I won’t say it’s impossible to make a good movie in which June Squibb plays a rapping granny, but it certainly adds to the degree of difficulty. Okay, technically Squibb plays a pot-smoking granny in Table 19, but it’s still funny because that’s not what grannies do! She should be home baking cookies or signing a DNR request or something! This is just one of many clichés Table 19 fails to transcend, which is itself something of a genre cliché: The Wedding Comedy.
Which isn’t to say that I shouldn’t have expected this, or that you can’t have cliches and stock characters and still be funny, but even if I prepped for Table 19 by watching three hours of Jackie Martling videos, it’d still be a disappointment. Jokes are like music. We know logically that there’s a formula, a mathematical symmetry to them that our dumb, non-unique 98% chimp brains are specially attuned to, but the great musician or comedian makes us forget that. They make us believe that laughter is entirely spontaneous, harmonies ineffable — magical things that aren’t bound by the normal laws of physics that say we’re all going to die some day. Table 19 is a movie that’s entirely incapable of disguising its underlying math. It never feels like anything but a collection of tricks, and even when you’re ready to be swept up in the artifice, it has a way of yanking away the satin cape to reveal some ones and zeroes. Ta da, it’s a pie chart! Also, you’re going to die.
Right, the plot. So “table 19” refers to the worst table at a wedding, at which sit jilted Eloise (Anna Kendrick), spunky granny Jo (June Squibb), nerdy mama’s boy Renzo (Tony Revolori, the bellhop from Grand Budapest Hotel), awkward ex-con Walter (Stephen Merchant), and bickering marrieds the Kepps (Lisa Kudrow and Craig Robinson). As soon as I saw the poster I thought “Please don’t make Anna Kendrick play the sad sack ex and June Squibb play the rappin’ granny!”
Oh, but they are. In fact, probably the most interesting and successful creative choice in all of Table 19 was pairing Lisa Kudrow and Craig Robinson as a team of husband-and-wife diner owners. Hey, that’s new! It’s an unexpected pairing that works. But Table 19 uses familiar stories like a security blanket, and even they gradually devolve into the Sweethearts Who’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.
Table 19 being the island of misfit toys, we open the film with the characters having a cry over why they’re not important to the bride and groom. Who, by the way, we know nothing about and don’t even see until the last 15 minutes of the movie. It’s enough to make you nostalgic for Wedding Crashers, where no one worried about where they ranked on the friendship hierarchy and people actually seemed to be having fun.
There’s just so much plot. And no reason to care about any of it. If I loved plot, why would I be watching a wedding comedy? Sometimes you can overcome a hacky or formulaic premise with characters who feel spontaneous and human and likable. Table 19 is fully of talented, likable actors, but they can never transcend the material because the script is always weighing them down with pointless backstory. There is not a contrived moment that Table 19 thinks it can’t solve with another contrived moment. BRING ME MORE TRICKS! Writer/director Jeffrey Blitz, who created the story with Mark and Jay Duplass, constantly does this thing where it feels like he thinks he’s being tricky, where he’ll set us up for some cliché, avoid it for a beat, but then fall right into it anyway or double down with something worse.
Take June Squibb’s character. She plays the bride’s childhood nanny, not that anyone cares because like I said we never even meet the bride. Anyway, you desperately want her to not be the pot-smokin’ granny, and then she is, but then you find out that the pot is medicinal, because she (and sorry for the spoiler here but I’m compensating by being proudly vague about everything else) has cancer. So now it’s not just a hack comedy scenario, but also a hack dramedy scenario. Ta da!
You could break down virtually every plot point in Table 19 the same way. I’m not going to though, because the larger point is that it feels bereft of any real feeling. I don’t get a strong sense of anything this filmmaker was struggling with or that he’s passionate about. I don’t get much sense of him at all. It feels like he made the mistake of thinking people wanted to hear “a joke,” in the generic sense of it. It’s not an inept movie, it’s just unrevealing. It’s not a bad movie, so much as a who-cares movie, which is kind of worse. It doesn’t take enough risks to be bad.
I don’t need a joke to be smart or not silly, but I do need it to feel like it’s actually about something. Maybe there was a time when people wanted to hear a generic joke, but with an abundance of films and 10 trillion hours of bingeworthy shows on streaming, it feels like we’re pretty well stocked on jokey jokes, and anything that doesn’t bring some meaningful content is a waste of time. I don’t actually want to hear “a joke.” I want to hear something real, that you hopefully make funny and interesting. Maybe there was something real inTable 19, but if there was I missed it.