A marriage of money and mirth

At the same time as noting – with sinking heart – the various newspaper think pieces by female pundits about the enfranchisement of women into the American gross-out comedy arena, I still think the release of Bridesmaids must be hailed as A Good Thing. Co-written by its star, 37-year-old Saturday Night Live comedienne Kristen Wiig, it follows her increasingly appalling experiences as maid of honour at what shapes up to be the wedding of the century in Milwaukee.

Produced by the revered comedy impresario Judd Apatow (director/ producer/writer of The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up among others) in America the film has already met the ultimate artistic test: it has made more than $100m – $144.4m to be precise, with its international roll-out still to come – and has achieved immediate comedy classic status. Think back to how we felt about Four Weddings and a Funeral. Except Four Weddings didn’t involve diarrhoea being fiercely emitted into a sink at a bridal wear shop, an opiate overdose on a domestic flight, and Mad Men’s John Hamm naked before the opening credits roll (the visual equivalent of cloves rubbed on a troubled tooth, followed by an 8oz glass of gin – heaven).

Full of droll detailing, the movie has a pop at the infuriating expense of being a modern bridesmaid: the work and tension involved, the oversharing at rehearsal parties, and other related aspects including the lachrymosity, the masochism, the wisecracking, and the frightening men people try to pawn spare bridesmaids off on, men with souls barely above room temperature. At its best, Bridesmaids does that wonderful thing: tell the truth, indelicately. My guess is that most people will love it – men too, just as women loved The Hangover (which, admittedly, was wilder and braver).

Something to bear in mind: pretty much everyone involved in this project – Apatow, director Paul Feig, Wiig and the other women starring, even those playing smaller parts (down to a particularly brilliantly pitched male air steward) – has at some point been a stand-up comedian. Apatow’s controlling and channelling of this level of competitive energy is in itself an achievement. And consider the way Apatow works: he pushes a very improv-based process. Scenarios are worked up among cast, director and writers, and then honed and reworked endlessly, the movie forever a thing in progress. This is not all that usual these days in America, and screams one thing: money. Someone with the success of Apatow can command the luxury of time – to rehearse, to mess about, to develop the terrific tone the film has in places of a rep of old friends having a scream.

For the talented Wiig, now is a moment of international success that has been a long time coming. Fans of her six-year stint and many hyperbolic characters on Saturday Night Live (it was she who originally came up with the show’s particularly winning take on Sarah Palin, but the part was passed to Tina Fey, who bears more of a resemblance) will already know that this slender, pale girl is the perfect comedy conduit. She is nicely featureless, a blank page, a beautifully pure canvas. At this point in her career she can be anybody and do anything: a bitch, a bunny, a paste-up screwball neurotic, Madame Bovary (you can just see her riffling through fabric samples, nervously), Susan Vance in Bringing up Baby. Lady Macbeth?  

Made in 1981 but crucially with a 1970s feel, Cutter’s Way is being re-released as part of a solid Jeff Bridges season at the BFI Southbank (the second in 10 years) that also includes other little-seen triumphs such as John Huston’s 1972 boxing drama Fat City (see it).

Sure, it’s memorable for the scenes with JB – as a nice, easy-going playboy, smoking and screwing in that Bridgesishly loose-limbed way, skin tanned to a fantastically glowing nutmeg – but Cutter’s Way ought to be seen for his co-star John Heard, playing the disabled and furiously alcoholic Vietnam veteran Alex Cutter, ruinously hell-bent on taking his film-noirish revenge on the world. A part originally meant for Dustin Hoffman, Heard incarnates absolute egotism and profound despair. You find yourself simultaneously having to suppress your instinct for pity for his wretched character and trying to focus on what a terrible son-of-a-bitch he is. Heard’s career came, went and now simmers – recently he had a small recurring role in CSI Miami. He is one of America’s great lost actors.  

The First Grader is a predictable but inspiring story of an 84-year-old, one-time Mau Mau warrior, who insists on an education at a Kenyan primary school. Since the Kenyan government is thanked in the credits one wonders about the balance in the storytelling, but the scenes in the classroom itself, filmed involving the small children of the real Masai Plainsview Primary School, are so tender.  

The first lines of dialogue in World of the Dead: The Zombie Diaries (“Oh my God! What’s that?” “I don’t know! It’s so dark out there I can’t see a thing ...”) are not promising, and what follows is far from original, but this British film has a nicely botched, home-movie feel, although its express amateurishness will drive you nuts.  

Countdown to Zero, about the history and current status of the world’s nuclear weapons, joins the glut of great recent documentaries. The film’s most sobering fact: any world leader has a maximum of 10 seconds to decide to retaliate in the event of a nuclear attack. Most memorable image: Gorbachev shaking hands with Reagan outside the Reykjavik Summit in 1986, putting on his hat (second-best, mottled grey) and walking away, like some nice, provincial husband hurrying home from Rotary.  

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