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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-

Visually striking “Alice” lacks emotional weight

Helena Bonham Carter steals scenes (and heads) in Tim Burton's eye-popping "Alice in Wonderland."

Back in Underland after a 13-year absence, Alice (Mia Wasikowska) finds herself lost and certain she’s the wrong Alice. The Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) is just as certain she’s the right one, but there’s a catch. “You used to be much more … ‘muchier.’ You’ve lost your muchness,” Hatter laments. Alice has lost her groove, poor lass, and he’ll stop at nothing — including the use of frequent accent switches — to help her find it.

This is what Tim Burton’s long-anticipated and fluorescent-hued film amounts to: a 109-minute quest to find Alice’s muchness, the very same muchness a corset-filled life in London has chased away. As a visual experience, “Alice in Wonderland” proves a feast for the eyes, a smörgåsbord of vibrant colors and landscapes, delightful costumes (the Red Queen’s make-up and the mushrooms alone are amazing). Give in to the 3D pull if you must, but this film is meant to be seen the way it was filmed: in 2D. As a movie, though, there’s a lack of emotional depth and character development that make it difficult to connect the “wow” we see with our eyes to any real sense of heartfelt wonderment. And seeing the magic and feeling it — the way we do in, say, “Avatar” — are two very different things.

The saving graces, however, come in the form of the characters, many of which are so vibrant and unforgettable they detract from the film’s shortcomings. (Stephen Fry’s Cheshire Cat could induce a smattering of night terrors, for example, as could Helena Bonham Carter’s strangely touching Red Queen.) Screenwriter Linda Woolverton takes liberties with Lewis Carroll’s tale; some are successful and some are not. “Alice in Wonderland” begins in London, where Alice is set to marry an uppity, blockheaded lord (Tim Pigott-Smith). Underland is no longer in her thoughts, and life has become gray since her father’s (Martin Csokas) death. Now Alice must weather a marriage proposal in front of people she hates wearing no stockings and no corset (she believes in neither). In gallops the White Rabbit (Michael Sheen) to lead her down the rabbit hole, where everyone, from Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Matt Lucas) to that wise old toker* the Blue Caterpillar (Alan Rickman), insists she can’t be the Alice of 13 years past. They waste pages of dialogue arguing about this. They don’t reach a conclusion, not until the Mad Hatter sets them right. She is Alice, she will save them from the Red Queen (Bonham Carter) and the lovely, magnanimous White Queen (Anne Hathaway) will take back her throne.

The lead-up to the Big Battle — a crushing disappointment of a CGI-coated finale where the seams show through — proves to be somewhat tedious and rushed. Writing is a weak point in “Alice in Wonderland,” with Woolverton providing little development on the best characters and Burton spotlighting the weakest ones. The Mad Hatter acts like a narrator/historian, but he’s a mystery to us. Maybe he’s written as an all-over-the-map chap or maybe that’s just how Depp plays him; either way, it doesn’t work. He’s an annoying kook, not a lovable one. The Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover) is a rather uninteresting villain who gets loads of screentime, whereas Fry’s ominous Cheshire Cat and Rickman’s droll caterpillar are reduced to a few scenes.

Not everyone fairs so badly. Hathaway’s bright smile and chirpy manner hints that the White Queen isn’t so different from her evil sister, only more restrained. Wasikowska gives Alice some gumption, a kind of uncertain, coltish beauty and spirit that illustrate the painful tug between youth and adulthood. And yet the true, unadulterated star of “Alice in Wonderland” is Burton favorite Helena Bonham Carter, who’s simply smashing as the freakish, self-conscious Red Queen. She is a woman who insulates herself with a throng of mindless nodders, people who don fake noses and bellies and ears to offset the queen’s oversized head. She’s quick to anger and still there’s a softness in her for the outsiders, although her sad, lonely life has taught her that “it is far better to be feared than loved.” She gets at our hearts in ways the film she’s in simply cannot.

Grade: B-

*Don’t kid yourself. He’s a pothead.

Who moved my tart?

Happy “Alice in Wonderland”-in-3D-Opens-in-Theaters-Nationwide Day, Interwebbers!

(My sincerest apologies. When I get this excited about a movie, I’m taken over by ROYG-BIV demons.)

I don’t know if y’all know this, but the only appropriate ways to celebrate this happy day are:

  1. Sing “Happy Happy, Joy Joy” long enough to lift your spirit but not so long that your coworkers call the Men in White Coats to take you away.
  2. Work the phrases “Cheshire Cat grin,” “down the rabbit hole” and “off with her head!” into conversations where they have absolutely no business. Alternately, go to the office fridge at lunchtime (when the masses converge), look inside and demand, in shocked tones, to know: “Who stole the tart?”
  3. Go see the movie. Duh.

Happy viewing!