A curious case of a promising comedy in theory but majorly disappointing in execution was the recent Netflix film Wine Country, starring Saturday Night Live alumni Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Tina Fey, and Rachel Dratch as wine-loving best friends who reunite for a tipsy birthday gathering in Napa. The movie possesses several cringe-worthy moments: a long rant about how millennials suck and stories about being overworked, losing work, and getting a potentially fatal medical diagnosis, all of which feel shoved into the film’s freewheeling plot, clearly aiming for an emotional resonance that is so scattered these plot lines end up feeling stilted.
Watching Poehler play a sad, vacation control-freak and the rest of the actors similarly miscast, it didn’t make sense to me why these women, already close friends, didn’t make a movie that played more to their individual comedic strengths and distinct personalities. The movie’s easy vacation framework felt more like a constraint. But this plot structure is often the fate of women-led ensemble comedies.
It felt like something changed with Bridesmaids. Given the film’s widespread commercial success—over $288 million worldwide at the box office—and critical praise, you’d think a comedy written and starring women had never existed before it. Critics and media positioned the movie as a “turning point for feminism and comedy” and a film that “allows” women to be funny. “We weren’t thinking, ‘Now it’s the girls’ turn to make a really funny movie’ or this is a feminist thing or anything like that,” Kristen Wiig said in 2011.“We just sat down and said, ‘Wouldn’t this be funny?’”
Such instant reverence for the film—hailed as groundbreaking for women, for comedy, and for women in comedy—while perhaps a little hyperbolic in retrospect, made sense at the time. Bridesmaids chased a brotastic wave of movies like Paul Blart: Mall Cop and The Hangover, when the main alternative for women seeking mainstream movies that didn’t relegate them to the background were romantic comedies. Bridesmaids bridged the gap and confirmed the apparently revolutionary thesis that audiences would die laughing at the sight of Maya Rudolph and Melissa McCarthy shitting themselves in the middle of a bridal shop. Women could be gross; they could be insufferable; they were, and always have been, very, very funny.
Rather than use Bridesmaids as a testament to why more women performers and writers should have their films funded and created in similar fashion, though, Hollywood did what Hollywood does by trying to replicate the movie’s success in various, lesser form. The stars of Bridesmaids may have simply created the funniest comedy they could think of (“Bitch, I’m just making comedies! I happen to be a woman!” Rudolph recently said of its success), but suddenly there was a financial incentive to make more movies like it. Leslye Headland said she was turned away by financiers for her 2012 film Bachelorette, but after the success of Bridesmaids, they were suddenly on board. “Nothing opens Hollywood’s eyes more than something making money,” Paul Feig, director of Bridesmaids, The Heat, and Ghostbusters, tells Jezebel. “Nobody’s going to go: We should just do this. It’s not going to make any money, but we should do this.”
Part of what makes a movie like Bridesmaids so successful is a brilliant ensemble cast—a comedy is nothing without characters to sell both the script and “the funny.” But there’s much more to that success than simply assembling a random group of funny women, which is why the formula that’s being replicated in Hollywood continues to fail. The all-around poor execution is less about individual actors and more about bad stories or scripts, and expectations that funny women alone should be able to carry a film, even in the face of insurmountable flaws.
Plenty of movies have crept in the shadow of Bridesmaids to marginal success: Rough Night’s lackluster story about a bachelorette party gone awry; Bad Moms trading in tired stereotypes of bad wine mommies; How to Be Single’s chopped together structure; the lazily titled Fun Mom Dinner, a blip in the careers of its cast, including Toni Colette and Molly Shannon. In her piece “Crazy Vegas Stepmom Party: We Need to Talk About the Female Ensemble Comedy,” writer Issy Beech noted that many of these films were “tossed together like a last minute salad.”
The salad often includes a number of clichés: a vacation locale for the women to convene, some gross-out humor, a drug trip sequence. These movies, in an effort to depict stale ideas of “raunchy” women, fall into the trap of tired tropes. The fact that the women need to feel real then gets lost in the mix.
“Characters can be crazy, just like some people we know in real life, but occasionally you’ll have people who are like, ‘I’m really crazy!’” Feig says. “And you’re like, but I don’t think you are really crazy. I think you’re just trying to shock me and be outrageous... Those are the kinds of characters in a movie when you’re just like, oh, this character is crazy and the acting is fun, but you know that they don’t believe it. Filmmakers don’t really believe it.”
The women’s relationships with one another also have to feel real. Ensemble comedies have come to resemble “assembling the team” montages in heist films, with women in interchangeable roles.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean characters have to act the way that you or I might act, but they have to act authentically to their own set of rules,” says director Bill Holderman, who co-wrote and directed the 2018 film Book Club, starring Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton, Mary Steenburgen, and Candice Bergen as a book club tasked with reading 50 Shades of Grey while exploring their own sexuality in the process. With a budget of $10 million for a film that ended up grossing over $104 million worldwide, according to Holderman, Book Club was a success because of its incredible cast and a plausible script that felt accurate to how these women might actually act.
“In terms of making sure that you don’t fall into tropes, part of that is you have a partnership with your cast,” Holderman says. “They are this demographic. If something didn’t pass the sniff test for any of our lead characters we went back and made sure that it would.”
Girls Trip had a similar resonance. While the characters are archetypal (Jada Pinkett-Smith plays the high-strung mother, and Tiffany Haddish the wild goof), they come across as real friends. Not every character is facing an emotional crisis; the central drama is reserved for Regina Hall’s character and her marriage, and the tension this brings to the film reverberates through the friend group realistically. There is no surprise diagnosis, no revelation appearing out of left field as if a scene was left on the cutting room floor, and it doesn’t play like a group of four wacky strangers acting in a disconnected scenario.
It’s that sense of realistic camaraderie, in the script and performances, that separates a great comedy from a forced one. “I think one of the great blessings of this movie is we had the four lead actresses come in and the friendship that was formed, because they hadn’t worked together before, was really real,” Holderman says of Book Club. “The chemistry that you see in the movie was really the chemistry that was happening on set.”
The film Poms faced similar criticism about its disjointed filmmaking. Diane Keaton stars as a woman who moves into a retirement community and befriends Jacki Weaver. The two start a cheerleading squad together featuring characters played by Rhea Perlman and Pam Grier. It’s a compendium of great actors and yet their talents are grossly underused, and it didn’t help that shortly before the film’s release, Angelica Huston made a comment in the press about turning down a script for a movie, which she didn’t name, about “old-lady cheerleaders.”
Despite this, director Zara Hayes’s efforts were noble, if misguided in practice. Largely a documentary filmmaker, she decided to direct her first scripted feature Poms after being inspired by real women she found across the country in senior centers who were starting cheerleading clubs. “I knew that it would cause some debate and it wouldn’t just be another example of like the last hurrah, the last chance to find love or date,” Hayes says. “I knew that cheerleading would potentially press buttons for people because it is this archetypal activity that’s associated with young women.”
“The real women who are cheerleaders... across the board, they are delighted with the film and they’re laughing absolutely with it, not laughed at by it,” Hayes says. “I think that if anyone thinks that it’s laughing at [them], it’s the kind of people who aren’t from that demographic, which I think is telling you something more about people’s assumptions about older women as much as it is about the group itself.”
It’s perhaps the strength of the friendships in this movie format that make them successful, because the female friendship, in the past decade or so, has become a driving force in women’s comedy as opposed to romance. At the same time critics began to bemoan the death of the rom-com (coming back stylishly with help from Netflix), big and small-screen comedies, like Bridesmaids, Broad City, Girls, and Insecure, emphasizing friendship seemingly took their place.
“My favorite story in a movie is always a female friendship story because I felt that they were never told. It was always about finding a man,” Feig says. “The idea of a female ensemble is appealing because it just raises the odds of how many people are going to draw people to the theater. You look at Girl’s Trip, what a great cast, there’s somebody for everybody there. You get a lot of diversity of comedy by doing that.”
The problem that arises from this comedy format is that creators shouldn’t have to wait until one project does well to get women’s movies made at the same rate men’s are. Nobody questions if a “man-driven” comedy will do well at the box office. Yet that’s an issue facing the recent onslaught of gender-flipped remakes, a trend Feig arguably kicked off with Ghostbusters, but the idea, Feig said, wasn’t to do an “all-female” Ghostbusters. “There was no fucking P.C. agenda,” Feig says, when asked about the criticism the film faced from misogynist online trolls. “I know really funny women, [the studio] wanted me to do a new Ghostbusters, I thought let’s put all these funny women I know in the movie, and that was my agenda.”
But not all remakes have happened as organically as Ghostbusters, with new films since then, like Ocean’s 8, The Hustle, and What Men Want, to name a few, criticized for not giving its women leads enough to work with beyond a gender-flipped premise. “I’m not opposed to them in specific situations, but it feels a little bit like we’re saying, oh, there’s a female audience right now and let’s just slam female actresses into roles originally made for men,” Holderman says.
Only signing off on projects because there’s a successful precursor hurts women’s filmmaking; it keeps women’s work in the service of trends even when they’re not necessarily following them, a product Hayes says of there being so few of these movies to begin with. “I found that people were very excited by the idea of having a movie like this,” Hayes says of Poms. “But I think it was [because] it was on the coattails of Book Club because it did so well, and then it was like this could potentially be one of those breakouts.”
A bad script, whether it’s a poorly written original story or a watered down version or direct remake of a successful precursor, forces actors to carry the entire film on their shoulders. When these comedies exclusively star women, they become politicized; not only are these films supposed to be good comedies, they’re supposed to be emblematic of women’s comedy in general. A comedy starring women is expected to be progressive and forward-thinking in its humor in ways that comedies starring men simply aren’t. But lately it feels like a lot of these movies are spinning in a tired cycle of tropes about girl’s trips, reunions, and mommy nights out, in which lazy, raunchy scenarios are privileged above good screenwriting. It is unrealistic to transform every funny movie starring a gaggle of friends into a statement on feminist comedy, but at the same time women comics and performers deserve better. Mainly, they deserve to make movies outside of formulaic studio expectations.
“With a lot of movies that are carried by female ensembles, I feel that critics are hard on them and audiences are hard on them in a way that I don’t feel necessarily happens with male driven movies,” Feig says. “I think it’s been so long since [they’ve] become the norm that everyone that comes out still has everybody holding their breath, biting their nails, and putting forward an argument that we’ve got to accomplish all these things. I can tell you, as a filmmaker, it’s almost impossible.”