Friday, April 26, 2013

The Big Wedding: Should have been annulled

The Big Wedding (2013) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rating: R, for profanity, sexual candor and brief nudity
By Derrick Bang

Hollywood never learns.

American filmmakers simply can’t remake French comedies, much less French sex comedies. The results are almost always stiff and awkward, the actors rarely comfortable with dialogue and ribald situations that just come naturally to our cousins across the pond.

Ellie and Don (Diane Keaton and Robert De Niro, right), although divorced for years,
agree to fake being married, in order not to offend the deeply conservative Madonna
(Patricia Rae, center left) and her deceptively demure daughter, Nuria (Ana Ayora).
The thing is, Nuria isn't as chaste as her appearance would suggest, and Ellie and Don
aren't as "over" each other as they'd like to believe. One would expect hilarity from
such a premise. One would be mistaken.
We Americans simply ain’t got the necessary je ne sais quoi.

That’s certainly the case with The Big Wedding, which boasts a great cast that is all dressed up, with nowhere to go. Director Justin Zackham’s script is clumsy and under-developed, his characters behaving in ways that are insufficiently justified by woefully thin motivations. Indeed, at 90 minutes, this film feels like a savagely edited “dump job” that Lionsgate chopped up and released in the (probably vain) hope of getting at least one good weekend’s box-office take.

Zackham adapted his film from Jean-Stéphane Bron’s 2006 comedy, Mon frère se marie, which in turn borrows several plot elements from 1978’s classic La cage aux folles. Escalating sexual hijinks revolve around the wedding of a young couple, whose respective families are mismatched: one conservative and demure, the other ultra-liberal and sexually liberated.

In order not to offend the former group, the latter attempt to clean up their act. Sort of. With less than optimal results.

Cue considerable hilarity.

Or that was the plan, anyway, but Zackham too frequently stalls at the comedy gate. Yes, some moments are funny; yes, others are poignant and sweet. But far too many scenes emerge as missed opportunities, thanks in part to a sniggering, frat-boy attitude to the sexual humor: no surprise, since Zackham’s only previous feature credit is 2001’s sex-crazed frat-boy bomb, Going Greek.

Indeed, I can’t imagine why he was entrusted with this assignment. Because he also wrote 2007’s tear-jerking The Bucket List? That certainly didn’t qualify him to direct the likes of Robert De Niro, Diane Keaton and Susan Sarandon ... and, based on the results, he definitely wasn’t ready for the major league.

So, the scenario: Divorced Don and Ellie Griffin (De Niro and Keaton) have set aside their differences in order to celebrate the wedding of their adopted son, Alejandro (Ben Barnes) to Missy (Amanda Seyfried). Don’s current main squeeze, Bebe (Sarandon), has been planning the event for months, with unspecified help from Missy’s parents, Barry (David Rasche) and Muffin (Christine Ebersole).

Missy’s parents are a horror story; Barry is financially shady, while Muffin, an unapologetic bigot, can’t get over the fact that her lily-white little girl is marrying (horrors!) a Colombian-born fella.

Ordinarily, this level of in-law tension would be enough to fuel a slapstick premise, but it gets more complicated. The Griffins long ago adopted Alejandro with the consent of his birth mother, Madonna (Patricia Rae), who’s making her first trip to the United States, in order to share the joy. She’s accompanied by her blatantly sensual daughter, Nuria (Ana Ayora), a sex toy who seems to have slipped in from Going Greek.

The crisis erupts when Alejandro suddenly realizes that his birth mother, a devout Catholic, believes that Don and Ellie still are a couple. In order to help secure Madonna’s blessing for the union, Alejandro begs Don and Ellie to pretend to be happily married: a request that naturally draws a chill from Bebe.

The busy weekend is further populated by Don and Ellie’s other two adult children: Lyla (Katherine Heigl), a “high-powered lawyer” — this according to the press notes, not that we see any evidence of such talent — who just dumped her own husband; and Jared (Topher Grace), who for very vague reasons remains a virgin, having long ago promised himself to “wait for true love,” or some such nonsense.

Oh, yes: And the ceremony will be conducted by Father Moinighan (Robin Williams), a strict Catholic priest whose raised-eyebrow history with the Griffin clan adds yet another layer of tension.

The set-up for Williams’ character obviously offers great potential, which is — alas —too seldom realized. Williams gets some prominent play in an amusing montage of church confessions, but that’s about it. One must work hard to make Robin Williams seem anesthetized, but Zackham pulls it off. I kept thinking of how much better Rowan Atkinson was, in 1994’s Four Weddings and a Funeral.

The trouble is that all the various inter-personal complications are half-baked. Lyla never forgave her father for the infidelity that broke up his marriage, but Heigl’s line readings lack conviction. She’s even worse when Lyla finally re-connects with her own hubbie: a wham-bam exchange that’s so fleeting, it doesn’t even qualify as contrived. It’s simply ... bewildering.

De Niro, in great contrast, makes Don both a shameless rake and a devoted parent who wants only what’s best for his daughter, even if she hates him. Which simply shows that a great actor can deliver a persuasive part despite an inexperienced director.

But not even De Niro can survive the plot hiccup that sends Don, a recovering alcoholic, off the wagon: a lapse that Zackham shamefully treats as a giggle.

Nuria throws herself at Jared so quickly that we can’t help wondering if she charges by the hour; Jared, in turn, gleefully abandons his self-imposed celibacy so quickly that it couldn’t have been terribly meaningful in the first place. Granted, Ayora is smolderingly sensual, and Grace is reasonably amusing as the flustered guy who can’t believe his luck.

But then Nuria has a change of heart, and he doesn’t object, but they’re still gonna be buddies, and he keeps trying anyway, and ... I could see the manipulative puppeteer’s strings from the back row. Utterly ridiculous.

Barnes and Seyfried are cute together, but they get almost no screen time as a couple. We get a sense of Alejandro’s efforts to properly compartmentalize his relationship with his three mothers — birth, adoptive and sorta-step — but Seyfried is left hanging, after Missy takes a few token shots at her ghastly parents.

Ellie, despite having turned into a feminist tree-hugger, post-divorce, is a fairly calm presence; Keaton gets pretty good mileage with her laid-back delivery of Ellie’s snarkier comments. The actress’ too-frequent echoes of Annie Hall are refreshingly absent here.

Sarandon, still a force of nature, is the sole performer who genuinely seems at home with both her part and the film’s overall tone. Not that far from 70, she’s still a huskily sensual creature, and her take on Bebe is the only reasonably accurate sense of European sexual laissez-faire on view. Even so, we still find it impossible to wrap our brains around Bebe’s bland acceptance of a startling act of betrayal: again, a plot development that undoubtedly seemed casually acceptable in this film’s French/Swiss predecessor, but brings the action to a grinding halt here.

Its French roots notwithstanding, this film obviously strives for the interlocking romantic and sexual hijinks that Love, Actually brought off so well ... but Zackham simply hasn’t the skill to choreograph such a complex dance. We’re left with something that feels like the first draft of what should have been a much funnier movie, with better developed characters.

In its current form, this fitfully amusing farce should have been left at the altar.

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