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Ix-nay on the ush-may: “Bridesmaids” has bite and heart

Kristen Wiig exercises her “civil rights” in “Bridesmaids.”

Socrates dubbed envy “the ulcer of the soul.” In that case, Annie (Kristen Wiig) is in for some serious, long-term indigestion. With her life in shambles, Annie can’t help but yearn for her oldest friend Lillian’s (Maya Rudolph) good fortune: a steady job, a wealthy fiancée, Dougie (Tim Heidecker), a lavish wedding pending. That’s not the only reason Annie has to be envious: There’s the sleek, impeccably coiffed problem of Helen (Rose Byrne), queen bee wife of the Dougie’s boss who intends to muscle in on Annie’s maid of honor duties. She’s living proof that the politics of high school don’t stop after graduation.

What is so amazing about “Bridesmaids,” co-written by Wiig and Annie Mumolo, is the many ways the film explores the rivalries, disappointments and nuances of female friendship yet still manages to be wall-to-wall funny. Even in its most awkward and earnest moments, “Bridesmaids” uses laughter — albeit with a serrated edge — to offset the very real emotional turmoil of its heroine. The edge, the rawness make “Bridesmaids” more than a splendid, side-splitting answer to the likes of “The Hangover” or “Wedding Crashers”; they transform Wiig’s movie into a treatise on what it’s like to be a woman crashing headlong into adulthood.  “Bridesmaids” comes off as uncomfortable reality. It’s refreshing to see a comedy that understands, on a deep and often painful level, what it means to be a 30-something woman who doesn’t have everything under control.

Actually, Annie’s life — from the nonsensical rom-com perspective — is a mess. To the rest of us, it’s just … life. Wiig plays Annie as a woman who’s about as close to the bottom as she can get. Her Milwaukee bakery collapsed during the recession; her business partner/boyfriend ditched her; she shares a house with two intrusive British roommates (Matt Lucas, Rebel Wilson); and her sex-only arrangement with sleazy Ted (Jon Hamm) is decidedly unfulfilling. Wiig’s reaction to news of her best friend’s engagement says it all; her artificial smile and nervous giggle show she’s inches away from hysteria. Even more difficult than keeping her cool is wrangling all the bridesmaids, a queer bunch: Dougie’s sex-crazed sister Megan (Melissa McCarthy, sensational); the prim Becca (Ellie Kemper); Rita (Wendi McLendon-Covey), harried mom of three sons; and Helen, the 2011 version of Heather Chandler. From the start, the broke maid of honor’s plans go spectacularly wrong, starting with a ghastly food poisoning fiasco and ending with Annie, wasted on Scotch and benzos, getting kicked off a flight to Vegas (“there’s a Colonial woman on the wing of the plane!”). Annie’s fall from grace is epic, and Wiig spins humiliation into comedy gold.

Gross as it is, the now-infamous bridal shop fiasco, which runs a bit long, is not the best “Bridesmaids” has to offer. Wiig’s meltdown on plane is screamingly funny, as is her wedding shower toasting duel of one-upmanship with Helen. Later, Wiig truly outdoes herself trying to catch the attention of good-hearted Officer Rhodes (Chris O’Dowd), the would-be suitor she rejected. The sequence of Wiig driving past his cop car repeatedly, breaking different laws — going topless; texting; swigging a 40 of malt liquor — is a work of loony genius. Wiig’s go-for-broke approach sells this madness brilliantly. She also supplies an undercurrent of anguish that tempers but never dilutes the hilarity.

But “Bridesmaids” as a whole isn’t perfect. Annie’s bizarre roommates don’t serve much of a purpose, and the late Jill Clayburgh, who plays Annie’s mother, isn’t given much to do. Plus, with a running length of more than two hours, the film could benefit from much tighter editing, not to mention a less hurried third act. With grade-A material and acting like this, though, who cares? The butched-up McCarthy runs away with every scene she’s in (just wait for her “sex tape” bit during the credits). Byrne taps a core of loneliness in the vicious Helen, and O’Dowd (of “IT Crowd” fame) has an understated nice guy appeal. But it doesn’t get better than Wiig. Since her stellar cameo in “Knocked Up,” she’s blossomed into a fully formed actress. She could be just the one to give “chick flicks” the makeover they so desperately need.    

Grade: A-

Fey and Carell are a comedy dream team in “Date Night”

People who steal dinner reservations (Tina Fey, Steve Carell) have to use the payphone that smells like urine.

Just as the trailers promise, Phil and Claire Foster (Steve Carell, Tina Fey) spend a lot of time in “Date Night” shrieking and dishevelled, running around like (nicely dressed) headless chickens. But we all know that underneath those layers of ironic normalcy they’ve been waiting years for something this exciting to happen, something to shake them out of their two-car, two-job, two-kid coma. Neither one had the energy to concoct an adventure themselves. All they needed was a movie to do it for them.

This is ground zero of why “Date Night” is such a pointlessly entertaining romp: It makes perfect sense that Phil and Claire’s situation makes no sense. Phil and Claire are nice, overexerted suburbanites who have lost their spark to jobs and kids, and why would they get wrapped up in this kind of tomfoolery if it wasn’t a plot contrivance? Shawn Levy’s “Date Night” requires only that Fey and Carell play along, sell their chagrin at these outrageous circumstances and, at the end, give in/enjoy the adrenaline rush of it all and be a little changed — for the better — by the whole experience. This plot has been done umpteen-thousand times, but it has not been done by Tina Fey and Steve Carell, which makes all the difference. They have the right look, the right romatic and comedy chemistry, the right comic timing (their invented stories about other diners are invaluable). They are the key. Without them, “Date Night” would be just another ho-hum entry in the genre.

Levy wastes little time painting a portrait of suburban life, possibly because he knows there’s no need; this is been-there, done-that territory. Phil and Claire are the definition of respectable married people. He is a tax man who quietly urges his clients to invest their $600 refund instead of blowing it on a trip to Spain so they can “do it on the beach”; she is a real estate agent who lies about how close her houses are to New York City. They see each other mornings and nights, where Claire putting on her dental Night Guard is code for “nobody’s having sex in this bed tonight.” Two jobs and two kids and him never closing any drawer ever have muted their spark. Adventure takes over when Phil and Claire, at a high-falutin’ NYC restaurant, steal the Tripplehorns’ (James Franco, Mila Kunis) reservation. (This becomes a running gag that loses only a little steam by the conclusion.) This is worse than stealing someone else’s reservation because the Tripplehorns are in cahoots with a meanie mobster (Ray Liotta as Ray Liotta), two dirty cops (Jimmi Simpson, Common) and the DA (William Fichtner), a man who cannot resist a lap dance.

Spending any more time detailing the plot would be useless, because it’s standard-issue fish-outta-water comedy stuff. The important thing isn’t what happens but how Fey and Carell make what happens funny. There are, perhaps, no two comedians better suited for this: Fey excels at acerbic observational humor and withering sarcasm, while Carell could make understated physical comedy and rants into Olympic sports. For fans of both, this is an epic pairing that should have happened years ago. Marvel at the way Carell loses his cool with Claire’s perpetually shirtless ex-client Holbrooke (Mark Wahlberg, funnier than people give him credit for), or Carell’s expression as he clings to the hood of a cab he’s driven into the Hudson. Then there’s the matter of their bizarre “routine” in a local strip joint, which defies explanation and contains a shoutout to “Showgirls.” They get support from Franco and Kunis, no slouches in the ha-ha department, who are underused as the Tripplehorns but make their parts memorable. Kristen Wiig provides her usual outrageous soundbites, and Fichtner, too, a workhorse of a character actor, is somewhat wasted in his part. Please, Hollywood, let Wiig and Fichtner headline some movies. Just one each?

Then again, “Date Night” is essentially a big, noisy showcase for the talents of Steve Carell and Tina Fey. And if either one was any less talented, that might be a bad thing.

Grade: B

Judge dials down the savagery in kinder “Extract”

The best way to get a promotion from the boss (Jason Bateman)? Become, ahem, half a man (Clifton Collins Jr.) due to a horrendous plant accident.

The best way to get a promotion from the boss (Jason Bateman)? Become, ahem, half a man (Clifton Collins Jr.) due to a horrendous plant accident.

In another life, Mike Judge must have been a reporter. Every one of his movies has an angle designed to sway our sympathies in the exact direction he wants. In “Office Space,” we felt for put-upon cubicle drone Peter Gibbons, with his eight nagging bosses. With “Idiocracy,” it was Joe and Rita, average people submerged in a sea of grunting buffoons, who won our hearts (sort of). How, we wondered, would we react to a world where Starbucks sells handjobs, not venti chai lattes?

Judge’s latest comedy, the warmer, gentler “Extract,” spurs us to feel sympathy for Joel (Jason Bateman), who built his flavor extract company from the ground up and believes in treating his employees with kindness. He’s the kind of boss who knows not only his employees’ names but what their purses look like. He cares enough to pay attention when other people don’t.

In this case, those “other people” are Suzie (Kristen Wiig), Joel’s bored wife who uses sweatpants to fend off his increasingly desperate sexual advances; Brian (J.K. Simmons), Joel’s sarcastic second-in-command who calls everyone “Dinkus”; and Nathan (David Koechner), Joel’s Bob Wiley-styled neighbor who materializes daily at his car window like the pop-up book from hell. The only people who seem halfway interested in Joel are Dean (a nicely low-key Ben Affleck), an old bartender buddy who pops Xanax for head colds, and Cindy (Mila Kunis), a flirty temp a little too interested in extract to be totally genuine.

Since this is a Mike Judge movie, there are elements of the fantastic — in the form of crazy twists and ideas — lurking in all this banality, little schemes that Everyman uses to distract himself from the disappointment that fills his life. (These are Judge trademarks. Learn to love them.) Cindy’s “job” at the factory is a direct result of a freak accident that leaves Shep (the ever-subtle Clifton Collins Jr.) minus one testicle. A dumb-as-a-stump gigolo (Dustin Milligan) becomes part of a trap to entice Suzie to cheat. And there’s a bohemoth bong and a horse tranquilizer thrown in for good measure.

All this tomfoolery, however, doesn’t disguise the flaws inherent in Judge’s design. The endless plots start piling up on each other and strain the bounds of credibility. (Viewers can suspend disbelief only so far, really.) After awhile, they start to feel scattered and haphazard and a little too out-there. Maybe the reason for that is that there is no clear villain in “Extract,” no Bill Lumbergh, to focus our distaste on. Instead we’re given people like Brian, whose worst quality is disdain for his underlings, and Cindy, who knows her way around long and short cons but truly likes Joel. Judge seems careful not to demonize anyone, and he makes sure we laugh with, not at, them. Where’s the spirited satire, the biting, savage wit that made Judge a household name?

Still, that’s not to say “Extract” is a complete letdown. Far from it. There’s care in the performances, and the key players are anything but one-sided. Kunis continues to prove that she’s too good an actress for television, giving Cindy a shrewd ability to find and exploit people’s weaknesses as well as a measure of unexpected kindness. That Simmons, he has a way with withering one-liners. He’s become the go-to guy for snark. Affleck continues his recent career upswing, underacting wonderfully in a way we haven’t seen since his “Chasing Amy” days. Collins gives Shep more depth and sad pride than he ought to — what a fine actor, too fine for all these teensy parts.

At the center of all this is Bateman, who couldn’t play mean if his life depended on it. Too vulnerable and empathetic, that one. He’s so earnest a guy it’s impossible not to like him, though he may make you wonder if Judge’s gone all smooshy. I know I did. But then I looked closer, and I realized Judge’s always had a soft spot for the common man. Couldn’t villainize him if he tried. And in that light, “Extract” is the kind of humane, softer-edged comedy this average guy director has been waiting to make.

Grade: B-