A short, patchy, straight-to-streaming piece of semi-amusing content that tries to fit several different romantic-comedies into a single movie that doesn’t have the bandwidth (or the interest) to mine any of them for major sources of romance or comedy, Claire Scanlon’s “The People We Hate at the Wedding” basically feels like watching a bunch of talented actors chug cheap red wine for 90 minutes.
Some of them should be so lucky.
At one point, during what can only be described as the worst bachelorette party ever conceived in movies and/or real life, Kristen Bell is submerged in the River Thames on a crisp fall afternoon while dressed in nothing but an American flag bikini (and that’s before the activity goes wrong). At another, Ben Platt pisses on iconic “No Fear, No Die” star Isaach de Bankolé out of spite, which is not a sentence I ever expected to write.
These are the kind of scenes that make you hope the movie’s cast is having more fun than their characters, and that Scanlon — whose “Set it Up” convincingly promised that streamers might spark a rom-com renaissance — will rebound from this with a take on the genre that rewards her shrewd comic timing with stronger material.
Adapted with all the grace of a hacksaw from Grant Ginder’s beach read of the same name (the script is credited to “Deadpool 3” writers Wendy Molyneux and Lizzie Molyneux-Logelin), “The People We Hate at the Wedding” allegedly tells the story of a woman named Donna (Allison Janney) who sees her first-born daughter’s impending nuptials as her last best chance to reunite her estranged children. In reality, Donna is given short shrift in a movie that tries to split the difference between a sitcom-like ensemble and a “Love, Actually”-sized mosaic and ends up feeling like a loose collection of vaguely related B-plots that are framed as a fairy tale for some reason (like many of the choices here, that one might have been funny if the film had actually committed to it).
But it all starts with Donna. Her first husband was a suave and deep-pocketed Frenchman (de Bankolé, in a role that makes the absolute minimum use of his talents), who cheated on her with their babysitter. Her second husband wasn’t quite as memorable, but he left her with two bickering kids before he died, both of whom grew up to resent their older half-sister Eloise (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) for being posh and perfect and living in London while they were milquetoast and mediocre and stuck in generic American cities.
Neither Alice (Bell) nor Paul (Platt) have any natural interest in flying across the pond to see their eldest sibling walk down the aisle, but fate hands them each a compelling reason. For Alice, the trip offers a chance to spend some quality alone time with the boss she typically has to screw in the office closet (Jorma Taccone) — time away from the pesky wife and infant who keep him from committing to her. Alas, he gets delayed at the last minute, and Bell finds herself flirting with a nice dweeb named Dennis (Dustin Milligan) in business class. He opens with the whole “‘Paddington’ is actually good” routine, in case you couldn’t immediately tell who she was going to wind up with, and they later share a post-coital breakfast that would satisfy Reynolds Woodcock (a sight gag that leaves Bell just enough room to sneak in a one-liner so good that it leaves you keenly aware of the script’s missed opportunities to be funny).
For Paul, Eloise’s wedding perfectly coincides with the unpaid leave he’s forced to take from his ridiculous job as some kind of aversion therapist’s assistant, and his adventure-seeking boyfriend Dominic (Karan Soni) is happy to go along for the ride. Dominic’s easy-going take on the trip might be due to the sexually available old friend waiting for the duo in London, a handsome older man kind of just appears in the middle of a scene. It isn’t long before the bloke is using a half-naked Paul as a piece of human furniture during a misbegotten three-way with the couple.
That sight gag — prickly but safe in a way that jives with the Le Tigre and Wet Leg songs that litter the soundtrack — proves typical of a film that flirts with an edginess it’s too fuzzy to commit to. Alice and Paul’s entire personalities are defined by deep pains that “The People We Hate at the Wedding” alludes to without really touching, while their entire sibling bond is expressed through the sort of reflexive sarcasm that modern screenwriters forget audiences can supply for themselves (e.g. Alice saying “that sounds fine and normal” when Paul tells her something that does not, in fact, sound fine and normal).
Bell and co. are able to squeeze the dialogue for some extra flavor whenever the lines are a little more forgiving (she has a wonderfully dry response to the aforementioned breakfast feast), and there’s a solid running gag about an oblivious wedding guest who keeps popping up in the worst places at the best possible times, but real warmth or charm is few and far between. “The People We Hate at the Wedding” tends to work best whenever it forces Donna’s family together so that it can make something from the tempest of familial resentments shared between them… even though it barely scratches of the surface of what those resentments might be.
The climactic sit-down at a London Taco Bell suggests that a mutual fear of rejection has terrified everyone into a self-fulfilling prophecy of estrangement, but that angle doesn’t adequately explain why only Alice and Paul are so committed to being the worst people at the wedding, and possibly on the surface of Earth.
The choice to focus on the two most annoying characters has the added effect of forcing Donna to the fringes of her own story, while also reducing Eloise to a flustered non-entity for long stretches at a time — a convenient way for this movie to completely ignore the optics or implications or potential comedy of pitting the white and Black sides of her family against one another (or even acknowledge that it’s doing that). It’s par for the course in a disposable rom-com that just wants to get through the ceremony of it all without making a mess of things, and inevitably can’t even manage to do that.
“The People We Hate at the Wedding” will be available to stream on Amazon Prime starting Friday, November 18.
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