This weekend I saw three 2011 comedies - one a new theatrical release, two recent to DVD - all of which address, with varying degrees of seriousness and success, the effects of our lingering economic recession and/or the consequences of privilege. The summer blockbuster Bridesmaids pivots around a battle royale between Kristen Wiig's financially struggling maid-of-honor and Rose Byrne's obscenely wealthy usurper of the bride-to-be's affections, whereas the surprise hit Horrible Bosses follows a trio of desperate friends (Jason Bateman, Charlie Day, Andy Sudeikis) in an increasingly convoluted scheme to kill their misery-inflicting employers (Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Aniston, Colin Farrell). Meanwhile, off the mainland, Alexander Payne's The Descendants spends a few hectic days in the life of a Honolulu attorney (George Clooney) following a tragic accident that leaves his wife in a coma as he's about to lead a contingent of cousins into a lucrative land deal. Clooney's Hawaiian-shirt clad, flipflop-wearing Matt King is untouched by economic woes - in an early voiceover, Matt informs us, as we watch him in business meetings, that "the wealthiest, most powerful people in Hawaii dress like beach bums." Yet as he learns of his soon-to-be-late wife's adultery while trying to help his two young daughters hold it together, we learn that even Matt is far from unscathed.
Our premier satirist of contemporary American life, Payne - as any satirist worth his salt should - continues to receive (amid high praise) brickbats from some quarters accusing him of hating or condescending to his characters. A pair of questions arise immediately in response to this: A) Is this true?; and B) So what if it is? All of his films (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, and the "14e arrondissement" segment of Paris Je T'aime) walk a fine line between snarkiness and sentiment, and The Descendants is no exception. One seemingly minor scene in the film, a monologue by Matt's eldest daughter's spaced-out, semi-callous hipster friend Sid (Nick Krause), may crudely underline Payne's worldview: "Sometimes I watch old people or retarded people crossing the street, and they're so slow, and I get so impatient. And then I feel bad." I'm not suggesting Payne seconds that emotion, rather that he's ballsy enough to articulate its existence.
Complexity of feeling lies at the heart of The Descendants, even as Matt indulges in occasional slapstick shtick in tracking down his wife's lover. Clooney is very amusing while running in flipflops or peering behind bushes, yet he's never a cartoon. A slight crudity of execution was found even in Payne's best previous efforts, but his camera-sense and editing have improved by leaps and bounds in the seven years since his last movie (either that, or he's getting better cameramen and editors). This time there's a richness in Payne's visual palette to match the depth of his content, and the narrative rhythms (with impeccably timed dissolves and fade-outs) are lyrically in tune with the swaying Hawaiian music on the soundtrack. The Descendants doesn't ask us to feel sorry for rich people, but accomplishes something trickier. It's a glowing melancholy comedy about the roots between even the most estranged of family members, between ourselves and our ancestors, and between people and the land they inhabit.
Judd Apatow's apparent answer to those of us asking why the creator of Freaks and Geeks has repeatedly refused to create a female film character with the dimensions of that show's protagonist Lindsay Weir, Bridesmaids (produced by Apatow and directed by F&G co-creator Paul Feig) doesn't exactly take women on their own terms: it suggests that they can be as dirty-minded as men. That's progress of a sort, if not exactly news, I suppose. The movie is foremost a vehicle for Kristen Wiig, who plays Annie Walker, the aforementioned maid-of-honor and best friend to Lillian (Maya Rudolph). Lillian's engagement comes as Annie is still reeling from opening a high-quality yet unsuccessful bakery; unable to pay the rent, much less meet the responsibilities her role in the wedding party require, Annie finds her friendship threatened by Rose Byrne's affluent Helen Harris. Some of the funniest bits involve Helen's attempts to one-up Annie: a mailed invitation to a bridal shower is opened to reveal a fluttering butterfly; the shower itself is held at Helen's estate, with a long driveway interrupted by a butler offering tall glasses of pink lemonade.
Bridesmaids being an Apatow joint, the script (co-written by Wiig and Annie Mumolo) is extended upon to allow for plenty of ad-libbing. This showcases the gifts of comediennes like Wiig and Melissa McCarthy (who garnered the best reviews as Megan, the straight-shooting, libido-led member of the wedding party) but more often than not leads to a lot of dead air: the movie's already infamous pants-shitting, food-poisoning centerpiece was undoubtedly funnier with a packed audience than at home. Raunchy sentiment is by now an Apatovian specialty, and to Wiig's credit she finds a hint of pathos to go with her gift for occupying demented interior spaces. It's heartening to see her working with a full comic ensemble, even connecting semi-romantically with an impossibly likable police officer (Chris O'Dowd), and living in something like the real world. Bridesmaids is a mixed bag, but I have to give points to an underdog comedy that's shrewd enough to set itself in that biggest underdog of all cities (and home of my alma mater) Milwaukee. The interiors are phony (actually shot in California) but the exteriors are largely real - not unlike the emotional life of the movie itself.
Whereas Bridesmaids embodies the occasionally inspired, often deadweight improvisatory feel of contemporary comedy, Horrible Bosses attempts to be a classically intricate machine, and it's more clever and amusing than you might expect. Bateman, Day, and Sudeikis achieve a likeable, believably spontaneous rapport, yet the director (Seth Gordon) and the screenwriters (Michael Markowitz and John Francis Daley & Jonathan Goldstein) keep driving the narrative forward, with unexpected pleasures along the way. For every few jokes that go thud are a couple that are inspired: I laughed hardest at a running gag/deus ex machina featuring an automated GPS voice named Gregory (but really Atmanand) and the sublime explanation for the imprisonment of hit-man/murder-adviser Motherfucker Jones (Jamie Foxx). Unlike most modern comedies, the second half of Horrible Bosses is stronger than the first: the movie doesn't have laughs exactly (other than the aforementioned examples), but rather builds a comic momentum mainly due to the expanding psychotic dimensions of Spacey's corporate sociopath. As a randy dentist going to jaw-dropping lengths to create an uncomfortable work environment, Aniston takes a page from the Sarah Michelle Gellar playbook, which is to say she wants to be seen as "daring" without really doing anything that truly bold actresses do to earn the title. On the other hand, Farrell is delightful (and all too brief) as a ne'er-do-well cokehead son who inherits a family business. Horrible Bosses weaves its disparate plot strands just enough to draw attention to the fact that it could have been a vulgar classic instead of a lively near-miss.