It’s fairly common for a romantic comedy to end with a wedding. Mike Newell’s 1994 film starts at one. In fact, just about everything in the film happens at one wedding or another, hence the title. Of course, that also means there’s a funeral, which is about the sole sombre moment in this lighthearted piece of fluff. As the central figure of the funeral is a character that the audience actually has reason to like and care about, there’s no attempt to make the funeral a comedy bit with awkward antics making a mockery of proceedings. It’s a thoughtful moment that is meant to ground the film and has a discussion that could have sent the film in an interesting, unusual, and worthwhile direction had the rest of the film any interest in paying attention to it.
But no, the rest is just love and lust and some comic antics at the quartet of weddings.
Rowan Atkinson’s bumbling priest is worth the price of admission.
Hugh Grant plays a chronically-late member of a small circle of friends that seem doomed to a life of bachelorhood. Always a groomsman, never a groom, they’re invited to one wedding after another where they’re vague acquaintances or casual friends of the involved parties, but it’s seldom a personal matter for them. As Simon Callow’s gregarious Gareth laments, just once he’d like to attend a wedding of somebody that he actually loves as a friend instead of merely knows. Grant’s character Charles has his own problems, as at the first of the four weddings, he meets Andie MacDowell playing Carrie, a forward and attractive American woman, and is immediately smitten with her. Their intermittent liaisons and the emotional effects are shown during the course of the five ceremonies, in which each ceremony leads to the next in the line in one way or another.
That sense of continuity between the ceremonies helps the continuity of the film, and the humor of (most of) the events keeps it enjoyable. There’s some of the typical humor of social awkwardness, particularly with most of the cast and characters being British, but most of it is genuinely charming rather than cringe-worthy. Mix-ups with the rings and assorted minor shenanigans keep things amusing, although generally not hilarious. There’s a particularly funny bit at one wedding where Grant’s character is assigned seating at a table with several of his ex-girlfriends, providing plenty of fodder for laughs at his and their expense.
The exact moment when things go from “tedious ceremony” to “the circle of Hell that Dante forgot.”
As funny as the scene is, however, it highlights a weakness in the film, which is that the most likeable characters are not the focus of the film. Charles’ brother and sister and his friends are all mildly amusing, but they’re given little screen time. They do get enough that the audience can come to care about a few of them, but although this is helpful in one case, it actually hurts the film in another; there’s one scene which makes the audience not only care about one character, but plants the idea that Charles is chasing the wrong girl. And it’s hard to refute, as although Andie MacDowell doesn’t do a bad job with her performance, the character has all the emotional depth of a frozen waffle. The one hint of personality we get from her is that she has an encyclopedic recall of all the positive and negative traits of the 30-odd men she’s slept with (to the film’s credit, her history is not depicted as a bad thing; Hugh Grant actually looks impressed.)
As for Grant’s character, he’s somewhat likeable, but it’s hard to deny that he makes a lot of decisions that are hard to excuse. The scenes with ex-girlfriends give the impression that he’s something of a cad, and this is supported by a moment near the end where he ends up emotionally hurting one of them further, in a situation which is absolutely his fault. It’s also a little strange that that character was the one involved in the situation, as she isn’t the one that the narrative planted the seeds of possibility with earlier; but had he pulled the same trick with that character, whom the audience has some sympathy for, it might have crossed the line a bit too much for the script to forgive even with Charles getting a blackened eye. What’s worse, it’s set up by a serious discussion earlier about how marriage and happiness aren’t necessary a thunderbolt-from-the-sky situation, where a smarter-than-he-looks character essentially states there’s a difference between love and infatuation. Then along comes the last act, and all that is thrown out the window, and that character even winds up with his own “thunderbolt”.
I know I’m not always the most forgiving when it comes to romantic comedies, but although I enjoyed some of the humor, it’s hard to overlook the flaws in this film. It feels like it’s a movie at odds with itself. It has the message about knowing someone vs. infatuation, and sides wholeheartedly with infatuation. It wants the audience to root for characters that are shown to be inconsiderate and shallow to get together, and to abandon the pretext of growth. It throws out character-developing moments, and expects the audience to then disregard them as the audience must disregard some of the strange character decisions (who invites a one-night stand to their wedding?) While it’s still an OK film, it’s difficult to look at it and not see the better film that was lying underneath the standard scripted shallow love story.