One week a month, Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: In honor of Kenneth Lonergan’s magnificent Manchester By The Sea, we’re giving a standing ovation to other movies written and/or directed by playwrights.
Leslye Headland, writer-director of Bachelorette and Sleeping With Other People, has worked as a playwright longer than she has been directing feature films; a stage version of Bachelorette predated the film, and her recent play The Layover had an off-Broadway run earlier this year. But despite the zingy talkiness of both her movies, they don’t immediately or obviously register as the work of a stage writer—not the way, say, Aaron Sorkin’s screenplays remain unmistakably theatrical even when they’re conceived and executed as films.
Once its origins are revealed, it’s easy to see how Bachelorette could have started on the stage. The action is confined mostly to a single night, as high school friends Regan (Kirsten Dunst), Gena (Lizzy Caplan), and Katie (Isla Fisher) reunite as bridesmaids in the wedding of Becky (Rebel Wilson), the kind of old friend they’ve all kept in some touch with, but talk about extensively behind her back. Regan, the maid of honor, is the most put-together of the trio, which is to say she is the meanest. As Regan attempts to acquit herself as a good friend to Becky while radiating unhappiness, Gena struggles with a drug problem, and ditzy Katie struggles with her lack of filter. All of these struggles are exacerbated when a terrible fate befalls Becky’s wedding dress and the bridesmaids rush to fix their mistake. Like Bridesmaids, this movie could be sold as a distaff version of The Hangover if not for the fact that it’s actually well-written and very funny.
While the movie version of Bachelorette makes good use of some New York location shooting, several major sequences unfold in more confined spaces of various hotel rooms. But like Sleeping With Other People, this movie looks great—much more so than many of the conventional romantic comedies for which it serves as a more acidic, foulmouthed counterpart. A bride preparation scene that might have involved door-slamming farce on stage, for example, becomes an exercise in momentum and tension on screen. Headland also seems to possess an innate sense of when to hold her shots. The best demonstration comes in a scene between Caplan and Adam Scott, playing former high school flames. As Scott’s character plays an old mixtape featuring “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles),” the camera stays fixed on the two actors for a full minute and a half, making their eventual, inevitable clinch (and a switch to a non-diegetic soundtrack blast of the Proclaimers tune) emotionally satisfying.
Headland does such a great job utilizing performers who have been ill-served by other projects that it feels like she’s writing and directing specifically to show off Caplan (in one of her best roles), Fisher, James Marsden, and even sitcom staples like Kyle Bornheimer and Hayes MacArthur. It’s possible that the originators of these roles in the stage version of Bachleorette were just as good. But the movie, under-seen as it was during its initial release, is a great production of its own.
Availability: Bachelorette is available on DVD from Netflix or possibly your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased from the major digital services.