Kristen Wiig's very good year

The charming comedian had a string of successes -- and made 2011 better for the rest of us

Published December 31, 2011 1:00AM (EST)

 Kristen Wiig, Ryan Gosling and Adele.        (AP/Salon)
Kristen Wiig, Ryan Gosling and Adele. (AP/Salon)

As we looked back on 2011, a handful of obsessions came to mind, so we asked several writers to share their big crush of the year. To read other posts in the series, click here. Who did you fall for this year? Let us know in the comments.

This was a pretty good year for Kristen Wiig. She remained one of the few funny, or even tolerable, cast members on “Saturday Night Live.” She was described by producer Lorne Michaels as being among the “top three or four” "SNL" performers ever. She co-wrote and starred in the movie “Bridesmaids.” Directed by Paul Feig, it was a spectacular success, earning rave reviews and taking in more than $280 million worldwide. (That figure doesn’t include $47 million in domestic DVD sales.) Wiig also scored two Golden Globe nominations (Best Actress and Best Comedy) — and, however far-fetched — she got some Oscar buzz, too. If all that weren’t enough, Wiig recently joined the pantheon of uni-named celebrity couples such as TomKat and Brangelina. “FOTOGS FOILED BY WIIGETTI,” reported the New York Post, after she was allegedly caught —what else? — canoodling with Strokes drummer Fabrizio Moretti.

The 38-year-old is often compared with her talented former "SNL" peers Tina Fey and Amy Pohler, but Wiig’s performances are more layered, detailed, and extreme in their intensity. (This is evident in such idiosyncratic characters as Target Lady and the compulsively one-upping Penelope.) As an actor, Fey is limited, and even she has half-jokingly admitted, “I got nothing. All I got is two versions of me — Kristen has a deep reserve of these characters.” Also, Fey’s brand of humor is self-satisfied with a side of smug. Poehler is an adorable ham, yet it’s unclear whether she has the impressive emotional range that Wiig displayed in “Bridesmaids.”

As the broke, unhappily single Annie, whose childhood best friend, Lillian (Maya Rudolph), is getting married, Wiig pulled off goofy, bereft, hysterical, lonely, humiliated, furious, bemused and sly — sometimes within the same scene. In all the right moments, her performance was realistic and subtle; when the opposite was required tonally, Wiig took things all the way and then some. (Think of her inspired boozy tirade, on the bachelorette party flight to Las Vegas, which would get Annie and her friends kicked off the plane.) She is a brilliant comedian, but she once told a reporter that she enjoys dramas and wished she had been cast in the 2007 downer “Into the Wild.”

In any case, Wiig proved this year that she could carry a whole movie, one that appealed to men and women alike. Having dazzled in too-brief appearances in other people’s movies (“Knocked Up”), and having shown her ease in oddball indie film roles (“Adventureland”), with “Bridesmaids” she entered the realm of full-on blockbusterdom. By the end of 2011, her life looked very different than it had the year before: Wiig found herself much wealthier, more famous, and enjoying some highly coveted Hollywood clout.

If you saw “Bridesmaids” — and, based on its box office earnings, chances are that you did  — you may have laughed to the point of respiratory difficulty. Yet the movie, set in Milwaukee, also beautifully captured truths about women’s friendships: that these bonds are, among other things, intimate, ambivalent, competitive, vicious, and sustaining. I wish only that Wiig and her writing partner, Annie Mumulo, had not acquiesced to their producer’s demand for a certain over-the-top scatological scene. But their producer was Judd Apatow, so what do I know? “Bridesmaids” is the highest-grossing film he has ever produced.

Critics have often described “Bridesmaids” as a “Hangover” or “Wedding Crashers” for women. Aside from the ensemble comedy aspect and the vaguely similar theme, this label is misguided as well as insulting. Wiig wrote a much smarter, darker (and funnier) film than either of those chronicles of arrested male development. If anything, the subversive “Bridesmaids” served as a kind of critique and satire of them. And to dwell once again on Wiig’s bold performance: just look at how many different expressions pass across her face as best friend Lillian shares the news that she’s just gotten engaged. Lillian asks her to serve as maid of honor. In response, Annie displays a burst of clenched joy for the benefit of her friend, but she’s on the edge of a panic attack — and, in the next scene, she lies alone in the dark, utterly depressed.

Throughout the film, the hapless Annie can’t seem to catch a break, and she is surprised at the number of times, and the variety of ways, she’s able to hit rock bottom. After the failure of her bakery business, she’s stuck working at a dinky local jewelry shop. Her bitterness reduces her to insulting a snooty teenage customer who pushes all her buttons. Annie’s hostility escalates (“Call me when your boobs come in!”) until she utters the line that will get her fired. She can’t stop sabotaging herself. Even as Wiig cracks you up, she makes you feel terribly sorry for Annie.

Earlier this year, Wiig said in an interview, “I never considered myself to be funny — maybe because socially I can be a little shy sometimes. I just didn’t think that you could be both.” Those incongruous qualities are partly why she’s so charming, and so good at doing quiet, dramatic scenes and outrageously comedic ones. She’s incredibly sexy and delightfully strange, off-kilter and self-possessed, the fool and the smartest person in the room. If you watched “Bridesmaids” more than once, as I did, you may have found it more hilarious and poignant with each viewing. I am hoping for a sequel. In a world where “Hangover 2” is possible, this does not seem unreasonable.

It’s great that Kristen Wiig had such a transformative year — but laughter, the kind that makes your sides hurt, is no small gift, and for that reason she made 2011 a whole lot better for those who adore her, too.

By Carmela Ciuraru

Carmela Ciuraru is the author of "Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms" (HarperCollins). She lives in Brooklyn.

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