What happens when you replace the boys in a Judd Apatow movie with Bridesmaids?

A still from Bridesmaids 

If you’ve seen either of the two trailers for the darkly hilarious comedy Bridesmaids, you might think that it was just another bawdy bromance, like The Hangover or Knocked Up, but with women boozing and projectile barfing instead of men. The movie’s marketing emphasizes a graphic food-poisoning scene in a fancy bridal boutique and a bachelorette flight to Vegas during which co-writer and star Kristen Wiig’s character, the downtrodden Annie, gets so wasted on pills that she ends up partying in the aisles.

But the trailers’ focus on moments of slapstick, some of which didn’t even make it into the final cut, is probably just an attempt to get men (especially that coveted 18-35 demographic) to buy tickets to a movie that is primarily about a woman’s painful struggle to grow up and secondarily about the shifting terrain of old female friendships. Because while Bridesmaids does share some core DNA with bromances, particularly the ones directed, written or produced by Judd Apatow (who was also a producer of this film), it is ultimately a different—and more original—animal: Let’s call it a homance.

Besides the gender of the main character, what distinguishes a homance from a bromance? Herewith, a primer. (Warning: Spoilers abound.)

The Hot Mess Heroine
One of the hallmarks of a bromance is that the guys get to have all the fun, and the women are maternal sourpusses. Knocked Up is the definitive example: At the beginning of that movie, the hero, Ben, is a perma-stoner who lives in happy squalor with a bunch of his buddies. The emphasis here is on happy. Contrast him with Debbie, the married sister of Ben’s love interest, Allison. While Ben blithely smokes away his days, Debbie spends hers sniping at her husband and worrying about the number of child molesters in her Zip code.

As in the bromance, the homance’s hero—make that heroine—is having trouble navigating adulthood (such difficulties are an Apatovian hallmark). When we meet her, her love life consists of an emotionally unsatisfying series of hookups with a hunky jerk named Ted (Jon Hamm), she lives with a couple of British weirdoes, and—her baking business having tanked—she works as a jewelry store clerk. She isn’t anything like the dismally grown-up Debbie, but unlike Ben in Knocked Up, who is surrounded by a bunch of merry fools, Annie is miserable about how her life is stalled and is ultimately alone. She can’t even enjoy a cupcake she painstakingly makes for herself—as Susan Dominus wrote in her recent New York Times Magazine profile of Wiig, taking a bite from that cake is an “act of self-destructive defeat rather than of indulgence.”

The Fraught Friendships
And what of those merry fools? Ben’s friendships are his respite from the real world; his buddies, with whom he stages American Gladiators-type games in the yard, are playmates. Or take The-40-Year Old Virgin, in which the guys spend their time bonding over video games and raucous nights out. In the homance, by contrast, friendship is far less soothing and considerably more complicated. When Annie’s best friend, Lillian (a lovely Maya Rudolph) gets engaged, Annie miserably compares her lot with Lillian’s. “Her life is going off and getting perfect, and mine is just …” she laments. Exacerbating the problem is Lillian’s new pal, Helen (a brilliantly passive-aggressive Rose Byrne), who brazenly tries to supplant Annie as Lillian’s BFF. Measuring herself against Rose—who is “more successful and richer and skinnier” than Annie—is what really sends Annie down the road to crazytown.

The One-Dimensional Dudes
Much has been made of the allegedly stereotypical female characters in Judd Apatow’s bromances. When the Onion AV Club recently asked Bridesmaids director Paul Feig if Bridesmaids was an intentional corrective, Feig said the criticism of Apatow was unfair, in part because “those movies were about guys.” Just as some of the female characters in bromances can be a little underwritten, the male characters in Bridesmaids are not quite fleshed out. Lillian’s husband barely utters a word; Annie’s second love interest—a kindly Irish cop—is not exactly Mr. Personality, though he’s quite charming. Jon Hamm’s character, Ted, provides comic relief, but he’s a familiar Porsche-driving douchebag type.

The Sex Talk Gets Real:
There is a lot of filthy sex talk in the bromance field, but much of it is of the fantastic or onanistic variety. In The40-Year-Old Virgin, the hero’s coworkers spend a poker game early in the film trying to one-up each other with their sex stories. “I’ve literally lubed up and made love to the arches of her feet,” one brags. Later, Paul Rudd’s character tries to encourage Steve Carrell’s virgin to jerk off by bringing him a box full o’ porn, including a homemade compilation, Boner Jams ‘03.

There’s also a lot of sex chatter in the homance, but it is more affecting because it actually has to do with real sex. Perhaps the best scene in Bridesmaids is toward the beginning, when Annie and Lillian have brunch the morning after Annie spent the night at Ted’s modernist pad. Annie doesn’t go into the nitty-gritty details (probably because the sex was so lackluster—Hamm kneads her boobs like they’re stress balls), but she does an impression of a penis that is the funniest moment I’ve witnessed in a movie this year. What’s more, Lillian responds to Annie’s admission that she slept with caddish Ted with a natural, plainspoken empathy. (According to Feig, this scene was the result of several hours of improvisation between real-life friends Wiig and Rudolph.)

The Emotional Transformation
In the bromance, the hero is generally a career underachiever, and part of his growth over the course of the film involves not just a marriage, but also some sort of professional or creative success. In Knocked Up, the hero moves past half-assedly running a soft-porny website to gainful employment as a computer programmer; in I Love You Man, the hero’s stalling real-estate business moves forward thanks to some cannily placed billboards; in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, the hero is a bored composer of television scores who finds his true calling writing a vampire musical.

Not so with the homance. By the end of Bridesmaids, Annie’s transformation is exclusively emotional: She learns to be less self-involved. Her career is ostensibly still in the crapper (though she begins to enjoy baking again), and she’s moved in with her mom, since the Brits kicked her out. But instead of blaming others for all this, and for the friendships she loses throughout the film thanks to her bad behavior, Annie takes responsibility for, among other things, ruining the bridal shower (collateral damage: an enormous fondue fountain). Bromancers are typically reformed by the love of a good woman. Not Annie: She does wind up with the cute cop, but he is ultimately a benefit of her improved attitude, not the cause of it.

And though the movie ends with Lillian happily married, the fact of wedding isn’t the important thing. Instead, it’s Annie’s sing-along with Lillian to an impromptu Wilson-Phillips performance that makes the ending so satisfying. Annie’s move forward didn’t come through a romantic happy ending, as it would have in a bromance. It came by becoming a better friend.