LOS ANGELES - At first glance, it wouldn't seem that "Bridesmaids," "The Hangover Part II" and "Midnight in Paris" have much in common other than the fact that they are all comedies packing a theater near you. True, there's a wedding somewhere in the offing in all three, but the "I dos" and "Maybe I won'ts" are merely footnotes.
The movies themselves are decidedly different comic beasts in taste, quality and style, and critical reaction has been just as varied (raves for "Bridesmaids," cheers for "Midnight," jeers for "Hangover II"). Audiences, on the other hand, as distinct as the films themselves, are universally embracing them in impressive numbers. The comedies' comfortable co-existence (rather than the cannibalism that typically prevails) is such a rare occurrence, it's hard to remember the last time it happened. And for fans of comedy, in whatever shape or form it comes in, that's good news.
Beyond all the self-promoting statistics used by studios ("best opening for an R-rated comedy starring women that opened before Memorial Day"), the collective success of "Hangover II," "Bridesmaids" and "Midnight" is significant for a couple of reasons: First, Hollywood always backs a winner; there are already talks of another "Bridesmaids," "The Hangover Part III" has got to be a greedy glimmer in some exec's eye, and Woody Allen's been averaging a comedy a year for about as long as most of us have been alive - maybe next time Rome will be in the title.
Of the three, "Bridesmaids" is the most revolutionary: a female-centric raunchy comedy, written by women and starring women as occasionally inappropriate, sometimes indelicate and always believable. "Midnight in Paris," though not perfect, is charming enough and the filmmaker's best since "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" in 2008. Meanwhile, "The Hangover Part II," despite the massive box-office take, doesn't come close to "The Hangover" high of 2009. Animals, strippers, Mike Tyson, etc. - the emperor just got new clothes for the trip to Thailand. Which does not, however, mean the film doesn't have its share of laughs.
And that brings me to the second point. This particular threesome gets the funny fundamentals right. Which is a relief because so many recent movies have not. Consider a few of the forgettables: "No Strings Attached," "Something Borrowed," "Due Date," "The Dilemma" "Hall Pass," "Arthur," "Just Go with It" . . . Thanks, but we'd rather not.
So what are the common threads, and who did it best? Here's my take:
All three films are playing around with that most typical of adult maladies - pre-wedding jitters - albeit from opposite sides of the aisle, and the ocean: Kristen Wiig's maid of honor fighting to keep her best-friend status in "Bridesmaids"; Owen Wilson's blocked writer wondering if he's marrying the right one in "Midnight"; and Ed Helms' Stu just hoping his soon-to-be-brother-in-law is still alive. The movies pit the rational against the irrational, specifically that moment when fears about love, identity and commitment make good people do bad things. We can feel their pain. Winner: "Bridesmaids"
Here there are echoes of Jerry Lewis, Carol Burnett and the slapstick kings, the Three Stooges. It's the clever use of a comic tradition that makes the most out of the body - from contortions to the pain-induced nyuk, nyuk, nyuk variety. "Hangover II" serves up the most extreme form, with face tattoos and peccadilloes with transgender strippers. "Bridesmaids" turns sex into a gymnastic freestyle event, although the takedown of a chocolate fountain may be my favorite. "Midnight" is more subtle, though you can even find it there in the old taxi that picks up Wilson's Gil when the clock strikes 12 each night - it's like a clown car stuffed with literati. Winner: "Bridesmaids" Runner-up: "Hangover II"
Making light of all the embarrassments being human makes possible is the oldest trick in the whoopee-cushion book, and as the Romans are credited with the first artificial whoopee, that's a very long time indeed. In "Bridesmaids," it's mostly implied, though powerfully so, when food poisoning ravages a dress fitting. "Hangover II" leaves little to the imagination with stunts like Ken Jeong's naked jack-in-the-ice-box pounce as Mr. Chow. In "Midnight," the humiliation turns on the mind games played by Michael Sheen's condescending effete with Wilson on the receiving end, though nothing that a chance encounter with Picasso can't fix. Winner: "Bridesmaids" Runner-up: "Midnight in Paris"
Just because there is fun to be had at everyone's expense, a comedy still needs heart. Or, if you're four guys bonding over a major screw-up, heart-lite. This is where "Bridesmaids" moves to the head of the class, a spot Allen and his films have occupied for years. There is a real sweetness in Wiig's desperation to win the bride, then the boyfriend back. And much of "Midnight's" magic is in the slow flirt between Wilson's modern-day dude and Marion Cotillard's '20s-era girl. Tie: "Midnight" and "Bridesmaids"
They're smart (if not exactly intellectual)
We see it in the straight-man wit of the socially inept Alan (Zach Galifianakis) and his "this is not Stu's first wedding, there was the whore in Vegas . . ." toast. For the "Bridesmaids," it comes in figuring out how to recalibrate relationships old and new so that they actually work. "Midnight" goes philosophical about the meaning of life and the creation of art, with the whimsical Wilson as the ballast, keeping the tone just light enough. Tie: "Bridesmaids" and "Midnight"
For my money, "Bridesmaids" is by far the best of the bunch. Fresh point of view, smart script, actors who play every type of funny just right, a director in Paul Feig who knew when to rein them in and when to let the girls go wild. I laughed, I cried, I want to see it again.