FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL (GB, 1994) *** 1/4. Directed by Mike Newell. Written by Richard Curtis. Photography, Michael Coulter. Editing, Jon Gregory. Production design, Maggie Gray. Costumes, Lindy Hemming. Music, Richard Rodney Bennett. Cast: Hugh Grant, Andie MacDowell, Kristin Scott Thomas, Simon Callow, James Fleet, John Hannah, Charlotte Coleman, David Bower, Corin Redgrave, Rowan Atkinson. A Polygram & Channel Four Films production. A Gramercy release. 117 min. Rated R ( language, adult situations).
"Four Weddings and a Funeral" has received an arsenal of praise by many reviewers. It is probably this more than word-of-mouth that has made it the biggest (and most unexpected) hit of the post-Oscar season.
I like the film, but without going gaga over it. Still, when it shows up on cable ( it's against my principles to rent videos) I will see it again for reasons I share with many people: Excluding cult movies or those not seen in a long time, most recidivist viewers like repeats of pleasant entertainments like "Four Weddings."
The publicity calls it "a radical romantic comedy that takes place entirely at four weddings and a funeral. It's a tale of 8 friends, 5 priests, 11 wedding dresses, 16 parents-in-law, 2,000 champagne glasses and 2 people who belong together, but insist on staying apart."
I have not counted the champagne glasses, but the other figures look right. The "2 people" are Charles (Hugh Grant) and Carrie (Andie MacDowell). She is the only Yank in a mostly moneyed, upper-class British milieu of what may or may not be sheer idlers -- we never see them at work or hear about it. This is in keeping with the nature of the film which is, in many ways, like a very "opened up" drawing-room stage comedy about swells.
All we know of them is that they keep meeting at weddings, as best men, guests or even as bride and groom. And all we know about 32-year old Charles is that he has had girlfriends galore but that, even more than his male friends, he suffers from FCC , Fear of Connubial Commitment.
At the first wedding, he meets Carrie who becomes the love of his life. They keep running into each other, months apart,at the other weddings and the funeral.They do things together (yes, including that ), but Charles cannot bring himself to pop the question, while Carrie plays little games...
I'll say no more about the plot. This is essentially a farcical comedy of Veddy British manners and eccentricities,and, for comedy as for thrillers,to give away the story means to deprive future viewers of pleasurable surprises.
As in many farces, "Four Weddings" operates on the principle of frustrations. It opens as Charles and his live-in commoner girl Scarlett wake up late for a wedding where Charles is best man. The ensuing frantic rush-cum-obstacles is Harold Lloyd stuff. Then, when Charles starts chasing Carrie, he is first frustrated by another, drunken chaser, and later by Carrie's unexpected post-coital departure. And so it goes for about 2 hours that pass rapidly and agreeably.
The film may remind you of others,including "The Graduate." The wedding parties of some pictures also come to mind, mostly Jewish parties in Hollywood productions from "Goodbye Columbus" on. These find an odd Anglo-echo here.
The events,the several supporting characters and the dialogues are carefully plotted to give you a feeling of happenstance,improvisation, of talking first and thinking second. The gallery of types,from Charles' male friends to his many ex-affairs,is wittily used for a good-humored,tolerant satire of the British. Among the nice touches,many of the extravagant (and, by British standards, elegant) hats worn by the chic female subjects of Queen Elizabeth,sometimes contrast with the raunchiness or cattiness of their owners' remarks --not to mention male cattiness.
In addition, all these persons seem prone to faux-pas, gaffes and booboos and suffer from foot-in-mouth disease. In a wily reversal of clichés, the movie makes you wonder where all that Brit politeness and savoir-faire have gone.
The least subtle goofs belong to Rowan Atkinson. A new clergyman officiating at his first wedding, he bumbles with such lapses as "The Holy Goat,' "The Holy Spiggot, " or "awful wedded wife." It's broad farce with big laughs. So is, on the level of the film's ever-present sex, the scene of newlyweds who, during their reception, engage in raucous and athletic coupling.
On the whole,the situations,settings,amusing language and repartees recall bits of Oscar Wilde, P.G. Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh or Noel Coward, updating both their cynicism and sentimentality to the more free and outspoken standards of today. As for the plot's zig-zags of the Charles-Carrie relationship, they are nothing that Jeeves couldn't have fixed.
It all adds up to a pleasing, bouncy and well orchestrated job by both scenarist and director. Richard Curtis is the writer or co-writer of the BBC's "Not The Nine O'Clock News," and "Blackadder," of "Mr. Bean," and of the film "The Tall Guy" starring Jeff Goldblum and Emma Thompson (in, I believe, her first major movie role). Mike Newell has directed, among others, such dissimilar and fine films as "Dance With a Stranger,"" The Good Father," " Enchanted April," and "Into the West." And the scores of Richard Rodney Bennett are always good.
"Four Weddings" is one of four current pictures with Hugh Grant,the other three being "The Remains of the Day" (he is the young man to whom Anthony Hopkins speaks of the birds and the bees),"Sirens" and "Bitter Moon." Here, his Charles again reminds me a bit of Harold Lloyd, complete with glasses and shyness -- except that Grant is the heartthrob du jour on whom she-critics and she-viewers lavish such adjectives as "he's just adorable," ("The Wall Street Journal") or "utterly to swoon for" ("U.S.A Today"). Male reviewers stick to Grant's boyish charm and cuteness.
But then "cute" is sometimes the only possible description (e.g. Anna Paquin at the Oscars) and sometimes a four-letter curse. Grant undeniably gets away with his cuteness here. His Charles is, as in the Rogers and Hart song ,"bewitched, bothered and bewildered." And, within the film's ironical subtext, his is a relatively complex performance that goes beyond cute and shows Charles also as an indecisive and somewhat infantile man who comes close to being something of a jerk.
Andie MacDowell is a different case. Toothy but not toothsome, her Carrie is insipid rather than inspiring, vapid rather than vampish, stiff rather than sensuous. The film as a package, a bag of tricks, and as ensemble-playing cannily distracts you from the fact that neither Charles nor Carrie is interesting or particularly likable.
Most of the secondary characters are nicely sketched in. Among them :Charlie's brother is played by deaf actor David Bower as a sharp observer who contributes special humor to the goings-on; the senior partner (Simon Callow) of a gay couple; and Scots millionaire Hamish played by Corin Redgrave who played the nasty police inspector in "The Name of the Father." The one inexplicable role is that of Charles' apartment-mate Scarlett. What she and Charles mean to one another is not even hinted at.
As it regularly happens in farces, the movie and its people do not address our emotions. Only at the funeral an affecting tribute moves us, along with a beautiful poem by W.H. Auden : "Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone..." There's an interesting, politically correct twist that I won't reveal here.
"Four Weddings" may be fluff, but so accomplished that it adds another plus to the ongoing renaissance of the British cinema, the only such renaissance in Europe today.
[Review published April 22, 1994]