R and were released in 2011. Lumping together comedies starring women makes as much sense as lumping together The Hangover Part II and Super 8 because they have numbers in their titles and feature white guys on weird adventures. And if Bad Teacher is bad, it doesn’t mean you can’t make a great movie about an unlikable slut. It just means there is one specific bad movie about an unlikable slut.
The main thrust of sex comedies for approximately a billion years has been “(male) nerds trying to bone (female) babes.” It’s the plot of every ’80s comedy, every summer-camp lakeside romp, and every high school locker-room-peephole fantasy. It’s the subplot of Marx Brothers movies. It’s Porky’s and Meatballs and Revenge Of The Nerds all the way up to There’s Something About Mary and Superbad. But it’s not the ’80s anymore, and lechery isn’t funny in itself unless there’s something genuinely novel about it, which is why Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids was such a golf-hat-wearing revelation.
The closest thing to a female Superbad, a movie starring a nerdy funny girl who tries to get with the prom king and succeeds, is Sixteen Candles. Romantic comedies that don’t insult women with assumptions about their priorities and life goals are few and far between. One of the best romantic comedies in recent memory was actually Anchorman, in which Ron Burgundy learns that his pride is less important than expressing his love for a woman who is better at his job than he is. But then everybody from Anchorman got cast in other movies except for Christina Applegate. Studio executives saw it and said, “Hey, get me the guy who plays the guy who eats the candle.”7
What would a Porky’s for girls look like?8 Would it make guys uncomfortable to see physically attractive men objectified and treated like nothing but decorative sex objects in a movie about female nerds on a quest to get laid? And are we actually supposed to care, given the existence of Transformers 3? Do female directors audition male actors by making them wash their cars in a bikini?9
It’s not that there shouldn’t be jokes about uncomfortable things. There should definitely be comedy about discomfort. That’s the whole reason for comedy. But the punch line in The Hangover Part II can’t be “transsexual prostitutes are weird and disgusting,” because they’re not. And when the joke is about imperfect women’s bodies being gross or men being gross and women being hot and flawless, it is not inherently relatable or funny. When I saw the poster for She’s Out Of My League, I just yelled at it, “BUT SHE’S NOT OUT OF HIS LEAGUE. JAY BARUCHEL IS CONVENTIONALLY ATTRACTIVE.”
And I don’t actually want a gender-reversed take on Porky’s that badly, even if it would be totally fair, because Porky’s is a movie about one-dimensional characters with one-dimensional needs.10 One-dimensional comedy can be hilarious, but it can only go so far toward inducing an emotional effect. Bridesmaids is so important because it is a three-dimensional comedy, a movie that uses the medium of film to make you feel multiple different things without conflict, embarrassment, sadness, rapture, hope.
In a perfect world11 there would be starring vehicles for actresses like Zooey Deschanel, Natalie Portman, and Rashida Jones in which they’d get to be funny relating to each other, and not relating to each other about men. And projects for incredibly talented lesser-known actresses like Judy Greer and Lizzy Caplan and Carla Gallo. Instead of casting talented comedic actresses as the weird best friends of neurotic overachievers, scrap the neurotic overachievers entirely and make buddy comedies about weird girl best friends.
What the massive success of Bridesmaids really demonstrates is that the quality of a movie hinges entirely on its script, its cast, and its director. And what Green Lantern‘s disappointing critical and box-office reception shows is that buying a big-name property and throwing millions of dollars at it in no way guarantees a big gross or multiple sequels. Word of mouth matters more than anything, and a genuinely great product guarantees positive word of mouth.
Judd Apatow, discussing the lessons of the success of Bridesmaids put it well: “A movie starring a lot of very funny people, who are not movie stars, succeeded because it’s strong. A lot of the time you don’t need giant stars — you just need people who are really good.”
Molly Lambert is a staff writer for Grantland.