Caustic "Bachelorette" Lacks Heart But Not Dark Laughs

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When you rub out your hangover, “Bachelorette” won’t be remembered for its romantic heart or its charming characters because it’s shamelessly devoid of either. Then again, this is a caustic, toilet-mouthed, and stingingly funny black comedy about nasty—nay, toxic—and self-involved women. Even though it shares cosmetic similarities to 2011’s equally hilarious and heartfelt “Bridesmaids” (and casts Kristen Wiig’s cockney roommate as the bride, to boot), “Bachelorette” is neither riding on the coattails of that female-fronted gem nor is it just another distaff version of “The Hangover.” In fact, it has a darker, more biting personality akin to “Heathers,” only taking place over one long, sloshed pre-nuptials night with Bulimia, coke-snorting, and strip club shenanigans. There is a whole lot of backstabbing mean in its bones, but nobody drinks drain cleaner or dies.

Recently learning of her high school friend, the sweetly beefy Becky (Rebel Wilson), getting married, sniffy New Yorker Regan (Kirsten Dunst) chokes on her jealousy and immediately takes reign as the dictatorial maid of honor. She and the two remaining “B-Faces” (as they were known in their Class of ’99) used to call Becky “Pigface” behind her back, but the party-hearty Gena (Lizzy Caplan) and ditzy Katie (Isla Fisher) are ecstatic for the crazy bachelorette party. They brought coke and ordered a male stripper, but Becky was hoping for a more low-key night of champagne and ice cream. Meanwhile, as Regan calls all the shots, Gena wants to hook up with a groomsman (her ex, Clyde, played by “Party Down” co-star Adam Scott), and Katie just wants to find a guy with a job, these three bridesmaids make a mess of themselves (and Becky’s dress) the night before the big day.

Written and directed for the screen by first-timer Leslye Headland, “Bachelorette” (based on her 2010 Off Broadway play) takes the typical hijinks of the wedding movie genre and the cattiness of female-centric comedies, and turns it into something shrewdly spiky that could cut skin. Every bluntly malicious line in Headland’s script exposes these characters’ naked misanthropy of the world around them, but also deepens them as flawed people who take time to change their ways. From the moment we meet the high-strung Regan, who orders a Cobb salad without the chicken, bacon, cheese, or avocado, and Becky orders a burger and fries with a cheesecake for dessert, the film is rowdy fun, even when the characters aren’t high.

Cast to a fare-thee-well, these girls really do just have fun. They trade acerbic, go-for-the-throat barbs with verve, but also draw out their characters’ own insecurities and personal issues with some empathy instead of remaining one-dimensional mean girls. Dunst, gamely and hilariously bitchy, is the ice-blond ringleader and fixer of everything, often hiding her scorn behind cool composure or letting others have it (someone even compares her to Hannibal Lecter). As Regan thinks she’s achieved everything (“I went to college, I exercise, I eat like a normal person…”) and hates that there’s no wedding in her near future, there’s a jealousy percolating inside of her that’s sad and sadly human. Caplan, a saucy firecracker, gets the saltiest lines and biggest laughs (her fellatio-concerned conversation with Horatio Sanz on a plane will induce a spit take). Fisher is a ball of fun to watch as the token airhead with her share of issues. Wilson plays “the straight man” for the most part, and she’s one of the most humane characters on screen. In a role that never treats Becky as a punchline or as a bridezilla (until reasonably so, when she finds blood and semen on her wedding gown), she’s sweetly naive and touchingly empathetic.

On the “bachelor side,” the actors are just along for the ride but bring up the rear with personality. Each girl is pursued by a man on the groom’s side: Scott drolly plays Damone to Gena’s Stacy from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” James Marsden has fun playing an unabashed asshole as Trevor, and Kyle Bornheimer is all Bob Newhart-like deadpan as Joe, a former classmate who can only get Katie to remember him as her pot dealer. It’s also nice to see the groom (Hayes MacArthur), a handsome, athletic-type guy, genuinely in love with the plus-size Becky; there are no bets being made or any shady motives here.

Produced by Gary Sanchez Productions (operated by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay), “Bachelorette” is really just a smartly funny, razor-sharp gas. Having such a terrific ensemble run with the vicious dialogue and behave horribly is a comedic thrill, but the disbelief that Becky would ever remain friends with the “B-Faces” in the first place is best left suspended. It’s hard to say if writer-director Headland has any real affection for these characters, but we do love to hate them. Headland is also on point with her soundtrack, calling back a specific time for these high school pals (especially Gena) with The Proclaimers’ “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles),” the pacing is brisk, and she shoots her project less like an overlit sitcom and more like a realistic up-all-night party through Manhattan.

Getting too nice at the end being its only nagging issue, “Bachelorette” is still a blast. Too darkly tangy to be accepted into the mainstream, Headland’s first effort is crowd-pleasing and yet rarely compromises itself, and that’s the way it should be.

91 min., rated R.
Grade: B

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