Silver Screen: The Big Wedding *
Five different people in three separate occasions fall into water while wearing dress clothes in The Big Wedding. It’s that kind of movie, a genteel comedy of manners for the cul-de-sac set, but it’s also the Americanized version of a French comedy (French comedy being the French term for “comedy about adultery”). Those two impulses are at odds for the movie’s scant ninety-minute running time as it veers from milquetoast farce and softcore slapstick to fits of strained ribaldry to prove its rue cred. That tension is never resolved, although it may be the only tension generated in this modest, painless flop.
The credibility-straining hook recalls the comedies of Neil Simon, who had the talent to seamlessly integrate gimmick and plot. On the eve of a wedding between adopted son Alejandro (Ben Barnes) and future daughter-in-law Missy (Amanda Seyfried), father and aging lothario Don (Robert De Niro) learns his son’s birthmother Madonna (Patricia Rae) will attend the ceremony. Madonna, who is presented as a distrustful religious fanatic from South America, is an ardent Catholic who doesn’t believe in divorce. To spare Madonna’s feelings, Alejandro convinces his father to pretend he is still married to ex-wife Ellie (Diane Keaton), though he left her years ago for her best friend Bebe (Susan Sarandon).
Writer/director Justin Zackham never really reconciles the absurdity of this situation, but the movie rarely revels in silliness, preferring instead to play like the lighthearted cousin of Rachel Getting Married. Perhaps Zackham can’t quite find a consistent tone because he’s too busy juggling unnecessary subplots. Bitchy sister Lyla (Katherine Heigl) is barely pretending to put on a brave face as she struggles with the emotional aftermath of breaking up with her long-term boyfriend after unsuccessful fertility treatments, while inexplicably virginal twenty-nine-year-old brother Jared (Topher Grace), an impetuous wisecracker straight off a sitcom set, is attempting to get his cherry popped by Madonna’s beautiful daughter Nuria (Ana Ayora), a Penthouse Forum caricature of a free-spirited, lusty Latin girl. Robin Williams shows up for a few scenes as a good-humored priest, for no particular reason. Despite triggering flashbacks to License to Wed, Williams gives perhaps the subtlest and most pleasant performance in the film. When Robin Williams is your movie’s representation of understated realism, you’ve got a problem.
In the melee between the parents and the siblings, the bride and groom, the blandest characters in the film, are lost entirely. While the obvious climax is their successful betrothal, we never learn more about them other than that they are generically enthusiastic and understanding; never before has a bride been so casual about not only being upstaged, but relegated to understudy status.
You needn’t know going in that The Big Wedding is based on Jean-Stéphane Bron’s 2006 film Mon frère se marie. The cultural dissonance is plainly evident. The family is portrayed as a WASPy clan shot through with a streak of Baby Boomer liberalism, yet their casual ease with philandering is decidedly un-American. Don cheats on his wife of many years with her best friend, then halfway through the movie cheats on his girlfriend with her ex-best friend and his ex-wife, but everyone finds it a terribly funny coincidence. No connections are made between their libertine attitudes and their kids’ sexual hangups-- their secular thirty-year-old son’s curious virginity and their daughter’s character-defining frigidity (to say nothing of the movie’s conflation of her shrewishness and infertility). The exploration of the characters’ relationships remains strictly surface-level, but this ablated insight isn’t the byproduct of a comedy tossing aside plot in service to jokes-- those are few and far between.
Instead The Big Wedding is a jittery, shapeless dramedy. Like most weddings, the best thing you can say about it is that it was not too unpleasant and mercifully brief.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.