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Mean girls rule at Sundance USA: Bachelorette is a big hit with Houston audience

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From top left, Isla Fisher, Kirsten Dunst, Lizzy Caplan in Bachelorette
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From left, Sundance Cinemas executive vice president Nancy Gribler, Cinema Arts Festival Houston executive director Trish Rigdon and Bachelorette producers Carly Hugo and Matt Parker Photo by Clifford Pugh

Looks like the Sundance Film Festival's decision to fan out across the nation is paying off. A few years ago, organizers launched Sundance Film Festival USA, sending movies directly from the festival in Park City, Utah, to major cities for one night to give filmgoers a sampling of the latest in independent cinema.

Houston was added to the list this year, thanks to the recent opening of Robert Redford's Sundance Cinemas in Bayou Place, and a near capacity crowd filled one of the large theaters Thursday night for a screening of Bachelorette, a dark comedy starring Kirsten Dunst, Isla Fisher and Lizzy Caplan.

Producers Matt Parker and Carly Hugo, fresh off a flight from Utah where the movie premiered at Sundance a couple of nights ago to mixed reviews, sat with the (substantially female) Houston audience and monitored laugh levels, which were quite sustained and raucous.

 "To come to a town (like Houston) not dominated by film people, it's really exciting because their laughs feel real," Hugo said.

 The reception must have been a relief for the producing duo since it came from an audience of authentic moviegoers, not a palace packed with movie studio insiders, which was the case in Utah. "To come to a town (like Houston) not dominated by film people, it's really exciting because their laughs feel real," Hugo said.

The film largely centers around the night before the wedding of a pudgy girl (Rebel Wilson) and her dream guy (Hayes MacArthur), where a coke-fueled evening of debauchery instigated by her three high school friends (Dunst, Fisher and Caplan) nearly ends in disaster. The women are mean, loose, foul-mouthed, hard drinkers/druggers and largely unlikeable — everything men are in most comedies — yet critics in Park City carped about their behavior. Even so, they have the audience rooting for them by the end, as almost everyone has the hope of living happily ever after.

Fisher, as a coked-out party girl who isn't sure she's capable of being loved, nearly steals the movie (she's also unusually voluptuous, the producers told me, because she was still breast-feeding her second child during the filming; her husband is comedian Sasha Baron Cohen). Caplan has several funny bits, including a hilarious description of the different levels of effort on a 1-10 scale when performing a blow job, which she recounts to a turned-on stranger on a plane.

During a question-and-answer session with the audience after the movie ended, which I emceed, the producers admitted that Bachelorette probably would not have been made if the hit movie Bridesmaids had not been such a runaway success, even though Parker believes the movie has more in common with Mean Girls or Heathers. The low-budget movie was shot in the fall and edited right up to its showing at Sundance.

The depth of the audience's questions — they asked how the movie differed from director Leslye Headland's Off-Broadway play of the same name, wondered how the movie might be edited after purchased for distribution, asked how such stars as Dunst agreed to take on the role, which paid union scale wages, and commented on the film's music, which includes the Proclaimers' "500 Miles"  — impressed the producers.  

And when one questioner asked what she could do to promote the movie, Parker told her — and other members of the audience — to use Twitter and Facebook to spread the word. 

"Social media is a way for people in the business side to hear (the audience's) voice and assess whether they like it or not," Parker said afterwards.

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