"Bridesmaids" takes the typically clichid wedding movie genre and completely upends it and reinvents it into something surprisingly daring and alive.
But it also takes the Judd Apatow-style buddy comedy, with its mixture of raunchiness, neurosis and sentimentality, and tailors it to female experiences and sensibilities.
That the film achieves both of these ambitious goals simultaneously while remaining (mostly) hilarious is a testament to the power of Kristen Wiig as co-writer and star, and to the awesomely eclectic ensemble cast of strong comediennes who surround her.
Like the comedies Apatow has directed - and here he serves as a producer - "Bridesmaids" drags on longer than it should. It also features a ridiculous gross-out scene involving some bad Brazilian food and a visit to an upscale bridal store that was unnecessary, and feels like an afterthought: a transparent attempt to appeal to the lowest-common denominator, and to men.
"Bridesmaids" is too smart, too clever and too inspired to fall back on formula. The presence of Wiig, front and center, ensures that. The "Saturday Night Live" player has stood out in supporting performances in movies including "Knocked Up," "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story" and "Whip It." Now she proves she's a flat-out star: a comedian with a sweet and slightly off-kilter sense of humor, but also a strong, relatable presence full of foibles and vulnerability.
And director Paul Feig, who collaborated with Apatow on the short-lived but beloved TV series "Freaks and Geeks," gives her and her fellow cast members equal room to shine.
Wiig stars as Annie, who's lost her Milwaukee bakery and her boyfriend in the past couple years. She has a strictly booty-call relationship with a gorgeous, wealthy jerk (Jon Hamm). She shares an apartment with a creepy British brother and sister (Matt Lucas and Rebel Wilson). Meanwhile, her mom (the late Jill Clayburgh) tries to give her pep talks about the upside of hitting bottom.
The one bright spot in Annie's life is her best friend, Lillian (Wiig's real-life friend and former "SNL" cast mate Maya Rudolph). They're so close, they finish each other's sentences, and the energy of Wiig and Rudolph's comfort together leaps off the screen.
And so Annie suddenly feels lost when Lillian announces she's getting married. But she doesn't have time to get too mired in her emotions because Lillian has asked her to serve as maid of honor, with all the responsibility that role requires.
One fundamental thing the "Bridesmaids" script (which Wiig wrote with longtime pal Annie Mumolo) just nails is the innate randomness of the bridal party: the surreal sensation of being thrown together with a bunch of women you don't know and have nothing in common with besides the bride. Here, the group includes a disgruntled wife and mother of three (Wendi McLendon-Covey) and an innocent, Disney-loving newlywed (Ellie Kemper).
Both actresses get their share of laughs, but the biggest and ballsiest scene-stealer of all is Melissa McCarthy as Lillian's future sister-in-law: a heavyset government worker who's brazenly hypersexual. She's always inappropriate - but she's also the only one in the group who's truly happy. McCarthy is fearless and commanding in the role: Just try watching anyone else when she's on screen.
But the woman who ends up taking over the festivities is Lillian's new BFF, Helen, played by a delicately passive-aggressive Rose Byrne. She's everything Annie isn't: sophisticated, glamorous, confident and wealthy. Annie is instantly threatened, and "Bridesmaids" follows their game of one-upmanship through some brutally awkward moments that result in big laughs.
Unlike a shrill comedy like "Bride Wars," where the female characters tear each other apart in a fit of screechy jealousy, "Bridesmaids" is onto something more honest, and more uncomfortable: the fragility of even the strongest female friendship, and the way in which insecurity can, sadly, tear people apart. Wiig is unafraid to delve into some of the uglier facets of her character's personality, and yet she's so likable in her oddball way, she always makes you root for her.
Her scenes with Chris O'Dowd, as a state trooper who becomes her unlikely suitor, add another layer of the unexpected to "Bridesmaids." The Irish actor has a slightly goofy demeanor that makes him a unique choice for a love interest, but here, he's just the right fit.
"Bridesmaids" surely doesn't mark the end of conventional female-centric comedies, but it works on so many levels, it'll hopefully make future filmmakers stop and think twice before approaching this kind of project - or think for the first time - and realize it can be done in a better, fresher way.
"Bridesmaids," a Universal Pictures release, is rated R for some strong sexuality, and language throughout. Running time: 125 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.