Film review: The Big Wedding (15)

Don and Ellie Griffin (Robert De Niro and Diane Keaton) in The Big Wedding
Don and Ellie Griffin (Robert De Niro and Diane Keaton) in The Big Wedding
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Although Hollywood frequently places a higher premium on vulgarity than wit these days, it’s probably still not a particularly great idea to kick off a broad mainstream comedy by calling Annie Hall a c***.

The Big Wedding (15)

Directed By: Justin Zackham

Starring: Robert De Niro, Diane Keaton, Susan Sarandon, Katherine Heigl, Topher Grace, Robin Williams

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That, however, is exactly how Robert De Niro refers to Diane Keaton early on in The Big Wedding – and a more depressingly appropriate sign of the extent to which Hollywood has divorced itself from the kind of sophisticated humour that American television, literature and theatre still value would be hard to imagine.

Even supplying a little context for the coarseness, like explaining, for instance, that Keaton is actually playing De Niro’s ex-wife, or that we discover said fact during the opening scene when she walks in on him performing a spot of kitchen-counter cunnilingus on a knickers-round-her-ankles Susan Sarandon (cast here as De Niro’s current belle and Keaton’s long-term best friend), does little to make it funny. Rather, it merely sets the painfully low tone to which the rest of the cast not only eagerly attune themselves but actively try to make worse.

Which is not to diminish or denigrate the entertainment value of lowbrow or gross-out humour. Bridesmaids and other assorted Judd Apatow productions have, after all, blended farts, smarts and heart to frequently uproarious effect. But save for the recent Silver Linings Playbook (in which De Niro also co-starred and was actually brilliant), there’s very little indication that those with the power to assemble stellar A-list casts have any inclination to put them to work making satisfying, adult-oriented relationship comedies.

Instead we get movies like The Big Wedding, a film that uses its status as a remake of a little-seen French farce (it’s based on the 2006 movie Mon frère se marie) to indulge in sub-Meet the Fockers-style crudity rather than attempting to make an actual farce by using boorish behaviour and improbable plotting for heightened comic effect.

Not that the farcical premise is especially promising to begin with. Having appraised us of Keaton and De Niro’s status as Don and Ellie Griffin, former husband and wife, The Big Wedding runs into big problems when it emerges that their adopted Colombian son Alejandro (played by the distinctly non-Colombian Ben Barnes) needs them to pretend to be married again. The reason for this dubious development is his devout Roman Catholic biological mother (played by Patricia Rae) has decided to attend his impending nuptials to his all-American sweetheart (Amanda Seyfried, now thoroughly in danger of being forever typecast as the passive bride-to-be in godawful comedies and musicals). Worried that the discovery that his adoptive parents have been divorced for ten years will break her heart, he pleads with them to keep up appearances.

As excuses for the ensuing shenanigans go, it’s flimsier than De Niro’s sense of artistic integrity and is made worse by the fact that writer/director Justin Zackham seems content to present Alejandro’s mother as a lazy racial caricature rather than as someone who vaguely resembles a human being. But then, that’s perhaps to be expected from a filmmaker who doesn’t seem to have the first idea of how to construct a joke that isn’t predicated on having the most acclaimed actors of the 1970s vomiting forth profanities like children who have just learned to say a naughty word. Even getting his characters talking to one another without sounding as if they’re auditioning in separate rooms for multiple badly written sketch shows seems like a struggle.

In lieu of such basic skills, Zackman resorts to piling on subplots and characters that are grotesque, grating, nonsensical and eventually just flat-out offensive. In the midst of Don and Ellie shacking up for a weekend of arguments, face-slapping, over-sharing and grim (for us), guilt-free sexual experimentation, we’re bombarded with the shrill, dysfunctional whining of Katherine Heigl as Don and Ellie’s unexpectedly pregnant daughter, Topher Grace as their inexplicably virginal doctor son, Robin Williams as a mean-spirited alcoholic priest and, worst of all, Christine Ebersole as the dumb blonde mother of the bride who is not-so-secretly appalled that she may one day be a grandmother to a mixed-race child.

As hateful as all of these characters are, Zackham – whose only other notable credit is as the screenwriter of The Bucket List – expects us to root for their inevitable moments of redemption, all of which are facilitated with an abundance of schmaltz and a bewildering array of reversals. It begs the question: what on Earth was everyone thinking when they signed up for this vile, contemptible rubbish? Is the lure of working with a paycheck-collecting De Niro really so great that so many talented A-listers (and Heigl) are willing to swarm around such excrement? Or does Zackham have incriminating files on each that they’d rather not see the light of day? It’s hard to say, but it’s doubtful there will be a more baffling bad Hollywood comedy this year.