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'Bachelorette' Sounds Dark Comedic Depths

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Long before Bridesmaids convinced studio executives that a raunchy, female-centric comedy could find a huge audience, Leslye Headland was busy adapting her play Bachelorette into a movie. So this isn't a copycat rom-com, but the themes do overlap. Each film turns on a female rivalry: In Bridesmaids, it's between the maid of honor, Kristen Wiig, and the bride's rich friend, played by Rose Byrne. In Bachelorette, the rivalry is more complicated, more ... ugly. It's between the three, 30-ish, unmarried central characters and the bride.

Her name is Becky, she's played by Rebel Wilson, and she's fat. In high school, everyone, including her so-called friends, called her "Pigface" behind her back. As the movie opens, one of those friends, Regan, played by Kirsten Dunst, is building up Becky's self-esteem when Becky drops the bombshell. Her wealthy boyfriend — who until now hasn't even told his friends he's dating her — has proposed. And she wants Regan to organize the wedding. That's fine, says Regan, great — except she's thunderstruck. "Pigface" wasn't supposed to get married first.

Already you can tell that Bachelorette is not about "nice" girls the way Bridesmaids was, and the prevailing emotions are anger, resentment, self-hatred and a compulsion to drink too heavily and take a massive amount of drugs. Isla Fisher's Katie is an out-and-out cokehead and alcoholic, and Lizzy Caplan's Gena is almost as unhinged at the thought of meeting up with the high-school love (played by Adam Scott) she thinks ruined her life. All they can think about when they're reunited with Becky before the wedding is getting bombed at the bachelorette party.

What follows isn't "fun" debauchery, as in The Hangover and its ilk, or the scene in Bridesmaids when Wiig gets adorably stoned on a plane. When Bachelorette's three central characters get blotto, something monstrous takes over. The word "Pigface" is inevitably hurled. Then, two of the gal-pals decide to snap a photo of themselves sharing Becky's tent of a wedding gown — which doesn't fully survive the experience.

The hell night that follows takes the trio all over the city — to a bridal shop, a strip club to locate the men in the bachelor party and their old high school. Headland's tone is all over the place, lingering on the women's humiliation and then steering them into fairy-tale rom-com pair-ups. But I think the wobbly tone doesn't hurt material this feverish. And this is, despite a long, hard look into the sadness of these women's lives, a comedy.

It's also a showcase for its three leads. Bachelorette features yet another superb performance from Dunst, whose booze-reddened face gets slack with self-disgust as Regan contemplates the cumulative effect of years of trying to make herself attractive to men — including James Marsden as the latest man to fancy her. Isla Fisher can be exuberantly nutty without making Katie's drug abuse remotely attractive. And this could be a breakout movie for the saucer-eyed Lizzy Caplan, who moodily stews as Gena's poise collapses into grief.

Bachelorette won't give Bridesmaids a run for its money at the box office — it's too abrasive. But I loved its headlong pace and all the dark emotions it dredges up. I enjoyed it less than Bridesmaids, but I respected myself more in the morning.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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