The three protagonists of Bachelorette do some pretty terrible things: They talk trash behind a fourth friend's back, kvetching bitterly about having to be bridesmaids at her wedding. They publicly leak her old high school nickname, which happens to be "Pigface."
And just hours before the wedding, as the bride-to-be is getting her beauty sleep, two of them try to cram into her wedding gown as a gag — she's a plus-sized cupcake of a woman — and rip it seemingly beyond repair.
For the first half of Bachelorette, these bridesmaids from hell — they're played by Kirsten Dunst, Isla Fisher and Lizzy Caplan, and their bride-to-be friend is Rebel Wilson — have no redeeming qualities. But in the second half, glimmers of humanity begin to show through their shallow, brittle facades.
And where's the fun in that? One of the most reprehensible bits of marketing-speak to make its way into common usage in recent years is the word "relatable," which, when we're talking about fictional characters, has come to mean figures who somehow reinforce our own vague ideas about how people should behave — chiefly so we can feel better about ourselves. No one should be too mean or too venal, or, for that matter, too nice. It's a stricture that leaches all the color out of make-believe characters, and the kitty-cat harridans of Bachelorette suffer for it.
That's a drag, because the lion's share of Bachelorette, written and directed by Leslye Headland, is unnervingly entertaining. The picture is less self-congratulatory than the movie to which it will inevitably be compared, Bridesmaids (in which Wilson also appears); instead of telegraphing its "Girls can be raunchy, too!" message every minute, Bachelorette simply allows its characters' ids to run naked and free.
When Caplan, barely blinking her Theda Bara eyes, eagerly suggests that Fischer and Dunst cram themselves into that wedding dress so she can snap a photo of it and tag the bride's Facebook page, she's not looking over her shoulder to make sure everyone's taking note of how brazen she is. She's simply a monster of modern self-absorption.
The same goes for Dunst's character, an event planner who has grudgingly orchestrated every minute of Wilson's wedding, all the while seething with resentment because she's not the one getting married. Dunst has a face that can be radiantly sunny one minute and stonily closed off the next. We see both here, and the effect, accented by her sharp comic timing, is both funny and unsettling.
Fischer's character is the most clueless and least vindictive of the three — she's also the biggest druggie, unable to resist any snort that comes her way — and Fischer plays her, with scary precision, as a space-case sweetie-pie, a naif who means no harm but nevertheless wreaks havoc by repeatedly failing to stand up for anything or anyone.
There are guys in Bachelorette, too: Adam Scott plays Caplan's estranged high-school boyfriend, and though the picture falters when it tries to get serious, Caplan and Scott are lovely in a tentative reconciliation scene. And James Marsden shows up as a fellow wedding attendee, the kind of entitled jerk who goes to a strip club and dismisses an enthusiastic dancer by handing her a 20-dollar bill and announcing, "Thank you, that was amazing, but I'm bored now."
That line is as cutting as it is funny, a way for Headland (by way of Marsden) to slap down boorish male behavior without turning the moment into a mini-lecture. And it's an example of the way Bachelorette, at its best, is entertaining in a way that doesn't guarantee comfort or safety.
But Headland, after bravely writing characters whose degree of self-involvement is off the charts, tries half-heartedly to soften their edges: Fischer commits a dangerously desperate act; tough-girl Caplan really is just looking for love; and Dunst — well, by the end, she still isn't very nice, but we're supposed to have a better understanding of why.
The characters in Bachelorette are most human when they're behaving badly. They break the spell when they turn into women we can merely relate to. Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.