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Bridesmaids (15); Putty Hill (PG)

An exquisite display of panic and paranoia.

Bridesmaids (15); Putty Hill (PG)
dirs: Paul Feig; Matthew Porterfield

Kristen Wiig could pass for any perky professional you might see doing her lipstick in a compact on the morning commute. However, look closely and you'll notice that she is transmitting subtle distress signals from behind her smile. Hers is the comedy of panic, paranoia, madness and self-loathing, but her trick in the new film Bridesmaids (which she co-wrote with Annie Mumolo) is to remain composed even as her heart is shredded to confetti. She has moments of combustion: she's like a thin, blonde stick of dynamite, and when her fuse starts crackling you stand well back. Unlike Jim Carrey or John Belushi, the effect is fleeting. After each explosion, she returns to her default position of amiable politeness, and the comedy of repression begins all over again.

Wiig plays Annie, whose best friend, Lillian (Maya Rudolph), names her maid of honour for her wedding. Now that Annie's cake-making business has collapsed and her love life stretches only to being third-string plaything to a cad (Jon Hamm) whose idea of romance is to smile as he kicks her out after sex, she's not best placed to bring sunshine to the party. But it is Helen (Rose Byrne), the wealthiest and prissiest of Lillian's bridesmaids, who really rubs her up the wrong way. If Annie's looks could kill, Helen would be sliced and diced and served up at the wedding in the form of kebabs.

With the exception of a fuzzy-headed rom-com subplot about Annie's fondness for a nice-guy cop (Chris O'Dowd), the picture is prickly on the matter of relationships and families. Helen is verbally abused by her bratty stepchildren in a scene played without comic relief, while another bridesmaid, Rita (Wendi McLendon-Covey), complains about her husband's constant conjugal demands and the agony of raising teenage sons ("Everything's covered in semen"). These snapshots of unsatisfying family life introduce extra notes of equivocation into a film that is already ambivalent about marriage and its attendant hoopla.

Three is the magic number in comedy as in storytelling (three acts, three wishes, three men walk into a bar), but the best moments in Bridesmaids override that rule gleefully. It's a long picture with a roomy structure typical of its producer, Judd Apatow, who specialises in comedies (Knocked Up, Funny People) with plenty of give. More characteristic of Wiig are those tightly wound episodes of pure mania in which gag is piled on top of delirious gag in the manner of vintage Steve Martin, until you feel, or fear, that it will never cease. Annie performs increasingly reckless acts behind the wheel to attract a traffic cop's attention; she competes viciously with Helen, both women beaming, to deliver the most heartfelt toast at Lillian's engagement bash; a stand-off between Annie and a truculent teenager cascades into a volley of insults which ends only when one side serves a verbal ace. The crescendo in each of these scenes is delicious, the climax exquisite.

In Putty Hill, a low-key but resonant picture that's halfway through its short run at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, a disparate group of people convenes in Baltimore for the funeral of a young heroin addict named Cory. Each talks in turn to an off-screen interviewer. Cory's brother is filmed in a break from paintballing in a vivid green forest. His sister arrives from Delaware and chats on the pavement outside the bus station. Friends at the skate-park ponder Cory's life, and a girl wonders: "Will it be bad if I don't cry?" No one asks the unseen interrogator: who are you, and why are you posing personal questions in an eerie monotone? Or, come to that, why are you filming Cory's friends in their private moments, when they're playing guitar in the kitchen or making a nocturnal pilgrimage to the site of his death?

It might be expected that an image of Cory would emerge cumulatively through the testimonies, but in fact his vagueness persists, leaving an aching emptiness among the characters. If Putty Hill is a miniature Citizen Kane, using techniques of documentary to insist on the unknowable landscape of the human soul, then it is much too low-key to advertise itself as such.

I found it transfixing but also haunting, with all the dread that the word entails.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 27 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The food issue