“It’s coming out of me like lava!” wails Melissa McCarthy as she sits over a china sink in a designer gown halfway through Bridesmaids. In hindsight, that might have been the moment the 2011 film was deemed worthy of comedy classic status.
Written by Annie Mumolo and Kristen Wiig and directed by Paul Feig, Bridesmaids is massively successful for a number of reasons, including its stellar cast, its Oscar-worthy script, and its relentless laugh-out-loud humor. It was also revolutionary, confidently boasting an ensemble cast of all women in a genre that was, at the time, extremely male-dominated. And one of its most important scenes allowed women to claim the usual boys club of gross-out comedy as their own.
Bridesmaids follows the best-friendship of Annie (Wiig) and Lillian (Maya Rudolph), a lifelong bond that is put to the test when Lillian announces she is engaged to be married and then invites the chic and fashionable Helen (Rose Byrne) to be a member of her wedding party. From that point on, Annie and Helen engage in a battle to prove themselves the better friend.
One of the film’s best scenes takes place when the gang of bridesmaids goes for their dress fittings. The event goes south when it becomes evident that the ladies have accrued a pretty nasty case of food poisoning from a restaurant that Annie took them to right beforehand. They become violently ill and wreck the luxurious bridal shop in the process.
What makes this scene so powerful is not just that it takes a genre that is typically male and demonstrates that that doesn’t have to be the case, but it also takes a kind of scene that is often frivolous and transparent and makes it integral and pivotal to the plot. It’s not a throwaway moment set up just for shock and laughs. In fact, it works to strengthen the central tensions of the film while allowing its characters to develop further.
At the core of the scene is Annie and Helen’s feud. In fact, the scene itself can easily be interpreted as a metaphor for their relationship. Annie does something unconventional — she takes the bridesmaids group to a hole-in-the-wall restaurant — in an attempt to upstage Helen. But that, of course, ends up backfiring when everyone becomes deathly ill, and Helen smirks in victory.
Feig uses fast-paced editing to emphasize the absurdity of Helen and Annie’s cutthroat relationship. As soon as the spectacle breaks out in true chaos with Megan (McCarthy) relieving herself in the sink while Rita (Wendi McLendon Covey) vomits in and around the toilet, the film cuts back to Annie and Helen as they’re quietly brimming with malicious subtext. Annie attempts to convince her rival that she isn’t also sick, refuting the assumption it was the food at her restaurant choice — which only Helen abstained from eating — that made the others sick. Cutting between this interaction and the scene of pandemonium likens Annie and Helen’s relationship to one of total lawlessness and tumult.
The scene also allows some subtle development of the supporting characters, who might have been ignored in another comedy. It makes sense that Megan is the one who uses the sink as a toilet because she is the main source of crude humor in the film. In essentially every scene, she takes things a little too far. During Lillian’s engagement party, Megan makes shocking sexual comments about a fellow partygoer. Later, on an airplane, she attempts to seduce an air marshal. She can always be counted to make a fool of herself and push the limits of what audiences can take. This makes it all the more impactful, though, when she later winds up being the only one who is really there for Annie after things go downhill. The character isn’t just there for comic relief, despite how the other members of the wedding party seem to view her.
And then there’s the relationship between Rita and Becca (Ellie Kemp), which develops throughout the film as one of a mentor and a clueless mentee. This dynamic is articulated in the scene when Becca vomits on Rita’s head. Such a simple gesture tells us so much about Becca’s hopeless nature and Rita’s worn down, experienced demeanor. Out of all of the bridesmaids, Rita is the one with the most life experience. When explaining why she wants to go to Vegas for the bachelorette party, she tells stories about her sons that are straight out of a horror movie. “I cracked a blanket in half,” she explains to a horrified Annie and Lillian upon her entrance into the film. So, if anyone’s going to get their head coated in vomit, it’s her. And, if anyone’s going to puke on someone’s head, it’s Becca. She’s the one whom Rita later berates for only having ever slept with her fiancé — who, to Rita’s horror, can only do it with the lights off. After they’ve both showered. Separately.
And then there’s the grand finale of the scene. With vomit splayed all over the once-white walls of the bridal shop, the dress salesperson in tears, it seems the worst of it has to be over. But amidst the disarray, Lillian’s situation is the most precarious. While the other women try on their potential bridesmaid dresses, Lillian is putting on a French designer dress just to see how it feels. During Annie and Helen’s squabble, Lillian re-enters the scene with a look of sheer horror on her face. “It’s happening,” she says, and she races out and across the street in search of a bathroom. But she ends up having to use the street as a bathroom. This moment not only fits with her character, as she’s the level-headed one who always takes the damage-control route, but it also emphasizes the high stakes of the film. Lillian is the bride. Every disaster ultimately happens to her detriment.
At its core, Bridesmaids is a movie with a lot of heart, and one that ultimately teaches us the importance of friendship and being kind to others. This central message and other substantial themes might make it seem as though the film’s moments of pure comedy are simply for entertainment — or that they are secondary to the main story. Particularly with the dress-fitting and food poisoning bit, which could have just existed to make us cringe and laugh out loud at the same time. But that isn’t the case. Instead, the seemingly throw-away humor scene tells us more about the characters than any other part of the film. And it doesn’t hurt that the scene also helps to prove women can do gross-out humor as well as men — if not even better.