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Why Female Comedies Are Now Box Office Hits

Posted: 07/ 4/11 05:05 PM ET

Naughty, funny boys have dominated the big screen for a while now. They frolic through Judd Apatow's and Adam Sandler's comedic masterpieces, charming with little boy smiles and hidden hearts of gold they unearth for the right blonde. I'm not saying Knocked Up and Just Go With It aren't hilarious. They are -- which is why I'm so happy that finally the girls are getting to have some fun, make some noise and win playing the same game.

We tell ourselves that every woman can be her best self, whatever that means for her, no matter what societal expectations are, but that idea is represented pretty rarely in Hollywood. Which is why I, perhaps perversely, was completely inspired by Cameron Diaz's new chick-com, Bad Teacher. Slight spoiler alert here, but the gist of the movie is that Diaz plays a scheming, drinking, toking, short-skirt-wearing bitch who -- wait for it -- isn't forced by society to reform or atone for her misdeeds or even sacrifice herself, her interests or career for romance. Be yourself, really yourself, not some sanitized version, and get to enjoy your day-to-day life, employed and loved? That's more of a revolutionary message than you might think.

Bridesmaids was a breakthrough, earlier in the summer comedy season, because it featured an all-star female comedienne lineup and guys who were simply there to set up jokes, be the butt of jokes or inject a little awwww into the situation. The film was widely and rightly appreciated for Kristen Wiig's, Maya Rudolph's and Melissa McCarthy's roll in dirty scatological hilarity. Wiig was brilliant. The fact that she wrote a movie with a bunch of raunchy female characters dominating the screen and dealing with disagreements that have nothing to do with their romance issues was a triumph.

But why did Wiig's Annie have to be such a loser in life? I couldn't help wishing that her character could have had a few more wins by the end of the film. She got her best friend back and a commitment-less kiss from a nice guy. But she was still living with her mother, with no career prospects and an affinity for baked goods. She got to be funny, in a vanity-free, kooky, go-for-broke way, but the movie stopped short of also allowing her to be enviable, to get to a better place. Where Diaz's Elizabeth gets to be herself and, basically, win, Wiig's character loses, as if purporting that no woman as devoid of vanity, social niceties and funding as Annie could possibly be accepted in our society.

Horrible Bosses, opening this week, features Jennifer Aniston as a sexually harassing boss from hell who won't take her engaged employee's no for an answer. Yes, he decides to kill her, but if she played one more plucky, looking-for-love nice girl, she would have probably killed herself (metaphorically!) before long. Aniston is an actress whose comedic and dramatic ranges are seldom challenged to their fullest; but when she's actually presented with a role as rich as her talents, like this one, she simply seduces. The film also stars Jason Sudeikis, Jason Bateman, Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx -- A level talents all -- but Aniston, her comic gifts unleashed by the uninhibited wickedness of the nasty dentist she plays, steals the show. The men bumble around; she soars.

Is it a dubious victory, winning the right to play bad? Nope. It's the only way to stop being objectified. Otherwise female characters remain trapped in a safe Plexiglas box, designed to make the men in the audience and the studio boardroom feel comfortable. If every girl on screen learns how to stop being so darned neurotic or how to trust her own beauty or listen to her heart so she wins the super guy, or is patient and tolerant enough to put up with the antics of an overgrown frat-boy while he realizes just how swell life could be with her...then we're not telling stories about real women. We're telling stories about concepts of women, stereotyped psychographic pastiches rather than people. Whereas dramatic roles for women have always reflected a depth and range, comedic ones have lagged. Complicated women are much more typically at home in award season " good for you" films than in " enjoy yourself" summer flicks.

Bad Teacher works because Diaz plays Elizabeth Halsey so unflinchingly. She doesn't try to become a nicer person, she doesn't discover that, golly, she really does love teaching. Elizabeth lives by her own rules, of which there are very few, looks smokin' hot while doing so, knows it and uses it to her full advantage. She does recognize a true vocation by the end, and it puts her unladylike habit of assessing people honestly to good use. The only lesson she learns? The only one she needs to: that she is pretty awesome just as she is and doesn't need to change her body, her attitude, or dumb herself down for happiness. And that car washes with scantily clad women are lucrative.

Bridesmaids liberated the whole idea of chick driven ensemble comedy by letting funny women play off each other, boys on the sidelines, while netting almost $150 million domestic, so far. Bad Teacher gambled that a strong, sexy female could carry an R-rated comedy and won: The movie, which cost only $19 million to produce, made $31 million in its opening weekend. Despite marketing materials obviously designed to play into male fantasies, 63% of the audience was female. Will Horrible Bosses continue the streak? Seems like a fair bet. To paraphrase Tina Fey, another funny lady not afraid to ruffle feathers: bitch is the new box office, baby.