Film review: Bridesmaids

Believable characters, excellent gags and a tour de force of humiliation for its central character mean this is a chick-flick that kicks its hungover male rival into touch

• Annie (Kristen Wiig) and Helen (Rose Byrne) face each other down. Picture: PA

Bridesmaids (15) ****

Directed by: Paul Feig

Starring: Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Rose Byrne, Wendi McLendon-Covey

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JUDD Apatow has taken flack in the past for producing mostly guy-centric movies in which women take a backseat to men behaving badly, but he goes some way towards redressing the balance with Bridesmaids.

Co-written by and built around the comic talents of Saturday Night Live stalwart Kristen Wiig, it's a film that puts women front and centre without turning them into shrill stereotypes, idealised archetypes or worse, female facsimiles of overgrown boys.

That won't stop some from viewing this as The Hangover in a dress, thanks to its wedding nuptials backdrop, its gang-like ensemble cast and its willingness to trawl the gutter for gags. But it approaches all these things in an organic, mostly unforced way that feels true to the characters rather than feeling like a cynical attempt to squeeze them into some formulaic gender-switched raunch-com.

Central to its success in this respect is Wiig. A scene-stealer extraordinaire who is able to ratchet up the laugh quotient of good films (Knocked Up), and perform life-saving duties on bad ones (Paul), she has a real knack here for making the heightened humiliation her character suffers seem painfully relatable.

This is Annie, a former bakery owner wiped out by the recession and struggling to repurpose her life in tough times. Single, save for a sexually unsatisfying relationship with a Porsche-driving "F*** buddy" played by Jon Hamm (riffing gloriously on his Mad Men misogynist Don Draper), Annie is over 35, barely employed and reduced to living with a creepy pair of oddball Brit siblings (Matt Lucas and Rebel Wilson) who go through her stuff.

The one solid, dependable thing in her life is her friendship with college gal pal Lillian (Maya Rudolph), so when Lillian announces she's finally getting married, Annie greets the news with a mixture of joy and terror, her sudden fear of being even more alone and isolated kicking her anxiety levels up a notch.

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That fear is amplified tenfold after Lillian asks her to be her maid of honour. What should be a chance to spend lots of time with her best friend, helping her prepare for her big day, becomes instead a downward-spiral-catalysing stress fest as Annie finds herself competing for Lillian's attentions with Lillian's new friend Helen. Played with icy lan by Rose Byrne, Helen is rich, beautiful and immaculately attired at all times, making her a perfect, manipulative foil for the rough-around-the-edges Annie.

Annie, of course, senses the threat immediately and turns an engagement party speech paying tribute to Lillian into an amusing mic battle with Helen as each attempts to one-up the other with increasingly over-the-top platitudes singing Lillian's praises. From this point on it's clear Annie is going to let Helen get under her skin, and as everything she touches turns to crap (quite literally during the gross-out centrepiece when a bout of food poising turns a dress fitting into a scatological horror show), she keeps discovering new ways to lose her dignity on her way to hitting rock bottom.

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Annie's descent – rather than her rivalry with Helen – is the spine that holds Bridesmaids together. It's also what fundamentally distinguishes it from male-dominated films of a similar ilk: she's trying to get back on her feet, not reach adulthood for the first time in her life. Here, director Paul Feig (a veteran of hit US comedy TV shows such as The Office, Nurse Jackie and Arrested Development) is smart enough to create plenty of room for Annie to freefall, and while this makes the film feel looser in places than is commonly thought acceptable for a comedy, like the best Apatow-produced fare, that slackness facilitates an easy-going rhythm that helps the characters appear more believable and lets the jokes flow more naturally.

It helps that Wiig is the kind of performer who can take that freedom and spin it into comic gold, and she's ably backed up by Rudolph, Byrne and Melissa McCarthy. McCarthy's casting as the coarse, off-kilter bridesmaid may echo Zach Galifianakis's role in The Hangover a little too closely at first, but she soon comes into her own, bringing surprising depth and feeling to a part that requires her to revel in taste-baiting tales of sexual voraciousness.

It doesn't all work. Ironically, the other bridesmaids, played by Wendi McLendon Covey (as a seen-it-all mother of three) and Ellie Kemper (as a nave ultraconservative housewife) are given fairly short shrift and feel more like cameos than fully developed characters. Supplying Annie with a love interest in the form of Chris O'Dowd's gentle Irish traffic cop also feels like too much of a concession to the white knight syndrome that the film seems to be railing against.

Nevertheless, the gags are funny and consistent enough, and Wiig and co are so appealing, that any flaws are easily forgiven.