The Wedding Ringer (C-)

I approached The Wedding Ringer needing two questions accounted for. I didn’t need it to be Hitch, which it seems very similar to, or better than Hitch. I just really needed it to adress these two things. If you’re not someone predisposed to giving any ol’ Kevin Hart comedy a free pass (those people exist, all the power to them, I sometimes envy their raucous laughter), these are pretty sensible questions:

“Really, this guy has NO male friends? None??”
“Why can’t he just tell his fiancee this? Is having the appearance of groomsmen really so important he would build his new marriage on a foundation of lies?”
Regarding the first question, I was disarmed almost immediately. Josh Gad, whose voice you’ll certainly recognize (both as a happy-go-lucky snowman and as a bumbling Mormon missionary) even if you’ve never seen his face before, completely sells Doug’s isolation as this soon-to-be-married schlub reaches out to distant acquaintance after distant acquaintance hoping to land a Best Man. The sequence of phone calls is deftly written, and belongs to a satire of the Wedding Industrial Complex that is sharp and biting. It belongs to a film that at least partially earns its mistaken identity farce.

You can see, as that last call ends and he is no closer to finding someone to stand behind him on the biggest day of his life, why this man might be desperate. Maybe (MAYBE!) even desperate enough to pay a man like Jimmy Callahan (Kevin Hart) to pretend to be his Best Man, the made-up Bic Mitchum, so no one will see the man Doug sees in that heartbreaking moment – a lonely workaholic who is so detached from the other males in his life that one college roommate assumed he had died.

Touching and though-provoking stuff. And then, as he contemplates his lot in life, Doug falls through his glass table, and he pathetically cries for help through the opening credits. Needless to say, it’s overkill after the sequence of phone calls so deftly illustrated Doug’s isolation.

All this film’s potential energy – energy that lies coiled and mostly untapped – is evident in this opening salvo; and so is all it’s kinetic energy, its fondness for slapstick physical comedy that rarely adds anything to the film – to its themes, its plot, its portraits of broken characters – other than a nice excuse to have an R-Rating.

I won’t spend much time on these inane trips into some bad American Pie: The Naked Mile spinoff style comedy antics. They rob the movie of its vim and vigor at essential moments when it could be flexing other, more nuanced muscles. A sad-eyed dog gets lockjaw at an inconvenient time forcing a trip to the hospital AND a car chase! Complete with a bridge jump!

This misadventure comes straight out of a bachelor party bacchanal that’s all strobe lights and skimpily dressed females, though Doug’s delight at a bouncehouse is a nice touch.

Worst of all, an entire excruciating sequence is dedicated to the muddy touch football match between Doug’s hired groomsmen and his almost father-in-law’s squad of former NFL players. (Hey, Joe Namath!) The sequence contributes nothing to the film that other scenes haven’t shown already. It’s just an excuse to have giant men punch little men (a recurring comic theme in Kevin Hart movies), and then watch little man fight scrappily back. I’ll leave it at this when it comes to the hedonism on display; part of the reason the first Hangover was so brilliant (and it was) is that it understood that sketching the outlines of the most intense night ever after the fact would be much more fun than actually filming the most intense night ever. (And made the photographs that played during the end credits such a rewarding payoff.) We had more fun filling in the blanks. When Doug calls his bachelor party the most fun night he’s ever had, it’s easy to question the character since we actually saw it and it looked horrifying on so many levels.

Truth is, the whole film has this problem, on a smaller scale. While joke after joke thuds, the script, on a more thematic level, is a smartly constructed farce about how the fabled fairy tale wedding forces everyone involved to “play a part.” This checks out, character-by-character:

  • The hired helpers are obviously playing a role; they are being paid to do so. From the gay wedding planner who is playing up his prancing and lisping to fit his clients’ image of wedding planners post Father of the Bride (I can not emphasize how weirdly profound this little aside is), to the bachelor party stripper who feigns foreign naivete expecting it will satisfy men committing to one last night of debauchery who don’t want to be confronted by someone who seems complicit in their infidelity, to, of course, Jimmy and his crew of hired misfits, who spend as much time studying so they can pretend they went to law school or podiatry school as they would have done studying in actual law school or podiatry school. Locked in a room with index cards and maps, learning to pronounce “Patagonia,” they are as much a manufactured part of the Wedding Experience as the carefully constructed gourmet confection we see being built and shipped out on a tray during a thrilling tracking shot that takes us out of the opening credits. Even the DJ is playing his part, forcing everyone to shout what a good night it’s going to be as he plays that Wedding DJ standard, “I Gotta Feeling”
  • Then there’s the family. Doug, it is fairly clear from the outset, is playing out his half of a happy relationship mostly because Gretchen (Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting of Big Bang Theory fame) is beautiful and has taken an interest in him. Believing this to be his only genuine chance at a functioning relationship with an actual female, Doug has convinced himself of something that is not true; that he is in love. It is gradually revealed that Gretchen and her family are also “acting.” Her father barely conceals his disdain for Doug, and, as the plot progresses, his animosity eventually explodes into the aforementioned football scrimmage. Her sister is feigning delight at Gretchen’s upcoming nuptials, hiding a jaded Maid of Honor’s demeanor beneath a supporting facade. And, in a neat bit of symmetry, Jimmy accidentally gets Gretchen to reveal that she is using Doug as much as Doug is using her.
    This reveal is heartbreaking and extraordinarily well-written. Many passages of the movie, such as a poolside conversation where Jimmy and Doug start to divulge details about their histories (Doug is an army brat who moved a lot, for instance) pass in exactly this way – they are stunningly character-driven, relatable, and darkly comic because they are played completely straight and only serve to sharpen the movie’s already razor sharp take on weddings. It makes the passages with jokes all the more regrettable, because on the whole they are so poorly written. It almost feels like the first pass at the script outline was written by a master of farce like Mike Nichols, whose The Graduate and The Birdcage this film shares a great deal of DNA with. And then, he left a bunch of blanks where dialogue was supposed to go, and the joke writers wrote the first thing that came to mind and never bothered to change it before filming. Recurring gags like “You put the weed in the coconut” and “kitchen cabinets” seem so starved of any critical thought that you wonder if the writers themselves could have even thought them funny. The movie ends on a Lost reference delivered by Jorge Garica (Hurley on the show) that should have made my heart soar. The way it’s written, and the way it undercuts the film’s true ending, made me groan. It’s poor screenwriting. Period.

Still, Kevin Hart is Kevin Hart, and his gift for ad libbing can still turn his now-yearly January appointment with our eyeballs into an occasionally transcendent experience. Last year, it was Hart pretending to be a drug kingpin that made the insufferable Ride Along briefly sufferable.

While some Hart setpieces are ill-advised (Hart playing Jewish-ish at a Jewish funeral comes to mind), one extended sequence where his Jimmy and Gad’s Doug dive into their Bic Mitchum lie is immense fun. Upon finding out his Bic Mitchum role will be an army chaplain, Jimmy unleashes a George Carlin-like torrent of curse words he knows he won’t be able to use for a while. And their all night study-session is littered with delightful asides that actually seem to have been sketched out by a comedy writer who cares. However… Be warned Kevin Hart fans… if anything, The Wedding Ringer somehow underuses Hart’s comedic gifts.

Instead, the film shows Hart to be an occasionally deft dramatic performer. If anything, I sort of look forward to the film that will earn Hart a Best Supporting Actor nomination in about eight years. In Ride Along, Hart was all scrappy desire – an underdog looking for respect. But Hart is all swagger – its schtick, the man with more confidence than height – and it’s much more relaxing to see a film let him own that swagger from the outset. It’s much more interesting watching Hart start from a position of power (like the one he has here) and slowly step down from that privileged place, realizing that his business drive is compensating for the same friendlessness he tries to hide for his clients. The film is about the messy honesty that comes from maintaining true friendships, and watching Jimmy see something worthwhile in Doug – not lies about epic scuba diving trips, but the real, messed-up Doug – is heartening. In many ways, this film is much more emotionally vulnerable than the film it will be mostly compared to – Hitch, in which a dating coach helps an overweight loser land a supermodel. In that vulnerability, it’s a bit like the only completely honest character in The Wedding Ringer, a Best Man at a different wedding who tears up his speech and decides to speak from the heart, only to begin stammering and gagging, ultimately rembling about his dead brother. There’s pain when you get down to the truth.

But it’s also a bit overly cynical about all this, especially women’s role in it. It shoves the sheen of weddings and marriages in your face hoping to say something about all marriages and all weddings, but, because it so poorly adresses my second question, about the lying, it never really gets past the sham that this particular wedding is.

Still this raw, pulsing, exposed vein of vulnerability can’t help but raise the kind of probing questions that get straight at the viewer’s own views: “How am I at maintaining friendships?” “What would I do in Doug’s situation?” I have to give The Wedding Ringer credit; it turned the questions I had about the film coming in right back on myself. For my part, I find it much easier to make female friends, I’ll readily admit. (This actually make me skeptical of a whole lot of way-too-easy “Women are like this…” and “Men are like this…” stereotyping the film had going on.) I am also notoriously not good at maintaining contact long distance. I know who my groomsmen will be if I have my choice, but I can imagine a world in which someone might not. The notion of a traditional fairy tale wedding involves a whole of politicking – about evening out the bride’s side and the groom’s side, and seating, and catering, and oh my god so much other stuff.

But we live in a day and age where it is more and more possible to forego a lot of that pressure, a lot of it gender-based and extremely antiquated. Just yesterday, I confirmed that I will be a Maid of Honor (Man of Honor?) at a fairly casual beach wedding. Increasingly, friends around me seem just as happy to let their first act as a married couple (the wedding) not be a back-breaking experience that ruins the marriage before it starts. They take on what they can because it’s THEIR day, not society’s. The Wedding Ringer ignores this world, where there’s a level of wedding for everyone, and where the two parties involved actually discuss what level is best for them.

And that’s what truly breaks the Wedding Ringer as a film. If you can dismiss everything that happens after minute 10 as a plot contrivance, you must not be dealing with Grade-A stuff. And everything Doug does after deciding to lie to Gretchen and hire Best Man services is just that – high-concept contrivance. Upon being told about Doug;s issues, either she immediately accepts that this man she loves is struggling to find groomsmen for understandable reasons, or she does not and Doug knows all the sooner what he comes to find out. Doug is confronted with this early on by his wedding planner and wonders instead: what if telling her isn’t an option? At which point the wedding planner says well… I know this guy.

Wrong! Telling her is the only option. Because, and this is the truth, if you’re the groom, and you don’t feel like the person behind you, the person holding the ring, has your back, that’s chill. It’s all pomp and circumstance. But if you don’t feel like the person in FRONT of you has your back, the problem isn’t the Wedding, weather it’s manufactured or not; the problem was the Proposal.