the big wedding (2013)

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2/52: The Big Wedding (2013)
dir. Justin Zackham

Not with an ensemble cast could you salvage this film. It is folly.

Even seasoned veterans of the romance genre Diane Keaton, Susan Sarandon, and Robert De Niro couldn’t help but flounder in this heartless (gutless?) comedy from Zackham. Bland and underwhelming, the main plotline revolves around Missy (Amanda Seyfried) and Alejandro’s (Ben Barnes) impending marriage. He’s an accomplished Harvard graduate brought up by a white North American family after his South American mother, Madonna, (Patricia Rae) gave him up so he could pursue a better life. Despite being raised primarily by a trio with an eclectic and diverse belief system—Don (Robert De Niro), his ex-wife Ellie (Diane Keaton), and his current long-term girlfriend Bebe (Susan Sarandon)—Alejandro invites his devoutly Catholic birthmother and sister, Nuria (Ana Ayora).  His adoptive siblings Lyla (Katherine Heigl) and Jared (Topher Grace) return to the family home for his wedding to complete the unusual family reunion.

Films boasting of a star-studded cast often bear the burden of having to make the most of the ensemble. Handled skillfully, an ensemble of brilliant actors will often work to one’s advantage. But in this case,there’s too little of the story to go around. There’s not enough material for the actors to work with. It’s a shame that Grace, Barnes, and Seyfried must struggle within thematically narrow roles to play out stereotypes when they’re all clearly better outfitted for properly dramatic moments. We do get some of those—some touching dialogue between Lyla and her father, Don. The film takes pains to explain how Lyla and Don patch up their relationship. During these moments–in Don’s workshop or the quiet scene on the diving board–Heigle and De Niro’s exchange anchors the film as a family affair. The Big Wedding ultimately wants to explore the labyrinthine relationship between parents and their children. More than the lackluster romance, the film succeeds at least in these quiet moments.

That being said, It almost feels as though any of the smaller plots deserved to be explored in richer detail but we, sadly, don’t get enough of that. What do have are these rambling family dinners, portraits of how privilege and money will not do away with emotional baggage or petty drama.  

Instead, we get a narrative hinging upon Madonna’s arrival and Don’s brood putting up a farce so as not to offend the seemingly unyielding and intractable Colombian woman. Alejandro conveniently forgets to tell his birthmother that his adoptive parents divorced nearly a decade ago. Therefore the only reasonable solution is for Ellie and Don to pretend they’ve successfully remained married. A parallel and not wholly unrelated subplot involves duping Father Moinighan into believing that Alejandro and Missy plan to raise their children as Catholics. Why? So that he will agree to preside over their wedding, of course! Because there are no other priests available anywhere. Despite Robin Williams, Father Moinighan is one of the film’s least humorous and least inventive attempts to satirize priests and organized religion (ok, ok, particularly the Catholic Church). Films like these tend to grossly misrepresent whole religions and peoples in the service of its plot.

Before I forget to mention: Topher Grace’s character is also a virgin therefore he must lose his virginity to Nuria, the exotic woman of color who must learn “how a woman acts” from Ellie, a white female, the same character who, earlier in the film, had eloquently outed herself as a well-traveled woman aware of and embracing cultural diversity. It was Ellie who argued in favor of The Big Wedding farce because “She [Madonna] comes from a different country, a different culture!” It’s altogether surprising that Ellie then takes it upon herself to impose her own set of values—more traditional and prudish than audiences will expect—on another woman from a completely different background. Nevermind that Keaton’s character strays so far from her own back-story (Ellie apparently spent some time in Cambodia to “find herself”), the subtext of the dialogue rings loud and clear.