Leslye Headland’s Bachelorette (Radius-TWC) is a nasty little piece of work—a phrase I use not with contempt but with grudging admiration. Over the last few years, popular comedies about female friendship have tended to be warm, even sentimental. Sex and the City and Bridesmaids may have used social satire to gently skewer their protagonists, but at heart they were humanist entertainments, romantic comedies that ended in Shakespearean multiple marriages and declarations of sisterly love. Bachelorette places a trio of women front and center who are so irredeemably loathsome, it’s kind of refreshing. At least until a conventional third-act redemption undercuts some of the movie’s sharpest insights and funniest jokes.*
It’s a shame that a twisted dark comedy like Bachelorette has been sent out into the world with a bland, generic title that inevitably, and irrelevantly, evokes images of the sappy reality TV competition The Bachelorette. The film has also run into bad luck with its release timing: Though it was conceived and written well before Bridesmaids came out last year (Headland based the script on her own stage play), this story of a maid of honor and two bridesmaids behaving badly can’t help but appear to be hitching a ride on that movie’s long silk-taffeta train.
In reality, Bachelorette has less in common with Bridesmaids than with Bad Teacher and Young Adult, two recent comedies about solo female fuckups on a mission to field-test some really bad ideas. I didn’t think either Bad Teacher or Young Adult quite came together in the end, but it was a blast to watch, respectively, Cameron Diaz and Charlize Theron behave like unrepentant bitches. Those movies’ willingness to explore the possibilities of female-centric black comedy was the best thing about them.
Here, the many character flaws of those belligerent, drug-abusing anti-heroines have been parceled out among three separate protagonists. Regan (Kirsten Dunst) is a beautiful, successful, deeply self-loathing thirtysomething with a medical-resident boyfriend who’s in no rush to propose. (We only encounter him as an unheard voice on the other end of phone conversations—a detail that underscores Regan’s isolation.) When her high-school friend Becky (Rebel Wilson) announces she’s just gotten engaged to a handsome guy who adores her, Regan’s symmetrical features tighten in just-perceptible envy and rage. Later, being debriefed on the phone by her high-school buddies Katie (Isla Fisher) and Gena (Lizzy Caplan), Regan spells it out with ruthless candor: How can Becky be the first of their group to get married? First of all, she’s fat. Second of all, she’s … fat.
That’s just about the breadth of Regan’s moral vision. She can’t see past Becky’s pudgy frame to her sweetness, her raucous sense of humor, her generous willingness to forgive the high-school “friends” who once taunted her with the nickname “Pigface.” But secret frenemy or not, Regan revels in the position of maid of honor, lording her petty power over her less high-functioning pals. Katie is forever issuing whooped exhortations to “party”—a euphemism, we soon learn, for “get drunk and snort coke until your nostrils bleed, then have sex with whomever takes you home.” Gena’s substance abuse habit is less dire, but her voice has a permanent wake-and-bake rasp, and as we first meet her, she’s waking up next to a guy she doesn’t recognize. Emotionally, we learn, Gena is in cryogenic freeze, still obsessed with the injustices perpetrated by her high-school boyfriend Clyde (Adam Scott, extending his reign as the king of screwball heartthrobs.). When a younger guest at the wedding party refers to her deferentially as “Mrs.,” Gena is at pains to stipulate, “I’m not an adult, OK?”
Inevitably, in the course of the night before the wedding, the following events unfold. Cringeful toasts are made and cringed at. (Can we get a moratorium, at least for a time, on uncomfortable wedding-toast scenes in movies? Real life provides us with so many.) Gena sees Clyde across a crowded room and must reckon with her feelings toward him. Katie’s hard-partying lifestyle threatens to catch up with her. Becky’s plus-size bridal gown gets torn and stained with blood and other human effluvia, and Regan must find a way to get it repaired, cleaned, and back in the bride’s closet by morning.
That stained gown is the pretext for getting our three malfeasant heroines out of their hotel suites and into the streets of New York for a farcical race against the clock. This slapstick aspect of Bachelorette isn’t half bad—the diminutive Isla Fisher, in particular, is a master of the ditzy pratfall—but it’s the raw, often unflattering characterizations of the three young women that set the film apart from your average romantic comedy. Caplan’s Gena, with her gloomy Wednesday Addams mien and carapace of defensive sarcasm, is someone we’ve all known (or been): a young adult unable to relinquish her mask of adolescent cool. Fisher’s Katie, though more thinly sketched than the other two, is also a poignantly unlovable loser, a lifelong good-time girl now running on fumes.
But it’s Dunst who steals the film in the role of Regan, the alpha-bitch prom queen turned avenging angel. Poor miserable tight-jawed Regan, with her secret bulimia and well-polished anecdotes about working with a children’s cancer charity, has to be one of the most painfully human villains I’ve seen on screen this year. So human that by the not-quite-convincingly happy ending of Bachelorette, it’s hard to tell if she’s really a villain at all.
Correction, Sept. 14, 2012: This article originally stated that Bachelorette was a Weinstein Co. film. (Return to the corrected sentence.)