This week I continue my in-depth analysis of the movie Bridesmaids (written by Kristen Wiig & Annie Mumolo) by examining the character work in the film. For me, the first and most critical things to determine about a character are what I call their Want and Need. The Want is the goal the character is pursuing in the story. This drives the external journey, or the plot. The structure of the film is based on this (see last week’s post). In Bridesmaids, Annie wants to succeed as Lillian’s Maid-of-Honor.
The Need is the internal flaw the character needs to fix. This determines the internal journey of the character, sometimes called character arc. In Bridesmaids, Annie’s need is self-confidence. Annie is very down on herself, feeling her life is a disaster and she's a failure. It’s this flaw that causes her to try to prove she’s a better friend to Lillian than Helen. After all, Lillian is really the only good thing in Annie’s life.
In the best movies, the Want and Need are related to each other. I’ve found that happens in three possible ways: 1) The character has to get what they need in order to get what they want. 2) In the process of getting what they want, the character gets something they need to be happy. 3) What the character needs is to realize their Want is wrong. (For more on this, see this post.)
Primarily, Bridesmaids is an example of version 2: In the process of trying to be a good Maid-of-Honor, Annie regains her self-confidence. But interestingly, all three of the interactions appear in some form in Bridesmaids. Annie must find self-confidence in order to succeed as Lillian’s Maid-of-Honor at the end when Lillian goes missing; and though Annie’s goal is not wrong, her reason for wanting to be successful in the beginning is selfish – she wanted to prove she was better than Helen. At the end she realizes her friend’s happiness is the most important thing. So in this movie the want-need relationship is extremely entwined!
One of the challenges for screenwriters is finding ways to dramatize this internal journey. We don’t want to have characters simply talk about how they feel – that’s not realistic or filmic. We need to show how the character feels. One way Bridesmaids does this is through the romantic storyline.
When we meet Annie she’s in bed with a thoughtless, selfish lover: Ted. We see that Annie is catering to Ted’s desires while he’s ignoring hers. The next morning, she sneaks out of bed early to put on make-up to look good for him. When he wakes up, we learn that they are not boyfriend and girlfriend at Ted’s insistence, and he heartlessly asks her to leave. So we know Annie is trying to please Ted and Ted doesn’t care about her, which shows us her low self-esteem.
Note that Annie never says she has low self-esteem – in fact she defends her relationship with Ted to Lillian. But we see it, and Lillian sees it. This is another technique to reveal character: have another character point out the main character’s flaws (or strengths or other personality traits).
I want to emphasize one particular moment in the opening, when Annie sneaks out of bed to put on make-up before her boyfriend wakes up. This is a great example of show-don’t-tell. The behavior tells us that Annie is trying to impress Ted, and suggests that she isn’t confident in who she is. She doesn’t have to tell someone what she wants or how she feels, we can see it through what she does.
At the end of Act One, Bridesmaids introduces a new love interest, the character of Rhodes. Annie’s developing relationship with Rhodes (and her eventual backslide to Ted) parallel and reveal Annie’s character development. This is intertwined with another device they use to dramatize Annie’s arc – her baking. When Annie is pulled over by police officer Rhodes, he remembers her failed bakery and lauds her cakes. They hit it off with some banter and he doesn’t give her a ticket. Annie goes home and is inspired to bake – she goes to elaborate effort for what turns out to be one cupcake. It's a sad commentary on her life at that point, but an indication she may have a little hope.
As the story progresses and Annie’s relationship with Rhodes develops, he encourages her to try again at her bakery dream. But she refuses. She failed and now she’s given up. Rhodes tries to get her to bake with him, hoping to inspire her, but it makes her so angry their relationship falls apart. Later, when she has a traffic accident, she’s forced to turn to Ted for a ride – and realizes how awful her life actually is.
After Annie hits bottom, Megan arrives to challenge her and expose her self-pity. This is a crucial turning point for Annie. Annie decides to fight for what she wants. And the first thing she does is bake. She bakes a cake to try to win Rhodes back.
In this way the various subplots – Ted, Rhodes and baking – serve to illustrate Annie’s state of mind throughout the story. This is a common use of subplots, particularly romantic subplots. They are a gauge of the character's emotional progress.
I think one of the reasons Bridesmaids was such a success is because the character of Annie felt real and relatable, and the plot was driven by that character (as demonstrated by the tight interweaving of Want and Need). This is not always common in broad comedies. And then the writers of Bridesmaids did an excellent job of revealing Annie’s internal journey through dramatization.
Next week I'll discuss the minor characters and how they serve to comment on the themes of the story.
Want to read the Bridesmaids screenplay? It’s online here.