Shocks to the System: Bridesmaids and Went the Day Well? 

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Bridesmaids
Directed by Paul Feig

Opens May 13

Went the Day Well?(1942)
Directed Alberto Cavalcanti

May 20-June 2 at Film Forum

As funny as Kristen Wiig is on SNL, she's still playing weirdos who are bodily vessels for writerly absurdity and gimmicky creepiness. But her technical dexterity and precision galvanizes the synthetic outlandishness, and she turns these potentially too-easy grotesques into a minor comic art form rather than a stable of Pavlovian bits. It's worth mentioning because Bridesmaidsbumps up against a conundrum of so much comedy, the question of sympathy: at what point are characters so far gone into wackiness or debasement that returning them to a sympathetic light seems impossible, a laughably cynical creative move? Bridesmaidsstars Wiig as self-loathing thirty-something Annie, confronted with her own demons when her soon-to-be-married childhood bestie Lillian (Maya Rudolph) taps her as festivity organizer. There's rivalry with Lillian's fresher, richer friend, fellow bridesmaid Helen (Rose Byrne), all supplanting the "bromance"male friendship that existed nowhere in the history of cinema before Judd Apatow.

Nonthreatening puppy-love interest comes in the form of an easily bruised cop (Chris O'Dowd), who replaces Annie's esteem-vaporizing fuckbuddy (Jon Hamm, continuing down an Alec Baldwin road of self-parody). The grotesque comes in with the humiliations suffered during the rituals of bachelorette partying, fittings, etc., all of which is funny for about half the movie, until the (Apatow-added) scene of Lillian's public self-shitting shows who, despite a script originating with Wiig, is still in test-audience charge. The cathartic embarrassment of explosive diarrhea, it turns out, goes only so far (as does Melissa McCarthy's loud-oblivious bridesmaid, a pitched battle between McCarthy's force of attitude and a rejiggered man-crazy-big-girl cliché). Strongest is the affectionately raunchy, recognizably candid banter between Annie and Lillian, which makes the film's second-half hangover—with protracted enlightenment and Wilson Phillips finale—feel that much clunkier and obligatory. But what's unnerving is Wiig, in quiet downtime, bringing out the almost astonishing self-loathing in the self-critical Annie: it's if Wiig's high-fidelity comic chops prevent her from staring away.

There's real shock, too, of an entirely different order, in the matter-of-fact brutality in Alberto Cavalcanti's Went the Day Well? — a 1942 piece of World War II propaganda that gives new meaning to the term home invasion. In Cavalcanti's first Ealing production, a troop of English-speaking Nazis infiltrates the village of Bramley End by posing as a British Army regiment on exercise, with the pre-arranged assistance of a traitorous squire. Besides playing up the kills—with civilians invariably shot or stabbed in the back—Cavalcanti keeps the sense of hopeless limbo alive well beyond the villagers' first attempts to raise the alarm. The sunny, idyllic green patch becomes a field of total war in the sense that anyone could be killed, and small shrewd victories in house, garden, and forest are routinely followed by deadly turnabouts or hair-raising disappointments. Though truthfully it's not the most well-put-together film, some of its reticence in appeasing a fearful audience seems purposeful: of the resistance, Cavalcanti once marveled in an interview that ordinary people—or at least this gallery of small-town types—must embrace killing and risk becoming "absolutely monsters."

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