Entertainment

Crazy Vegas Stepmom Party: We Need to Talk About the Female Ensemble Comedy

A new era of filmic fun is turning women into the joke.

by Issy Beech
Jul 31 2017, 1:13pm

FADE IN.
INT. VEGAS CASINO – NIGHT.
Five unlikely friends round a corner shoulder-to-shoulder, sashaying towards the camera. Their hair bounces, their arms swing purposefully, their different heights and weights intrigue you. A vaguely Black Keys song blares, and you realise: These women aren't your typical silver screen starlets. These women are here to fuck shit up.

Familiar? It should be. It's every other film trailer you'll see this year.

The goofy female ensemble comedy is in the throes of its Big Moment, reminiscent of Judd Apatow's early 2000s hot streak of big cast comedies (Anchorman, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Superbad etc.), which proved the people had an appetite for more comedy, more stars, and more nonsense.

But in the rush to capitalise on our love of funny, realistic women, studios began churning out caricatures of women: vague, tedious, absurd. Women freed from the shackles of oppression as they collectively satisfy their insatiable need to party.

It all started in 2011, with Bridesmaids. The film that—rumour has it—saw junior executives marching into the offices of studio heads all over Tinsel Town, pale and shaken, looking down at the numbers and stammering, "Holy fuck, sir... turns out people don't hate it when... women are funny..."

The ensemble comedy, written by Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo (who plays the nervous flyer in the film's utterly mental aeroplane scene), was a huge and apparently unexpected hit, pocketing $288 million at the box office. It became Judd Apatow's highest grossing production, jousting Knocked Up off the top spot.

Barely one review failed to expand on the film's Feminist Impact. The way it subverted society's expectations of leading women and combined Bechdel approval with blockbuster status.

Reviewers were incredulous that the characters in Bridesmaids were not written "demure" (The Guardian), or "coy" (Empire), but instead had "attractive faces of the kind—lined with wrinkles and speckled with freckles—you rarely see in mainstream American cinema" (The Telegraph). Studios were sent scrambling for a piece of the pie.

But did Bridesmaids earn public and critical praise because it was shocking to see "Unconventionally Attractive Women" making Man Jokes? Probably yes. As sad as that may be. It certainly wasn't because of its ethnic diversity.

What really made Bridesmaids special though was the film's consistency and generosity to its audience. Jokes that stuck—"I've seen better tennis playing in a tampon commercial"—and characters that didn't fall into parody. In another film, Melissa McCarthy's heroically offbeat Megan might've been reduced to throwaway comedic relief. In Bridesmaids, she plays a white knight.

But in larger part, Bridesmaids found success due to the indelible charisma and talent of Kristen Wiig, who expertly traversed the space between ludicrous and relatable. So much so her performance reminded hordes of people that, in the words of treasured film critic Roger Ebert, "women are the equal of men in vulgarity, sexual frankness, lust, vulnerability, overdrinking and insecurity…" That is to say, human.

Bridesmaids (2011)

Next came the post-Bridesmaids McCarthy Age: a series of films in which McCarthy more or less reprised her role as Megan, to the delight of audiences everywhere. Audiences who, in my imagination, stayed behind in the cinema for hours after each film (The Heat, The Boss, Tammy, The Identity Thief), staring into their laps, trying to reconcile this woman who didn't look like Jennifer Lawrence, but who also didn't play a villain or a loser or a supporting role—and yet she was still, somehow, likeable.

It seemed the world was more ready than ever to laugh with funny women, not at them. We saw a hike in the number of comedies starring women, and they were doing big things. Publications started wheeling out the 50 Female Comedies You Need to Watch articles by the binder full. Our favourite shows had long been 30 Rock and Broad City and Girls—shows written by funny women about funny women—but the industry was only just beginning to take note.

There was; however, an unfortunate shift happening. Instead of our lead women being inherently captivating, with the jokes on top, these new female characters tragically flawed, and this was what made them "funny."

These new women characters were all kinds of inept. They just could not, for the life of them, adult. Apparently, because Abbi Jacobson or Liz Lemon made us laugh with their absurdity, we were going to laugh at any old absurd thing. But those earlier comedies were genre-bending and groundbreaking: we weren't laughing just because they were women being hopeless.

Take 2012's Trainwreck, the beginning of the shift. Produced by Apatow and written by Amy Schumer, the film follows Amy, a gifted writer at a magazine whose drinking habits and active sex life are drawn in a kind of cartoonish horror. She thinks she's got it all figured out—working at her job, making fun of stuff, sleeping with people whenever she wants—until she meets Bill Hader's Aaron, who will soon come to know her better than herself (naturally), and who will explain love and being a good person to her.

As real-life Amy Schumer took the world by storm with her jokes about cum and people not being white, Trainwreck and its producers bet on the fact that we'd laugh because the lead character just wasn't like other girls. Unlike the rest of 'em, this one drinks and shags and doesn't give a damn what you think! Until she meets the right guy, of course.

We weren't quite in the dark ages yet, though. The jokes these films—Trainwreck and Pitch Perfect and Sisters—were still relatively funny. And, much like Bridesmaids, these films had narratives arcs that still made sense. There were objectives and subplots. We hadn't yet settled for collections of throwaway pop culture references, and half-hearted observations about being a chick in a man's world. Unlike the films that followed.

Bad Moms (2016)

In late 2016, the Female Ensemble Comedy started coming in poorly-written, hammed-up, watered-down droves. Bad Moms (2016), How to Be Single (2016), Girls Trip (2017), Rough Night (2017)—films that capitalised on the trend, but garnered largely negative reviews because they were, in a word, rubbish.

Each film was tossed together like a last minute salad: A conventionally attractive but mildly dysfunctional woman at its centre, encircled by a cast of less conventionally attractive and even more dysfunctional women, their kookiness and otherness laid on even thicker than the painfully overt message that these women are funny and also women.

The characters are thrust together by some common goal (a big night, a shared enemy, nothing particularly original or interesting), and proceed to get smashed, objectify men, get into some kind of car chase, say "cock" as often as humanly possible, and make other miscellaneous terrible decisions together. It was hard to rationalise such glaring laziness when only 32 percent of speaking roles in 2016 were female.

What sets these films apart from the films that came before them is that suddenly, every single joke leans on the idea that these chicks have fucking lost it! They are out of control! They've got no idea what they're doing!

The trope at the centre of Bridesmaids—of a 30-something woman down on her luck and digging herself ever-deeper for our amusement—was being stretched and kneaded into insanity. Sure, Wiig's Annie did a lot of fucking up in Bridesmaids, and it made for good laughs. But none of it was gratuitous. She was having a mental breakdown, she wasn't useless, and her depression formed the actual basis of the plot.

The so-called Bad Moms have terrible partners, shitty kids, and low self esteem. They don't fit in with the other perfect PTA moms, and for most of the film they reject expectations by imitating Will Ferrell in Old School.

It's not a bad concept on paper. So why doesn't it stick?

It might have something to do with two men called Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, who have never been moms. They are also the writers behind The Hangover. Who appear to believe newly single women need to be told what to do with a foreskin. Or that Mila Kunis' Amy would've actually gone 13 years without a drink, because of mom-ing. Or that a mother's greatest fantasy is to throw cereal all over a supermarket breakfast aisle as a form of systemic revolt.

Bad Moms went well with audiences, and badly with critics, who noted with relish that its low-hanging fruit would likely be a hit with suburban moms. Bad Moms Christmas hits cinemas this December. No, I'm not joking.

But first: "This summer… Meet the moms... That just want to have… a fun dinner." Yes, Fun Mom Dinner is the real name of a real movie set for release later this year, which is, interestingly, not written by men. Despite the women at its helm (written by Julie Yaeger Rudd and directed by Alethea Jones), the film's trailer feels like the inevitable (and inevitably disappointing) crescendo to this trend.

I can't help but think of a woodchipper somewhere in a Hollywood boardroom, where the last decade of funny blockbuster films—The Hangover, Crazy Stupid Love, This Is 40—are stuffed into its mouth, blasting the likes of Fun Mom Dinner and Rough Night out the other end.

Which is not to say we're starved for talent. Among these films are some of the industry's most compelling minds and faces: Bridget Everett, Kate Mckinnon, Ilana Glazer, Kathryn Hahn, Rebel Wilson, Molly Shannon.

So the problem isn't in the casting. It's not even unfunny films. The problem is that a very dull pattern is emerging: As we remake this film again and again, we continue to see and hear that Funny Women are only one of two things: a disgruntled mom, or a dysfunctional single.

Is the mere popularisation of the all-female cast enough? The more moms in blockbuster comedies, the merrier? The more bridesmaids shitting their pants, the better? Probably not. At least not when Ghostbusters proves we can do better. Come on, people: It's called civil rights. This is the 90s.

Tagged:
comedy
Judd Apatow
bridesmaids
Amy Schumer
Kirsten Wiig