(This is an extended version of a review originally written for the Portland Mercury)
I can’t decide whether The Big Wedding is a bad rom-com or if it’s actually a brilliant prank on the genre. When boring yuppie women plunk down their money for another beige Katherine Heigl movie with ‘Wedding’ in the title, I can’t imagine they expected to see Robert DeNiro going down on Susan Sarandon in the first scene, DeNiro filmed in POV from the perspective of Susan Sarandon’s vagina, him licking his lips like he’s craving a french dip sandwich with extra jus, his leering face peering over the tops of her pulled-down panties framed between the twin peaks of her splayed knees. I like to imagine a whole bachelorette party of them, holding each other’s hair back, puking cosmos in the bushes, crying and slobbering over the bait and switch. “WHAT THE F, LINDSAY, I THOUGHT YOU SAID THIS WAS A WEDDING MOVIE!” (*spew*)
It feels almost as if writer/director Justin Zackham wanted to make this slyly subversive sex comedy for grandparents – “American Pie for sexagenarians,” as my old buddy Laremy described it – but was only allowed to if he cloaked it in the trappings of a generic rom-com, throwing it off the tallest rom-com tree and hitting every cliché on the way down. The result is a bizarre amalgam in which a 69-year-old Robert DeNiro brags about “laying pipe” on Diane Keaton and calls her “one of the great c*nts of the 19th century” all within the context of a wedding rom-com that otherwise could’ve been Frankensteined together from outtakes of Love Actually and She’s Just Not That Into You.
Here’s an abridged list of rom-com tropes present in The Big Wedding:
- Set in a huge old house in New England (thereby tapping into the HGTV nesting porn instinct)
- Old exes rekindling their relationship after a long divorce (…in a film starring Diane Keaton)
- The handjob-under-the-dinner-table scene (a sub-cliché of the even-more-famous tableside orgasm joke)
- Characters competing to take the too-old virgin’s virginity (in this case, Topher Grace, playing a 29-year-old doctor)
- A character played by Topher Grace getting way more play than is remotely believable
- Robin Williams high-lariously stunt cast as a priest
- THE LIST – male character has to complete a checklist to win a woman’s heart, probably the second oldest stock sitcom storyline next to…
- THE VISIT – someone’s conservative relatives are visiting, so characters have to pretend to be not gay/divorced/living together. Only it turns out that the “close-minded ones” are actually the most progressive of the bunch! Whackety schmackety do!
- The big third act speech to get the woman back
- The barren woman (who ends up getting pregnant anyway. how sh*tty of a way to deal with infertility is that, by the way? how is it every screenwriter’s method of dealing with an infertile character is “SUPRISE! Turns out she’s fertile after all.”?)
- The switcheroo wedding
- A rich lady named “Muffin”
- The risqué sculpture reveal
- The naive foreign girl who gets naked (full frontal in this case, by the way, if only for a second or two)
- “I can’t swim!” In this case spoken by a rich white lady, just to hammer home the unrealism.
The list goes on.
And despite all that, the film is not without a few genuine laughs. Zackham seems to have legitimate comedic instincts and timing. That the film actually feels fairly well crafted is even more unsettling than if it were a mistake, like watching a craftsman who could’ve devoted his engineering talents to building better prosthetics or artificial heart valves instead design depleted uranium landmines to bury beneath a schoolyard. And what evil industrialist could seduce such a scientist down the path of the wicked? You guessed it, KATHERINE HEIGL. DUNT DUNT DUNNNN!
The Big Wedding is mostly weird and not good, but I would pay to Kickstart the kernel of Harmony Korine-esque genre prank that’s buried in it. Consider this: What’s one of the biggest knocks on the genre of the modern rom-com? That it’s lily white, right? Hardly a non-Caucasian to be found in most Katherine Heigl movies. So what does The Big Wedding do? They give us a family where one of the brothers has been adopted from Colombia, named “Alejandro” (who we see all grown up, who we’re told is a Harvard grad who speaks five languages, whose traditional and religious birth mother is coming to the wedding, hence why Robert DeNiro and Diane Keaton have to pretend to be married again as part of the aforementioned schmackety). His in-laws, Amanda Seyfried’s parents, are over-the-top racist towards him the entire movie (at one point staging the rehearsal dinner on the restaurant’s outdoor patio, even though they know it’s going to rain, to keep any of their country club friends from seeing them eat with a minority). And who did they cast in such a part? AN ENGLISH DUDE WITH A FAKE TAN.
I don’t see how “we dipped a limey in orange paint and called him a Colombian” could be anything but a meta-joke on the genre. At one point, Robert Deniro cheats on Susan Sarandon with his ex-wife, and when Susan Sarandon finds out, she actually seems less pissed than she did about them having to pretend to be married. What the F, Lindsay. What is going on in this movie?
I don’t know how funny all of this should be. I wish crappy rom-coms could just be bad art, but… and I almost never say this… they’re kind of… worse. They’re brain poison. Action movies, sci-fi, horror films all have their own sets of stock themes and genre tropes that they hew to arguably as closely as rom-coms do (especially horror, which has like three plots). But those genres are inherently escapist. They exist outside reality. Rom-coms are different, because they traffic almost exclusively in social norms. Since relationship structures are such a social construct as it is, it seems like they have more influence in that regard. If you take The Big Wedding at face value, where your idea of a minority is an orange Englishman who speaks five languages and still bears the brunt of chimichanga jokes, where “a family” is a set of super rich doctors and lawyers who live in a Thomas Kinkade painting come to life, where jokes and plot points that you haven’t already seen twelve times are to be feared and avoided, holy sh*t are you ever going to have a f*cked up sense of what “normal” is. I don’t know if a movie like this is to be mocked, or feared.