“Bachelorette”, or “Spoiler Alert: Apparently Women Can’t Be Assholes” by Matilda Dixon-Smith

Posted on September 10, 2012

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Critical debate about whether Leslye Headland’s caustic film Bachelorette is any good saturates arts and entertainment media right now. Between me and fellow editor Will Kay we’ve watched the movie six times. Obviously, we’re in the camp of “Yeah, this film is fucking awesome. Get a life, haters.” And here’s why:

Headland paints a gloomy but vital portrait of a group of women who have totally missed a step. Classic A-typer Regan (Kirsten Dunst) is loathed to discover that, in her early thirties, she is not the first of her high school friends to get married as she always expected/planned to be. Instead, first to tie the knot is overweight doormat Becky (Rebel Wilson). When Becky breaks the news to Regan at a lunch date, flashing her ring excitedly, Dunst’s face contorts into the most fantastic expression ever committed to film. You know instantly that this woman is kind of an asshole. It’s strange, but oddly refreshing. Isn’t she the protagonist? Female leads aren’t assholes, right?

Come on, they are FABULOUS.

Regan calls up her other old friends for support: slobby cynic Gena (Lizzy Caplan—who should be in all things ever) and dim Katie (Isla Fisher: Comic Genius). The four congregate at Becky’s low-key bachelorette party in New York City where, under the influence of cocaine and champagne, Gena and Katie proceed to humiliate Becky by referencing high school rumours of her bulimia and instructing the party’s stripper (Andrew Rannells, who I’m still not totally sure I like in anything) to call her by her cruel former nickname, Pigface. When the party falls apart, Regan, Gena and Katie get more wasted in the hotel room and, while mockingly trying on Becky’s wedding dress, rip the bodice.

The women race to fix the dress with hours until the wedding, and we watch each one crash and burn in a most spectacular fashion. Regan goes into control-freak overdrive, prompted in-part by a deliciously revolting James Marsden; Gena is forced to confront old woes when she runs into her ex, Clyde (an Adam Scott-y Adam Scott); and Katie tries to bubble along, barely concealing a spiral into despair. The experience is a darkly amusing and disturbing exploration of what excess and self-loathing can do to a person.

The trailer is another one of those marketing mishaps: a snapshot of a film that is totally unlike the actual film they are trying to sell. Obviously, the minute people saw the trailer, or heard anything about the movie, the comparisons to Kristen Wiig’s female-driven comedy Bridesmaids (also about complicated, funny women and weddings) poured out. I hate acknowledging these kind of lame comparisons, but it should be said that, other than the aforementioned surface-level similarities, this film bares no resemblance to Bridesmaids. We all know how much I loved Bridesmaids, but I think Bachelorette is something much more interesting.

The film’s poster. Hmmm.

I find it mind-boggling that, in this age of the male anti-hero (the Don Drapers, Tony Starks, Tyrion Lannisters, and Walter Whites), someone can’t make a movie about self-absorbed, self-destructive, acerbic, fascinating women without a public outcry. Do women always have to be Meg Ryan or Katherine Heigl? Can they not be Nancy Botwin (who, no matter what you think of later seasons of Weeds, is one of the greatest self-absorbed anti-heroes of all time) without people losing their damn minds?

When Headland did Q&As for the play back in 2010, she said the experience was “like riots”. If this film, or that play, was written about three broken-down men instead of women, I wonder if it would get the same reaction? Why is it that films about revolting men played by Bradley Cooper who belittle and lie to their family, let down their friends, and abuse their bodies in order to have a good time are acceptable—celebrated even—but a film about women who do the same is “toxic, nasty, and ugly”?

It makes me sad that we can’t even talk about this side of humanity. Acknowledging that women (like all people, because women are people too, gang) can be assholes isn’t “reaffirming stereotypes of women”; it’s showing that men and women are the same, because they can be good people (like Becky, or Joe, or Clyde, I guess?), or shitty people (like Regan, Trevor, Gena and Katie). I didn’t think that was a revolutionary—or controversial—concept until I started reading reviews of this film. Sometimes it’s just downright depressing how backwards attitudes towards women still are.

And again. FAB. U. LOUS.

As much as I respected the ideas in the film, where it falls down is in trying to have things both ways: to make these women incredibly complicated, callous, and seemingly uninterested in redemption, and then to reward them anyway. They are all inexplicably paired off at the film’s conclusion in a manner that seems to say, “Here you go, congratulations on not growing up at all”. I feel part of it comes from having such fantastic actors; there’s no way I could side against Dunst, Caplan and Fisher. Despite this, I feel Headland needed to commit to taking them all the way down the road to failure. We expect Patrick Bateman to be caught and punished at the end of American Psycho, but somehow the alternative is even more perversely satisfying. Perhaps it would’ve been more satisfying, too, to leave these women in the horrible mess they created, as opposed to lifting them onto the shoulders of their male counterparts. (I know the former happens in the play, and its a shame that Headland felt she had to alter the ending for her film audience.)

Bachelorette is not to everyone’s taste; it can make you uncomfortable, and it certainly isn’t perfect. But it’s also a fantastically funny, well-written, impeccably acted story with significant, if occasionally unpalatable, themes. These ideas should be exposed so that people can understand that women have a right to behave in any way they want. They can behave like assholes and it doesn’t make them bad, “nasty” or “toxic” women who are “reaffirming stereotypes”—it just makes them assholes. They don’t have to fit into someone else’s idea of Appropriate Female Conduct. Even if its as nasty as getting a cocaine-fuelled nose bleed on someone’s wedding dress.

[N.B. I’ve linked a couple of the more vitriolic reviews throughout, but this is definitely my favourite, a real pearl-clutcher from USA Today.]

Matilda Dixon-Smith is a human woman who likes stories about other human women who aren’t Katherine Heigl (unless they also involve James Marsden, because duh). You can check out more of what she thinks about chicks in flicks here. Bachelorlette will be released in Australia later this year.

Matilda felt strongly about the significance of Bachelorette, but what did you think? Did you want it to be your best friend, or did you want to chuck it in a bathtub and set it on fire? Discuss. 

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Posted in: Movies