The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.

Written by Lauren Jade Thompson.

Photo from the article It has become almost de rigueur when analysing male-focused post-Apatow comedies to comment upon their marginalisation of women, with films such as Knocked Up (2007) and The Hangover (2009) often being accused of outright misogyny (sometimes unfairly, as this site has suggested). This comes not only from critics (see, for example, Time's Richard Corliss' take on The Hangover), but also from those involved with the productions themselves, such as Katherine Heigl's high profile remarks in Vanity Fair that she found Knocked Up somewhat sexist. It is a pre-requisite of analysing a “dick flick” that we pay critical attention to their potential for sidelining or stereotyping female characters. Therefore, in this Alternate Take, I'd like to explore the position of men and masculinity in a film so dominated by a strong female cast.

It is true that Lillian's spouse-to-be is a largely anonymous, silent presence in the film (if he had a line, I don't remember it), much in the same way that the fiancées in both parts of The Hangover feature briefly and fleetingly at the beginning and end of each film. But it would be otherwise wrong to suggest that men are erased from this film. There are two particularly key male figures in the shape of Annie's suitors: womanising bachelor Ted (John Hamm) and Irish “good cop” Nathan Rhodes (Chris O'Dowd). It should be emphasised that, despite the huge disparities between the two roles, both actors put in impeccable performances and display wonderful comic timing. These two men, one as the ‘wrong partner’ and one as the very epitome of the ‘right partner’, provide in Bridesmaids not so much an exploration of masculinity, but an exploration of women's expectations of men.

Ted, with John Hamm truly living up to his name in the acting stakes, is introduced in the very first scene of Bridesmaids, where Annie, having spent the night, wakes before him and hurriedly shovels on a faceful of make-up before returning to bed and pretending to sleep peacefully by his side. On waking, though, Ted's reaction is less than favourable. He chastises her for staying over, and utters the first of many gasp-inducingly-contempible lines: “This is awkward, I really want you to leave but I don't wanna sound like a dick”. Of course, he does sound like a dick, and this is part of the immense pleasure of watching Ted on screen: in each scene in which he appears he is more arrogant, more hateful, and more hilarious as a result, culminating in the scene in which Annie breaks off the “fuck-buddy” relationship for good, and Ted drives away in his sports-car screaming “You're no longer my number three!”.

Almost a caricature of Sex and the City's Mr. Big, Ted's behaviour serves to provoke a strong emotional response in the viewer; a mixture of shock, repulsion, but also recognition. The abhorrence of Ted's personality, the film seems to suggest, is partially down to the fact that women repeatedly let him treat them in this way. Thus, Ted's role as wrong partner is not, I feel, to point the finger at men for being arrogant, oversexed and inconsiderate, but more to suggest that the power dynamics of some male-female relationships allow for behaviour that is otherwise unacceptable. What I feel can only be a deliberate reference to Big, as well, seems to point to the role that Hollywood's images of men and romance play in the construction of female desire and on the expectations of the dynamics of coupling. This theme also seems to underlie the brief treatment of the relationships of some of the bridal party, particularly Helen's (Rose Byrne) wealthy yet absent spouse, and Rita's tales of her life of servitude to her husband and three teenage boys.

Ted's role, however, really only elucidates these matters when it is contrasted, as it is in Bridesmaids itself, to the role of Officer Nathan Rhodes, clearly presented by the film as the right partner for Annie.

What makes the perfect partner? The depiction of leading males in romantic comedies says a lot, not necessarily about what women want, but certainly about what Hollywood often thinks we want. I personally regularly fail to see the attraction of many rom-com leads. Often they are too bumbling and stupid (c.f. Hugh Grant's William Thacker in Notting Hill [1999]), or too smarmy and arrogant (c.f. Matthew McConaughey in How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days [2003]). But there is clearly something about the characterisation of Rhodes that makes him an endearing, loveable and engaging male lead. And I don't think I was the only one who felt this: indeed, I've never heard so many “ahh”s in a cinema as I did everytime O'Dowd was on screen during Bridesmaids.

His role and performance seem to me to owe rather a lot to Tom Hanks' Sam in Sleepless in Seattle - or rather, perhaps he's what Sam might be like if he actually spent any time with Annie. He has a certain quality of the wounded-puppy about him, as well as being funny, smart and thoughtful. His profession - a cop - seems completely at odds with his sensitive demeanour, a fact that the film plays with for humour; for example, in a scene where it seems as if he is teaching Annie how to fire a gun, it is revealed that she is actually holding a traffic speed gun. His compassion and humour is further demonstrated in this scene when he decides to allow several speeders to whizz past them, solely because “it's morning, they're in a rush”.

In contrast to Ted, then, Rhodes comes across as something of a female fantasy - a man who not only displays all these positive characteristics but both actively seeks commitment from Annie, and encourages her to retake control of her career and finances by starting up another business. The contrast between the two men is never more pointed than in the scene where Rhodes is perched on the end of the bed, watching her sleep, Annie caught off-guard by an act which she previously performed to a disinterested audience - the simultaneously heartbreaking and hilarious former scene making the latter all the more poignant.

It should be noted though, that Rhodes, while sweet and sensitive, is no doormat, and once wronged by Annie he reacts proportionally, refusing to be treated the way she lets Ted treat her. This spunk and strength of character that is displayed, along with his wit, prevents him from coming across as soft and sappy, as is the case with some male rom-com leads. It is also a smart move by Bridesmaids to present Rhodes as a man who does not, as is so often the case in these films, need to mature, grow-up, and move beyond boyhood. It is in some ways now refreshing in this genre to see a man portrayed not as a commitment-phobe or man-boy who must be transformed by giving away his action figures (e.g. as in The 40-Year-Old Virgin [2005]).

It would be unfair to expect a film like Bridesmaids to present an ‘accurate’ depiction of contemporary gender roles. What it does do extremely well, however, is offer a heightened exploration of the dynamics of coupling and male-female power relations, particularly through its two male leads. The movie has been rightly praised for allowing women space to do the sorts of things Hollywood seldom permits them to do, but the light that Ted and Rhodes shed on female desire - and particularly female desires as they are constructed by popular film - is also a key factor in what makes this film so interesting.

This Alternate Take was published on July 16, 2011.

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