Back in the Stone Age of the big-budget wedding movie, audiences weren't so jaded. They could be content with a single ceremony and Julia Roberts' smile. But that's no longer enough. Last year Sarah Jessica Parker had two weddings and modeled at least a half dozen wedding gowns in Sex and the City: The Movie, and while we lost track of how many weddings perennial bridesmaid Katherine Heigl attended, we know she had 27 Dresses. Bride Wars ups the wedding ante by double booking us with two movie stars wearing Cheshire cat grins atop yards of white tulle and silk.
Hotshot attorney Liv (Kate Hudson) and schoolteacher Emma (Anne Hathaway) have been best friends since childhood. Their shared greatest ambition is to get married at the Plaza Hotel in New York. Each has a bland boyfriend, and both men propose within days of each other. They are interchangeable but for the size of the engagement rings they provide — Liv's Daniel (Steve Howey) hands over a couple of carats from Tiffany's, while Emma's Fletcher (Chris Pratt) comes home with just under a carat. This means two lavish weddings to plan and the equivalent of two down payments on houses to be spent on the above. It's enough to make you — and Liv and Emma — squeal. A lot.
That squealing takes a distinctly shriller tone when their wedding planner — played by Candice Bergen, who has become to chick flicks what Joe Pesci is to Mafia movies, only statelier and with better diction — breaks the news to Liv and Emma that a scheduling conflict means their weddings will have to be on the same date in June. And so, she suggests, one of them will have to compromise and find a different venue. Needless to say, maturity does not win out and the two Bridezillas turn on each other.
I should admit here that my standard for wedding movies is shamefully low. They're like junk food: if they are around, I'm probably going to eat them. If the filmmakers are kind enough to cut the transfat in half, I'll get to feel a little less guilty about enjoying my emotional pornography — in other words, if I can be made to laugh a few times and give a fig about anyone in the movie, I'll embrace it, at least in the heat of the Vera Wang-fueled moment.
The weeks before Valentine's Day are prime dumping ground for these wish fulfillment fantasies, most of which tend to be appallingly formulaic. At least, and this is something to be grateful for, Bride Wars deviates from the usual wedding flick routine of maids of honors who should be the bride (or groom). And even though the catfighting goes over the top, the notion that a passionate female friendship can turn ugly in a heartbeat is, sadly, realistic. Women friends have a sharp sense of each other's soft underbellies, and what we love about our best girlfriends can easily be turned into ammunition following a betrayal. We know how to hurt each other.
In this case, Emma has some buried resentments; she has long been the tender caretaker of Liv's aggressive, obnoxious alpha. Or, as some might put it, her willing doormat. Emma's fiancé has a particularly cruel spin on things; in an American Idol analogy, he says Liv is Simon (Cowell), Emma is peppy Paula (Abdul). "But everyone listens to Simon," Emma says with dismay. "I wouldn't marry Simon," Fletcher tells her. "I'm marrying me some Paula." Then he licks his chops.
Emma may be a Paula, but in the end, the movie owes its mild success to Anne Hathaway, who makes it watchable. Based on Bride Wars' marketing campaign, it seemed legitimate to wonder whether Hathaway would hurt her hopes of an Oscar nomination for Rachel Getting Married by appearing in such lightweight fare right around ballot time. (Rachel may get married, but that film indulges no fantasies.) Instead, Bride Wars is a reminder that Hathaway can be soulful and charming no matter how mundane her surroundings. She manages her appealing vulnerability with expertise, but she's also learned how to blend in just enough sexuality to put those Princess Diaries days behind her. (It helps that director Gary Winick puts her in black hot pants for a dance number.)
Hudson, who co-produced the film, fares less well. Sporting bangs so long they seem poised for an attack on the rest of her face, she appears oddly aged. Her Liv has the brittle, hard quality of a Kim Cattrall. It's distracting; my inner voice kept muttering, What has Kate Hudson done with her freshness? It should not be used up at 29! Perhaps a diet of strictly RomCom fare is no healthier for movie stars than it is for audiences. Still, Hudson does win the bridal wars in one sense: when it comes to The Dress, Liv's Vera Wang definitely trumps Emma's heirloom.