There's a lot of interesting chatter out there about the sociological status of Bridesmaids, a film that looks to have finally cracked the seemingly insurmountable wall of "Guys won't see movies about girls", and that represents a massive sea-change in the output of the Judd Apatow Filmmakers Circle, which has for the first time released a picture with not just one but lots of strong female characters. These are valid and important issues, but they are none of them as significant as the fact that Bridesmaids is something even rarer than an American film with a woman as protagonist: an American film comedy that is absolutely and genuinely funny. Female lead, male lead, lead that's a purple alien with no sex at all, that would still be the case.

Okay, so that's not really true. If nothing else, the movie would thus lose the starring performance of Kristen Wiig, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Annie Mumolo; and while Bridesmaids might be able to survive the transition to a cast of the usual fratboys (though despite what I just suggested, I'm not actually sure that it could), it unquestionably could not survive the loss of Wiig. Some of the best humor in the movie comes not from the dialogue, nor the onscreen actions, but solely from Wiig's slightly wry, slightly pained delivery of lines that are not, by themselves, overtly funny. At which point I should admit that my all-time favorite line reading in any Apatow film prior to this was her "I know, I was so surprised too" in Knocked Up, so it's possible that I'm too far in the bag for Wiig already to actually judge her appropriately.

Wiig plays Annie, a Milwaukee woman somewhere in her thirties, whose life is in the midst of a gentle but absolutely unstoppable collapse; a failed business, ghastly roommates, an underpaying customer service job she's bad at, and her very best friend in the history of the world, Lillian (Maya Rudolph), has just gotten engaged and wants Annie to be her maid of honor. This would all be stressful enough, if it were not for the fact that Lillian's new friend, Helen (Rose Byrne), the fabulously wealthy wife of Lillian's fiancé's fabulously wealthy boss, is the aggressive, bossy sort who wants to do everything as glamorously as possible, much the chagrin of Annie's tiny bank account. Along for the ride are Lillian's hefty future sister-in-law Megan (Melissa McCarthy), miserable middle-aged Rita (Wendy McLendon-Covey), and perky young Becca (Ellie Kemper), the latter two of whom doubtlessly have some story-appropriate reason for being in the wedding party that I have forgotten, not at all because they fill a necessary demographic niche. There's a subplot about Annie's love life, in which she throws over her sleazebag fuckbuddy Ted (an uncredited Jon Hamm) while making a mess of her flirtation with inexplicably Irish highway cop Rhodes (Chris O'Dowd), but, staggeringly, just like this was a movie made for and about guys, the romantic plotline is not even remotely the point of the movie. I mean, golly. You'd think women were people, or something.

Instead, the focus of Bridesmaids is on Annie and her relationship to the other women in the film: the complex mixture of joy and resentment she feels towards Lillian for getting married at just the exact moment her own life is swirling around the toilet; her rivalry with and jealousy of Helen; her exasperation at her well-meaning, but hugely irritating mother (the late Jill Clayburgh, in her last performance); the in-the-trenches bonding that goes on between her and the other bridesmaids, and how that is undone when she manages to consistently screw things up. It's a character piece, ultimately, despite all of the shock humor, raunch, and slapstick that mark it as, unmistakably, an Apatow production, and it is treated with all the gravity and respect it deserves as such by Wiig - by, indeed, the whole cast, of whom there is hardly a single weak member (when a character is lacking a certain something, it's virtually always the fault of the writing, not the acting). Certainly, the chemistry between Wiig and Rudolph is an absolute joy to watch, the two actresses falling squarely into the rhythms of a pair of friends who have known each other for so long that most everything can go unsaid.

Though there is of course raunch; a staggering amount of it, actually, including the most brutally effective deployment of the C-bomb I can recall since the epochally filthy-mouthed In the Loop. There's also a gross-out scene of rare ambition, and it would be altogether fair to wonder if it maybe goes just a little too far; yet even here, in the midst of diarrhea and vomiting jokes demented to the point of out-and-out dysfunction, it's still a character moment, in its own warped way. And so it goes: no gag is so absurd that it violates the realities of what the characters are going through, and no character moment is so sincer that Wiig and Mumolo can't spice it up with something terrifically creative, lewd, witty, or all three at once.

Beyond a doubt, there is room for improvement: in particular, one wishes the film had benefitted from a director with a firmer voice than Paul Feig, creator of Freaks and Geeks and veteran director of a number of top-notch television episodes who cannot quite manage the jump to features (his last theatrical project was the long-forgotten Unaccompanied Minors); not because he's stuck in a TV aesthetic or that sort of thing (in fact, it's pleasantly free of TV-sized cinematography and editing), but because, like so many filmmakers, he doesn't have a good grasp on pacing in a movie, and though it's not quite as gaspingly over-burdened as Apatow pictures like Knocked Up or Funny People, it still doesn't really fill up its 125 minutes, and one suspects that a bolder director might have informed his writer and lead that some of the subplots needed to be slice back a bit; I'd have started with the largely unlikable bit involving Annie's horrible British roommates, but there are quite a few bits that go on too long (a remarkable toast-off between Annie and Helen that starts strong and then just spins out of control), or scenes that serve only a little purpose and aren't very funny, or lazy montages.

Still, most of a good movie is better than not, and the parts of Bridesmaids that work - from Wiig's miles-long collection of note-perfect line readings and befuddled expressions, to just about every single thing McCarthy says or does (I would not have believed that, in 2011, the "messy fat girl" thing could be a tenth as insightful, real, or hilarious as it is in her hands), to the way it manages to out-Hangover The Hangover, by having more to say about the bonds of friendship and being more deliciously crude about it - are enough to make this one for the keeper file. Perhaps not to all tastes - insert note about "comedy is subjective" - but I will be shocked if a better R-rated comedy comes out this year.