Although the play on which Bachelorette is based was running off-Broadway before Bridesmaids even started shooting, the new film inevitably recalls last year's smash hit. Once again we have a group of thirtyish female friends coming together for the wedding of one of their number, and having all manner of zany and bracingly scabrous adventures. Here, stepping in for Kristen Wiig, is Kirsten Dunst, playing the level-headed maid-of-honor, Regan. Frustrating her earnest efforts to organize the big event are adorable ditz Katie (Isla Fisher) and sleep-around sourball Gena (Lizzy Caplan). As Katie pulls out a stash of cocaine she's brought along and Gena casts a hostile/horny eye on her old high-school boyfriend Clyde (Adam Scott), who's also on hand for the nuptials, the bride-to-be, jovial, heavy-set Becky (Rebel Wilson), grows increasingly uneasy.
"What could go wrong?" is not a question that's likely to occur to most viewers. Katie scandalizes the more strait-laced attendees by calling in a male stripper for a party. She and Regan jokingly stuff themselves into Becky's plus-size wedding gown and naturally split it up the side. A frantic search for a replacement frock takes up the rest of the movie, with a side trip to a strip club to which the girls have followed Clyde and two other key guys—hunky Trevor (James Marsden) and shy Joe (Kyle Bornheimer)—on their way to treat the prospective groom, Dale (Hayes MacArthur), to one last wild night before the chains of matrimony snap into place.
A lot of this is very funny. Caplan has a great trash-mouth scene in an airplane where she regales the total stranger sitting next to her with the carefully graded levels of oral sex at which she's proficient. And Fisher is a lovable airhead throughout. ("I think I might be stupid," she gibbers at one point. "I don't understand anything anyone says.") So it's too bad that Dunst is so miscast. She doesn't have the screwball spirit for this sort of wild-style comedy, and she goes through the motions rather glumly (understandably in a street scene in which she's encouraged to get down on all fours and lick the pavement). Some of the characters don't come into focus, either (what is it that has drawn chunky Becky and handsome Dale together?); and the steady accretion of vintage pop culture signifiers (the girls all hail from the high-school Class of 1990) feels a little rote.
But first-time director Leslye Headland, who also wrote the script (and the original play), has given the film a sleek, sparkly look; and Fisher and (especially) Caplan bring a comic charge to each scene they're in. If Bachelorette had come out before Bridesmaids, it might have been seemed a fresh exercise. Too late now, unfortunately.
Any cinematic attempt to depict the interior struggles of a writer at work—the frustrations, the inspirations, the search for the perfect word—is probably doomed to failure. Unable to show us such mental exertions, a filmmaker is compelled to fall back on externalities—the writer biting his lip over a keyboard, feverishly shuffling through his notes, and so forth. Like any number of previous films in this genre (the dodgy old Lillian Hellman biopic Julia comes quickly to mind), The Words once again fails to adequately visualize creative labor. In a new wrinkle, though, this movie fails to do so in three different ways.
The picture begins with hot young author Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper) on his way with his beautiful wife, Dora (Zoe Saldana), to an arts-and-letters awards ceremony where he's to be feted for his best-selling novel, oddly titled The Window Tears. ("It was supposed to be a little book," Rory says, with gooey humility). It's a story about a young ex-GI – "The Young Man," he's called, played by Ben Barnes) in post-World War II Paris. He's striving to become a writer. You see him striving, but of course you don't see him thinking, creating. He takes up with a café waitress (Nora Arnezeder). They have a baby. The baby gets sick and dies. We see a doctor pulling a blanket over the little corpse in the crib. We're struck by the shamelessness of this shot.
There's been quite a bit of voiceover narration up to this point. It comes from Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid), a famous novelist who's giving a reading of his new book, which is called The Words. This is the story of a young would-be writer named Rory Jansen. On a honeymoon trip to Paris, he comes across an old briefcase in a junk shop. His new bride, Dora, buys it for him. Back in Brooklyn, where they're leading a scuffling existence ("We don't have any money," Dora points out), Rory discovers an old manuscript tucked away in the briefcase. This is the book that was finally tapped out by the Young Man, whose café-waitress lover lost it on a train all those decades ago. Rory reads the manuscript, realizes it's brilliant, and proceeds to type it into his laptop, word for word. "He just wanted to feel the words pass through his fingers," Clay says, still narrating for us. Ethically torn—although not too torn—Rory takes the new manuscript to an editor at a publishing house, passing it off as his own. The editor, too, realizes the book's brilliance, and publishes it, to instant acclaim.
We've already seen that Rory is being shadowed around New York by a character called the OId Man (wrinkly Jeremy Irons), who of course is the Young Man grown…well, old. He knows that Rory's best-seller is actually his work. Is he angry? Yes. Well, sort of. Confronting Rory in a park, he tells the younger man, "You can't make this right. Things are just things." Whatever, I guess.
Given how much story the movie is already saddled with, it was unwise to cram in a subplot about a grad-student lit groupie (Olivia Wilde) who's zeroing in on Clay. Under her questioning over a glass of wine, we see that the veteran writer is obscurely troubled about something. Is he a plagiarist, too? "We all make choices in life," he says, unhelpfully. "The hard thing is to live with them." (Even harder are the fleeting snippets of prose from the various books to which we're treated—great writing can't be faked.)
Writer-directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal achieve some nice pictorial effects of the burnished-glow variety, but the actors are adrift in the woozy story. Jeremy Irons brings some subtle emotional details to the wronged geezer, but Dennis Quaid, hobbled by a character who's never clarified, is reduced to free-floating craggy torment. And Bradley Cooper, playing a man who may or may not exist in this sappy narrative, is wasted. As the movie drifts along, we're never sure where it's going; all we know at the end is that it never got there.