When Paul Feig and Kristen Wiig's terrific Bridesmaids became a box office hit in 2011 — and it was a monster-sized one, the highest grossing female comedy of all time — basic Hollywood practice should have dictated that in the next year or two, we'd see a slew of clones attempting to capitalize on the same magic. But those raunchy chick-centric movies never materialized. Feig followed up his success by directing the similarly raucous buddy cop film The Heat with Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy in 2013, and in between, there were the milder, musicals Joyful Noise and Pitch Perfect. Still, pickings remain slim.
Maybe the problem is that the industry tends to think that a movie can't just be about women — it has to be about girl power, projecting a canned message of empowerment even if it leaves its characters dangling in the wind or humiliates them for laughs. That's definitely the case for Walk of Shame, which hit theaters this weekend, and The Other Woman, which opened last week. These are comedies that trumpet being yourself and female bonding, while spending most of their actual runtime having their heroines called whores or only ever talking about men. One of the things that made Bridesmaids work so well is that its characters had personalities, histories, hopes, and insecurities. Walk of Shame and The Other Woman have types — good girl and bad girl, dumb and sexy, or successful and controlling.
The Other Woman made nearly $25 million in its first weekend, besting Captain America: The Winter Soldier for the top spot at the box office — great if unnecessary proof that there's an underserved audience eager to watch comedies about women like this. But it's a clumsily made, weirdly paced, brainless revenge film that squanders its awesomely game-leading actresses. High-powered lawyer Carly (Cameron Diaz) discovers her new dream guy Mark King (played by Jaime Lannister himself, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is actually married to ditzy housewife Kate (Leslie Mann), and eventually, they find out he also has another mistress, Amber (Kate Upton). But rather than fight with each other, they bond to inflict summer camp-worthy pranks (including putting laxatives in his drink) on Mark before upping the stakes to financial ruin.
Among the The Other Woman's offenses are that its bits of physical comedy are allowed to drag on until everything funny about them has been drained away, that the actual revenge process doesn't even get going until the final third of the film, that it has a joke about how icky transwomen are, and that it contains Nicki Minaj's acting debut but confines her to a few thankless scenes of being a sounding board for her boss, Carly.
But what's really maddening about The Other Woman is that it's a film about female friendship that, as NPR's Linda Holmes astutely pointed out, fails to pass the Bechdel test. All scenes in which Carly, Kate, and, eventually, Amber might be talking about something other than Mark are consigned to one of the many wordless montages. It's as if the film, which was written by Melissa Stack and directed by Nick Cassavetes (The Notebook), either doesn't care or just has no idea what the characters would otherwise say to one another, substituting instead shots of laughing set to songs like "Girls Just Want To Have Fun." (Seriously.)
It's particularly unfortunate because Carly and Kate seem like people who could use friends (it's harder to tell with Amber, who's mainly there to be gazed at), as women leading lives of comfortable isolation in a designer Soho apartment and immaculate Connecticut house. Their lives are only illuminated enough for us to see how they relate to the shared man in their lives — and that includes the introduction of Don Johnson as Carly's womanizing (but, you know, in a cute way) dad who assists with the vengeance and somehow manages to snag the literal punchline from the protagonists.
The Other Woman is rated PG-13 and perhaps because of it, is surprisingly demure for a movie about sex, including its careful that Carly and Amber were unaware of the fact that they were involved with a married man and would have never considered such a thing had they known.
There's no such excuse for the R-rated Walk of Shame, which opened on Friday, and which runs star Elizabeth Banks through the ringer for having a one-night stand before attempting to turn things around and chide people for judging her. As L.A. news anchor Meghan Miles, Banks spends the day after her big night out trying to get to work for an unofficial audition for a better gig, one for which her steadiness and unblemished personal life ("I'm a good girl," she repeatedly says) is her main selling point. And it's when she finally gets there that she delivers her big speech, noting, among other things, that she shouldn't have called what happened to her a "walk of shame" and that a hook-up shouldn't "automatically make me a pariah."
Right on! Except preceding that moment, the entire movie, which was written and directed by Steven Brill (Little Nicky), has been based around how everyone mistakes Meghan for a prostitute. After she's dumped by her fiancé, Meghan's taken out for the night by besties Rose (Gillian Jacobs) and Denise (Sarah Wright), who aim to get her laid (though when she does manage it, they're weirdly alarmed). After rounds of shots, she ends up in the arms and then the bed of bartender/novelist Gordon (James Marsden). And her car gets towed, and her purse is in there, and she's lost her phone, and L.A. is a walking-unfriendly urban wasteland through which she must totter in heels and sex hair. But she's still Elizabeth Banks, and her dress, though short, also clearly costs several hundred dollars.
And yet she's mistaken for a stripper, then a hooker, then a full-on crack whore. The cops try and arrest her, and at one point, she ends up pretending to be a massage parlor employee who gives out happy endings. Whatever message the movie tries to suddenly whip up at the end, all of the rest of it is based on the idea that one night of casual sex has turned Meghan from good girl to working girl. She looks just like she did when going out the previous evening, but now, everyone who glances her way immediately assesses her as human garbage. It's not some kind of metaphor — in Walk of Shame, that's how the world works: a hookup taints you in some obvious, unshakably way even a child can instantly suss out.
Banks still sells the hell out of the role, which is more than the film deserves, but which is also what happens when there are so few platforms for funny women on the big screen — you're left to work with what you get. The fake feminism of both Walk of Shame and The Other Woman feels like an apology for the fact that, at their hearts, they don't actually know what to do with their female characters, which particularly stings given that The Other Woman was written by a woman. But getting more women behind the camera to write, direct, and produce is also the only way things will improve, something these performers are aware of. Banks produced Pitch Perfect and its upcoming sequel, Wiig co-wrote Bridesmaids, and Diaz is producing the TV adaptation of Bad Teacher, with the excellent Ari Graynor in the starring role that Diaz originated in the 2011 film.
Hollywood may be slow to change, but there's always the hope of changing it from the inside, and as The Other Woman's box office returns suggest, female-centered comedies aren't just needed, they can be good business, too.