With ‘Bridesmaids,’ Paul Feig Proved That Female-Driven Comedies Could Be Blockbusters, Too
Today, Netflix will unveil The School for Good and Evil, a big-budget fantasy film starring Sophia Anne Caruso and Sofia Wylie alongside Michelle Yeoh, Kerry Washington and Charlize Theron. Based on the popular Soman Chainani books, which imagine a magical realm where the real-life stories behind well-known fairy tales actually happened, this would-be epic seems out of keeping for its director Paul Feig, who’s better known for crafting broad comedies. But one thing about The School for Good and Evil definitely marks it as a Feig production: It’s female-driven.
Such a distinction would seem irrelevant, even patronizing, but that’s partly because Feig helped make it so. The man behind The Heat and Spy has repeatedly focused on stories about women, placing them in comedic settings that have usually been the terrain of men. But none of it would have happened if his breakout film, 2011’s Bridesmaids, hadn’t been as huge as it was. It sounds ridiculous, but it’s true: That unexpected blockbuster almost single-handedly made it safe for other female-driven comedies to exist. If it had tanked, the ripple effects would have been momentous.
To be sure, there had been hit comedies starring women before Bridesmaids. Think of 9 to 5 or The Devil Wears Prada. Raise a glass for Goldie Hawn in Private Benjamin. The 2008 Sex and the City movie was huge, although it was based on a zeitgeist-y HBO series. On the whole, though, if you were watching a comedy and it starred a lady, it was probably a rom-com, possibly featuring Meg Ryan or Julia Roberts trying to land a fella. And while Bridesmaids could be loosely described as a rom-com — Kristen Wiig’s floundering Annie ends up with Chris O’Dowd’s endearing cop Nathan — we tend to think of it more as just a big, raucous comedy. And that sort of film led by women was new — in fact, Bridesmaids seemed like a huge commercial risk at the time. Would audiences be interested in a movie where women just stood around and be… funny?
Longtime friends and collaborators Annie Mumolo and Kristen Wiig wrote the screenplay, which chronicled Annie’s misgivings about serving as her best friend Lillian’s (Maya Rudolph) maid of honor, resentful that her pal has her life together while she’s still a mess. (What’s worse, Lillian’s posh, sophisticated new buddy Helen, played by Rose Byrne, seems to be muscling in on Annie’s friendship territory.) Everything that can go wrong does go wrong in the buildup to the wedding — often hilariously so, like when an ill-advised restaurant pick on Annie’s part results in the bridal party later dealing with a nasty bout of diarrhea while trying on their gowns. Poop jokes, frank sex talk, R-rated one-liners: This was traditionally the realm of The Hangover or Wedding Crashers. Bridesmaids humbly suggested women found such things just as amusing.
Backed by superstar comedy producer Judd Apatow, the film was to be directed by Feig, who didn’t have much of a movie career to speak of. His previous film, 2006’s Unaccompanied Minors, was a forgettable family flick, but he still had some cachet thanks to creating the beloved cult series Freaks and Geeks, as well as directing episodes of Arrested Development and the American version of The Office. But part of the problem was that he hated the movie scripts that came his way. “They were always very male-based, where it was lots of guys trying to get laid or going on an adventure. The nerdy guy and his pal,” Feig once said. “I was like, ‘What dynamic is this? I have no take on that.’”
But his annoyance went deeper, connecting with his formative years. “I was an only child,” he told The Guardian in 2019. “I grew up next to a family of eight kids, six of whom were girls. I liked the humor of joking around with my female friends because male humor devolves, eventually, into homophobia, punching and name-calling. I’d rather just have goofy fun.”
The Bridesmaids script gave him ample opportunity to have goofy fun with a cast that also included Wendi McLendon-Covey, Ellie Kemper, Jill Clayburgh and Rebel Wilson. (Plus, you had Jon Hamm as Annie’s clueless, callous sex buddy.) But the actress who really shone was Melissa McCarthy, probably best known then from Gilmore Girls and Mike & Molly, who portrayed the crass, unapologetic Megan. If Bridesmaids broke the comedy mold by centering the plot on a group of women, McCarthy’s performance was just as striking: brashly over-the-top, wonderfully crude, slightly unhinged. Megan seemed normal when you first meet her, but as Annie and the other bridesmaids soon discover, there’s something deeply dark underneath. And because McCarthy played it so real, Megan’s ultra-serious suggestions about Fight Club parties and hooking up with a nerdy air marshall (McCarthy’s real-life husband Ben Falcone) kept pushing the film into inspired, surreal directions. Viewers had been used to crazy male comics like John Belushi, but McCarthy was something exciting and new.
Still, there was a lot of pressure on Bridesmaids — and Feig — to deliver. “There was an edict from Hollywood where they were all going, ‘Okay, this is a movie starring a bunch of women,’” Feig recalled. “‘If this works, we’ll greenlight more, and if it doesn’t, we won’t.’ … I was really sweating because if this didn’t work then I’m basically the man who killed movies for women for eternity.”
Thankfully, when Bridesmaids opened on May 13th, it was a smash, earning glowing reviews and becoming one of that summer’s biggest moneymakers. Granted, the film didn’t bring in as much as another major 2011 comedy, The Hangover Part II, but Bridesmaids’ success — which included Oscar nominations for the screenplay and McCarthy’s performance — showed definitively that a female-led broad comedy could do huge business. Not unlike 2017’s Wonder Woman, which broke a glass ceiling for female superhero films, Bridesmaids proved the doubters wrong.
Eleven years later, it’s hard to believe that Bridesmaids was in any way “momentous,” but there were plenty of industry stories at the time about the sea change that film helped manifest. Near the end of 2011, looking back at Bridesmaids’ popularity, Apatow observed, “People assume that men will drag women into every hardcore action movie out there and that occasionally a woman will drag a guy to a romantic comedy. There’s an enormous amount of stereotypes which aren’t true in our industry. If you make a strong movie, which appeals to a female audience, then people will want to go see it.” Arguably, there hasn’t been a purely funnier movie in the last decade-plus than Bridesmaids — which, at the same time, tells a touching story about friendship and commitment that also has room for jokes about Wilson Phillips.
The credit for the movie’s success goes to lots of people, but Feig deserves his share. And since Bridesmaids, he’s continued to focus on female-driven comedies, often teaming up with McCarthy, as he did his spin on the buddy-cop action-thriller (The Heat), the James Bond flick (Spy) and the sci-fi action spectacle (the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot). That latter film was a painful reminder that there are still a lot of folks who really, really don’t like the idea of actresses operating in certain comedic worlds once dominated by men. (“I will never apologize for it,” he said in that Guardian interview, “because I’m very proud of the movie.”) Since then, he’s only continued to expand his range, making a stylish thriller (A Simple Favor) and a seasonal rom-com (Last Christmas).
Those recent movies haven’t been as rewarding, but you could argue that his legacy can be felt in other female-driven comedies that might not have gotten made without Bridesmaids. Whether it’s Trainwreck (directed by Apatow) or Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar (Wiig and Mumolo’s first produced screenplay since Bridesmaids), there’s now more room for women-centered comedies than in the past. Would they have happened if Bridesmaids bombed? Probably not.
Game-changing films tend to be technical tour de forces or socially-minded dramas. There’s a sense of self-importance to them. But in its own modest way, Bridesmaids was just as influential, reconfiguring what big-screen comedy could be, just by being funny. “We wanted to write a comedy, not a female comedy, just a comedy that has a lot of women in it,” Wiig said shortly before the film opened. “There’s a difference.”
There is — which ended up making all the difference.