By Preston Wilder
It’s not just the jokes. There’s no reason why oldies can’t be goodies, with the right encouragement (a rule that applies to actors as well as jokes). The Big Wedding has a very old joke at its core, a straight version of the joke in La Cage Aux Folles – the couple who must pretend to be something else for the sake of a moralistic observer, in this case a devout Catholic mama from Colombia who thinks divorce is a mortal sin. She’s coming to the wedding of her son Alejandro, who was adopted as a baby by Don (De Niro) and Ellie (Keaton) – but Don and Ellie have since divorced, Don is now with Bebe (Susan Sarandon) and Ellie is a “Ju-Buddhist” (Jew and Buddhist). At the urging of distraught Alejandro, who never told his birth mother the truth, Don and Ellie agree to pose as a married couple for the duration of the wedding. Can they make it? Or will Catholic Lady see through them?
No idea – because the film, having set up this farcical premise, proceeds to ignore it. At no point is the ruse even tested; at no point does Colombian Mama narrow her eyes and say ‘Wait a minute…’ Strangest of all is the behaviour of Bebe, who willingly steps aside and insists on abandoning the house to her partner and his ex-wife. Why does she have to leave? It’s a wedding, surely they can pass her off as a distant cousin or something. But then she keeps coming back, pretending to be a waitress or a caterer – though, again, it’s hard to see why, since she neither helps nor hinders the deception. It’s all very confusing.
It’s not just the jokes; it’s the way you tell them. Staging is non-existent in this movie, both overall staging and the visual staging of individual gags. If you’re going to have Don and Ellie’s son (Topher Grace) getting secretly fondled during a family dinner by Colombian Lady’s daughter – whom he not-so-secretly fancies – you need to milk that joke; you need to keep cutting back to Topher’s face in the throes of ecstasy as polite dinner-table conversation eddies around him, not just show it briefly then forget about it. There’s a real problem with consistency too. Don is a randy old goat, a sentimental dad and a drunken embarrassment in the space of about 15 minutes. The opening gag has Ellie accidentally eavesdropping on her ex and his new partner indulging in a little pre-breakfast cunnilingus – but the rest of the film seems to show Don and Bebe leading quite a repressed existence, without much of a sex life.
Oh yes, forgot to mention: sex is a factor here, from that opening salvo to talk of a “nine-hour orgasm” (it’s a Tantric thing), presumably trying to goose the now-pensionable audience who recall these stars in their prime (listen for the crackle of short-circuiting pacemakers when Colombian Daughter goes skinny-dipping). Alas, the sex jokes are lazy, and shallow on the thorny problem of waning libido; even the Viagra jokes in Stand Up Guys were more poignant. Then again the sub-sitcom zingers are lazy too, and let’s not even start on the Catholic jokes (Robin Williams as a prissy priest asking “Did you partake of birth control?”). Catholics are now officially the comic whipping-boys of pop culture, their values viewed as so wacky that nothing is beyond them; the devout Colombian mother could be Amish for all the difference it would make.
This is a really bad comedy – and it even bears the imprimatur of all bad comedies, viz. that it tries to be more than a comedy. Don gives Alejandro a gift and a fatherly speech. Towards the end, there are group-hugs. Katherine Heigl plays Lyla, the black-sheep daughter who’s finally pregnant after trying and failing for years to have a baby – and she gets a serious speech about her troubled relationship with the camera moving in closer, for dramatic effect, then finds solace in a father-daughter conversation that tries to heal the scars of a lifetime. “I’m sorry,” says De Niro soberly. “For what?” asks Heigl. “That things rarely turn out the way we want them to,” he replies wryly. This is true – but they rarely turn out quite as wrong as The Big Wedding.