Friday, March 3, 2017

Table 19: Book elsewhere

Table 19 (2017) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for occasional profanity, drug use, sexual candor and fleeting nudity

By Derrick Bang

Wedding guests often receive inconsequential little favors: tchotchkes that may draw a smile or two in the moment, but are quickly forgotten.

This movie is just such an item.

The misfits at Table 19 wonder what they've done, to be abandoned in the wedding
reception's far corner: clockwise from left, Bina and Jerry Kemp (Lisa Kudrow and Craig
Robinson), "Nanny Jo" (June Squibb), Walter Thimple (Stephen Merchant), Rezno
Eckberg (Tony Revolori) and Eloise McGarry (Anna Kendrick).
Filmmaking brothers Jay and Mark Duplass are known for modest, character-driven comedies — such as Baghead and Jeff, Who Lives at Home — that feature eccentric folks who don’t quite inhabit the real world. They’re somewhat familiar, in a that-quiet-guy-next-door manner, but you’d probably avoid them in a social situation.

Table 19, alas, is so insubstantial that it would blow away during a soft breeze. The premise is droll but cramped, barely able to drag its way through a mercifully short 85 minutes. Indeed, the film pretty much runs out of gas after the first act, leaving its cast adrift in uncharted waters.

Maybe that’s why the Duplass boys, who generally helm their own material, farmed this one off to director Jeffrey Blitz. Who, to be fair, does the best with what he’s got. Individual moments of Table 19 are quite funny — co-star Stephen Merchant is hilarious throughout — and the core plotline builds to a an unexpectedly poignant conclusion.

But the film too frequently struggles and flounders through awkward silences, much like the half-dozen strangers thrust together at the “misfit table” during a wedding reception that pretty much ignores them.

Until the last moment, Eloise (Anna Kendrick) was the maid of honor for best friend Francie (Rya Meyers), eagerly helping with all wedding and reception details. Eloise also was in a steady relationship with Francie’s brother, Teddy (Wyatt Russell), serving as best man. But that was then; after being dumped by Teddy — via text, no less — Eloise was relieved of her duties and transformed into an instant persona non grata.

(Which, just in passing, seems shallow on Francie’s part ... just as it seems weird that the best man would be her brother. But I digress.)

Defiantly determined to attend the blessed event anyway, Eloise duly arrives to find herself consigned to the Siberia of reception regions: the dread, distant corner Table 19.

She shares this space with five other oddballs and hangers-on: the aggressively maternal Jo Flanagan (June Squibb), a former nanny who watched over Francie and Teddy when they were children; Walter Thimple (Merchant), a distant and oddly evasive cousin on the bride’s side; 17-year-old Rezno Eckberg (Tony Revolori, so memorable as the scene-stealing lobby boy, in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel), whose late father was a friend of the groom’s father, and who hopes to fall in love and get laid (not necessarily in that order); and squabbling diner owners Jerry and Bina Kepp (Craig Robinson and Lisa Kudrow), who’ve been married for 20 years but seem unlikely to reach 21.

Although we eventually get to know each of these people to some degree, they’re initially as mysterious to each other, as they are to us. This is by design; Blitz cleverly shows the other reception guests and activities only by implication, leaving Table 19 as its own undisturbed island. And because Eloise is so visibly upset by her close proximity to Teddy — not nearly as “over him” as she repeatedly insists — her tablemates naturally gravitate toward her distress.

For the most part, this is Eloise’s story; the others are thinly constructed props. That’s good and bad: good because the gifted Kendrick always contributes more than she finds on the scripted page; bad because her co-stars, talented in their own right, are given very little to do.

Kendrick wrinkles her mouth and sets her body in ways that convey a wealth of emotions: chagrin, discomfort, stubborn resolve and — most of all — vulnerability. Her gaze shifts from feigned cheerfulness to shattered despair in, well, the blink of an eye. Tears flow naturally, as a given moment demands, conveying heartbroken despair. Then, in the next moment, she uncorks her signature radiant smile: always to die for.

We feel for Eloise: intensely and unreservedly.

As for the others...

Bina and Jerry snipe at each other relentlessly, and this pretty much defines their behavior. The jabs rapidly becoming difficult to endure; Kudrow’s role is particularly thankless. Rezno’s inept overtures toward various members of the opposite sex may be funny in an embarrassingly awkward way, but they’re also cringe-worthy ... as is the inappropriate advice that he keeps getting from his mother, via cell phone (the unseen but immediately recognized Margo Martindale).

Walter, at first blush, is merely creepy; Merchant’s bland smile, owl-eyed stare — and looonnnng pauses before preternaturally quiet replies to questions — make him look and sound like a serial killer. The subtler delights of Walter’s character don’t immediately surface ... but, once they do, Merchant’s every word and move are a stitch.

The indefatigable Squibb — Oscar-nominated for her memorable supporting role in 2013’s Nebraska — makes Nanny Jo seem like nothing more than a sweet old lady. Granted, she may be a bit pushy, but she’s obviously well-intentioned; we cannot imagine why she has been dumped at this fringe table.

In a word, all of these people suffer. Constantly. Occasional giggles aside, spending the first act with them is an endurance test akin to getting cornered for half an hour by a motor-mouth arrested adolescent who insists on discussing the finer points of his favorite computer game.

Fortunately, the overall dynamic improves once past that first act, thanks to an immutable law of nature: When misfits are thrust together, they bond.

On top of which, there’s the matter of the mysterious hunk (Thomas Cocquerel) hovering at the fringes of the reception, who catches Eloise’s eye more than once. They spark; they flirt; they share obvious chemistry. But who is he?

The answer to that question proves ingenious, as is a delightful running gag involving the outfit Bina has chosen to wear. And this, perhaps, is why this film ultimately is so disappointing: Bits and pieces are funny, clever and even charming. But they’re scattered and random, attempting to serve a narrative that isn’t well thought out. It feels like the Duplass brothers came up with a great story pitch — six outcasts thrust together during a wedding reception — and then didn’t know what to do with it.

Blitz, bless him, does his best. I wish he made more movies; his erratic big-screen career began with the terrific, Oscar-nominated 2002 documentary Spellbound; he followed that with 2007’s deliciously snarky Rocket Science (Kendrick’s first starring role). But Blitz has been a television presence since then, helming episodes of The Office and Review. He has a gentle, respectful touch with geeks, nerds and other outsiders, and here he helps his actors deliver far more than the script deserves.

The story’s location certainly is idyllic: an elegant island resort on a lake in Michigan, reachable solely by ferry. (Filming actually took place in and around Lake Lanier, at the foothills of Georgia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.) Cinematographer Ben Richardson deftly lights the interior ballroom and exterior island footpaths, particularly as dusk gives way to night, making the whole setting feel quite romantic ... which, of course, is at odds with our put-upon characters.

Ultimately, though — as Kendrick’s Eloise frequently frets — this film is all dressed up, with nowhere to go. Even though we’re sent away with a smile, the preparations are half-baked at best.

All concerned needed a better wedding planner.

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