This week Kristen Wiig stars in Nasty Baby, perhaps her most indie project yet – aesthetically at least. The trailer seems to promise an inky black sense of humour in the vein of Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers, yet Nasty Baby should also offer an intimate and hopefully insightful and thought-provoking look at conflicting relationship dynamics within a small group. Its plot may partially revolve around surrogacy, but Baby Mama this isn’t. It’s the latest in a string of Wiig-starring projects which swing into dramatic, rather than purely comedic, territory.
In 2015, Wiig appeared in major roles in The Diary of a Teenage Girl and The Martian, both critically acclaimed films which garnered acting awards nominations typically considered the terrain of big budget dramas. This is not to say that Wiig, a beloved Saturday Night Live cast member from 2005 until 2012, has abandoned her comedic roots – later this summer she’s set to star in an all-female Ghostbusters reboot, which promises to be every bit as funny as the original ’80s classic.
Instead, she’s choosing scripts which challenge the industry’s desire to draw clear generic boundaries, a particularly futile endeavour when it comes to separating drama from comedy. Rather than distinguishable genres, these terms better express two groups of qualities which are often entwined, though emphasised to differing extents, in a single film – The Martian undoubtedly had funny scenes, but the Golden Globes were still wrong to call it a comedy. In contrast to her comedic turns in films such as Knocked Up, Forgetting Sarah Marshall (see below) and Adventureland, Wiig is now playing a wide range of fully-rounded women rather than filling out archetypal cameo roles which function as vehicles for a screenplay’s jokes.
Ironically, the performance likely responsible for Wiig’s recent slew of more “serious” work came in Paul Feig’s Bridesmaids. A film often held up as a shining example of a female-led comedy, it arguably contains Wiig’s most high-profile dramatic role. To consider Wiig purely a comic actress is to underestimate her ability to breathe life into a script, to humanise and make what may on paper seem outlandish scenarios relatable and empathy-provoking.
Beyond gross-out comedy and hilarious set-pieces, Bridesmaids is a later-life coming-of-age movie, detailing the growing pains of a long friendship as Annie (Wiig) and Lillian (Maya Rudolph) begin to adjust to the lifestyle changes wrought by Lillian’s impending marriage. Though the majority of the bridal party scenes are played for laughs there’s a darkness and sadness which drives many of Annie’s actions, and those of her new nemesis Helen (Rose Byrne). Annie’s emotional arc throughout the film is defined by jealousy and a fear of losing her best friend, plus an insecurity exacerbated by Helen’s confidence and seemingly perfect life. (This, of course, is a fallacy: there are several moments which humanise Helen, such as hints to the resentful attitudes of her stepkids).
Bridesmaids gets under the skin slowly. While in its brasher moments Wiig and co. cause belly laughs, the screenplay’s inference and suggestion, coupled with Wiig’s vulnerable, lost quality, make it memorable for a host of observations that are truer to life than, for example, the infamous wedding dress-fitting sequence. Like Alicia Silverstone’s Cher in Clueless, Annie is often blind to her own feelings – hence the final-act meltdown – yet Wiig makes them plain for the audience to see, crafting an emotional hook. For instance, when Annie flees the romantic interest of local cop Rhodes (Chris O’Dowd) it seems she’s misguidedly repeating the habits picked up from her relationship with the much less emotionally available Ted (Jon Hamm).
Bridesmaids wasn’t the first film in which Wiig entertained while also lending her dramatic skill towards realising the potential of a good script. The under-seen The Skeleton Twins stars Wiig and former SNL costar Bill Hader as the titular siblings, both breaking the moulds of their comedy-star reputations. The film opens with Wiig’s Maggie standing in front of the bathroom mirror contemplating a lethal overdose of pills cupped in her hand. She’s interrupted by a phone call breaking the news of her brother’s attempted suicide.
Though the premise may sound like an implausible plot contrivance, The Skeleton Twins goes on to craft an intimate portrayal of the struggling siblings as they slowly patch up a ten-year estrangement. Writer and director Craig Johnson makes little attempt to exaggerate the comedic aspects of the siblings’ rivalry, though there are hilarious moments such as Hader’s Milo lip-syncing to Starship Trooper’s ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’, and gradually coaxing a reluctant Maggie to join in with some flawless lip-syncing.
However, Johnson’s main focus is on the siblings’ reflection on traumatic past events, and on documenting each character’s attempt to accept the ways their lives have diverged from what they once imagined – a theme also considered in Bridesmaids through the contrast drawn between Rita and Becca. The Skeleton Twins is no doubt elevated by the chemistry between Wiig and Hader, but credit is also due to the subtlety of the screenplay. What makes it work is Johnson’s use of dramatic irony; for much of the film Milo is unaware that Maggie has also grappled with depression and considered suicide. Yet Wiig’s powerful and tangible depiction of sadness makes us wish she could tell Milo for both their sakes.
Welcome to Me, a 2014 movie recently released straight to DVD in the UK, pulled off the tricky balance of comedy and drama far less well. Wiig is Alice, a woman with borderline personality disorder who wins millions on the lottery and dedicates it to her dream – having a talk show all about herself. Though the DVD cover bears Indiewire’s recommendation “Kristen Wiig has never been funnier” the film, though in parts riotously entertaining, is let down by a deplorably insensitive attitude toward mental illness. The clearly unstable and vulnerable Alice is ruthlessly exploited by heartless and opportunistic TV producers, while despite its weighty subject matter the film remains pitched as a comedy, with the audience encouraged to laugh at Alice’s increasingly bizarre antics. With this tonal misjudgement in mind, it’s no surprise to see Adam McKay, director of the bafflingly lauded The Big Short, was co-producer.
That a sketch comedy stalwart like Kristen Wiig can go from single-gag supporting roles to empathetic characters demonstrates the twin faces of drama and comedy. So-called ‘serious dramas’, particularly independent ones, are typically seen by Hollywood and cinemas as not particularly bankable projects. Here’s hoping that through her success and continued smart choices, Wiig can change this.