With a bit of training, a starlet can radiate strength, flair, poise, and well-being on screen. But to project skittish insecurity and self-loathing, and to make those qualities funny and sympathetic, and to do it all with an inner glow that takes a special kind of performer, one who can stake out an almost confessional connection to the audience. That's what Kristen Wiig does in Bridesmaids, the beguilingly witty and heartrending new comedy that's the first Judd Apatow production to dive headfirst into the world of women. On Saturday Night Live, Wiig has specialized in creating highly strung, motormouth crackpots who coast along on little zigzags of ego. In Bridesmaids, which she co-wrote with Annie Mumolo, you'll recognize some of Wiig's mannerisms: the eyes that shine with competitive abandon, the nervous-hostess smile that flickers on and off, her way of tossing out little insults as passive-aggressive ''asides.'' Only now she harnesses those trademarks to a fully felt, three-dimensional character. She's the rare SNL player who may prove to be a movie star because she's a true actress as well.
She plays Annie, who is charming and attractive but going through a very bad patch. A baker by passion, Annie opened her own cake shop, but it closed down, a casualty of the economy. Now she works behind the counter of a jewelry store, hawking engagement rings to couples she glares at with jealousy, and she shares a dumpy apartment with a ghoulish roommate. Every so often, she jumps into bed with a callow rich dude (Jon Hamm) who treats her like a utensil. Annie has become one of life's doormats, and that's how she carries herself, with a smile frozen on to hide her creeping depression, and with her frosted blond hair always slightly unkempt, giving her the look of a dog who's just come in from the rain.
Yet it's not until her childhood best friend, Lillian (Maya Rudolph), announces that she's getting married that Annie begins to realize how far she's really fallen behind. She's all set to be the maid of honor, but at the upscale engagement party she meets Lillian's new friend Helen (Rose Byrne), a wealthy perfectionist who treats everyone, especially Annie, with an impeccable drop of condescension. The two engage in dueling champagne toasts that escalate in hilarity except that Wiig never lets you forget that Annie is crumbling inside, so the comedy has a painful bite. In this movie, romantic envy and class envy coalesce, because Bridesmaids understands just how they're linked. Even if money can't buy you love, being broke puts you at a distinct disadvantage.
Bridesmaids has a fully rounded, textured, and original script, even if it does offer a funky-lady spin on a number of Apatow tropes. Annie and the four other bridesmaids recall the motley rat packs in films like The 40 Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, and the actresses are all scene-stealers, notably Melissa McCarthy as the linebacker-tough Megan, whose every word arrives as a blunt shock. The raunchy girl talk has an earthier flow than it does in, say, Sex and the City. And just when you're sure that the movie won't go there, we get a lavish explosion of gross-out humor. Only it's far from gratuitous, since it's all about Annie's guilt at taking the bridesmaids to a downscale Brazilian churrascaria that gives them food poisoning in an ultrachic bridal boutique.
That scene is gut-bustingly funny. The one that's giddily brilliant is the women's trip to Vegas for a bachelorette party. The entire sequence consists of the plane ride out there, and it's a tour de force, culminating in Annie's tranquilizer-fueled tirade against her rival. It's at this point, when Annie gives in to all the masochistic craziness that she's been feeling, that Bridesmaids begins to leave every cookie-cutter ''chick flick'' miles behind. Yes, the film is a romantic comedy, in which Annie meets a sweet Irish cop (Chris O'Dowd) and must figure out how to let her guard down. But its deepest romantic subject is the complicated friendships between women. Once she decides to stop being nice, Annie starts spreading disaster, and there's something very gratifying about seeing her lash out at this wedding, this life, and this lifelong soul sister, all of whom she thinks have left her out in the cold. She's an Everywoman you can believe in, showcased in the kind of deft comedy of feminine passion where deep despair meets Wilson Phillips that a great many people have been waiting for. Now that Wiig and company have built it, will they come? A