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Basically, you’re saying marriage is just a way of getting out of an embarrassing pause in conversation?

Four Weddings and a Funeral
(1994)

(SPOILERS) There can be a cumulative effect from revisiting a movie where one glaring element does not fit, however well-judged or integrated everything else is; the error is only magnified, and seems even more of a miscalculation. With Groundhog Day, there’s a workaround to the romance not working, which is that the central conceit of reliving your day works like a charm and the love story is ultimately inessential to the picture’s success. In the case of Four Weddings and a Funeral, if the romance doesn’t work… Well, you’ve still got three other weddings, and you’ve got a funeral. But our hero’s entire purpose is to find that perfect match, and what he winds up with is Andie McDowell. One can’t help thinking he’d have been better off with Duck Face (Anna Chancellor).

And, of course, his – Hugh Grant’s Charles – actual perfect match, at least from her perspective, is left out in the cold. Kristin Scott Thomas entirely elevates every scene featuring acid-witted Fiona, and Richard Curtis doubtless thought he was giving due deference to the old unrequited love trope. Which he would have, had Charles and Carrie (MacDowell) been worthy of the audience’s emotional investment. As it is, the credits sequence of post-picture pairings and progeny is something of a slap in the face to the character, photoshopping her into a picture of Prince Charles; there I was, thinking we were supposed to sympathise with Fiona. I didn’t realise she was supposed to be an object of ridicule.

Carrie, though. Jeanne Tripplehorn, Marisa Tomei and Sarah Jessica Parker were all apparently considered or had to drop out, and MacDowell, by then something of an inoffensive, second-tier romcom lady-in-waiting – if you couldn’t get Julia – signed on, as she had previously for Green Card and Groundhog Day (the former being another where a much more engaging supporting character, Bebe Neuwirth’s Lauren, has unfulfilled designs on the lead). The “Is it still raining? I hadn’t noticed” line will follow MacDowell around forever, but far more problematic is that she entirely fails to make a mark throughout the picture. Carrie’s scene reeling off her sexual encounters to Charles ought to be light and funny, but it’s horribly flat. MacDowell’s delivery is deadly to a scene. There’s a later montage of shopping for wedding dresses, doubtless designed to evoke a frivolous, frothy Julia Roberts vehicle, and it’s another look-at-the-watch sequence; we’re left scratching our heads at why Charles should be so smitten with someone so conspicuously bland.

Let’s face it, though, the success of Four Weddings had zero to do with MacDowell, and as crucial as he was – as the writer, after all – it was only soaccountable to Curtis (after all, The Tall Guy failed to make waves); it was all about Hugh. America adored him, and Britain rediscovered him, and he could do wrong, in his foppish, self-deprecating way – which meant for a certain section of the populace he could only do wrong – for about a year, until Divine Brown happened (and then there’s his toff legacy, which arguably leads to Boris Johnson).

Familiarity with Grant’s shtick over the last quarter of a century has made his presence seem less fresh, and with those specs here, he does rather resemble an overgrown Harry Potter, but his dizzy, stammering energy still very much sets the tone for Four Weddings, even though it’s near enough an ensemble piece (something also true of ‘90s fare as diverse as Peter’s Friends, Trainspotting and The Full Monty). His performance is both naturalistic and heightened; the movie is a caricature, rather than an outright cartoon (only Rowan Atkinson, with his “Holy Spigot” enters the latter territory, a performance and dialogue reheated for the recent One Red Nose Day and a Wedding); it’s notable that Grant thought director Mike Newell was going against obvious comedy beats, “making a film with texture, grounding it, playing the truths rather than the gags”.

That might be over-stating the case, but it’s evident Newell isn’t leading with the gags (except with Atkinson). Newell, a style-free journeyman who got his big screen break with post-Hammer mummy movie The Awakening fourteen years earlier, has tended to make competent features that aren’t quitefully realised; perhaps surprisingly, given this is his biggest claim to fame, he’s probably been more consistent with crime dramas (Dance with a Stranger, Donnie Brasco), but serviceably forgettable when it comes to period pics and swallowed whole by blockbusters (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, The Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time). He’s very much the actor’s director, which means he’s only as good as his next screenplay, and his eye for a decent one has been inconsistent to say the least.

Curtis echoed Grant in his appraisal of Newell’s input (“Mike was obsessed with keeping it real”), but that doesn’t seem to have extended to dampening down the often-schematic approach to the material. Four Weddings hinges on Curtis’ very privileged, Oxbridge milieu; the reason Grant is such a good fit (Curtis initially resisted him, considering him too good-looking an avatar) is that he’s already essayed this world to one remove, via the “Laura Ashley”, Merchant Ivory period stylings of Maurice and The Remains of the Day. One gets the sense Curtis is self-conscious about this, so may be over compensating with group’s announced inclusiveness; we have the gay couple (Simon Callow’s rumbustious Gareth and John Hannah’s Matthew), the deaf brother (David Bower’s David) and the kooky punkette (Charlotte Coleman’s Scarlett). Which does rather serve to emphasise the absence of persons of colour in their social group; perversely, Curtis’ efforts only make his outlook seem more parochial.

For the most part, the supporting cast keenly complement their leading man. Callow is huge and gregarious, exactly as he needs to be (“It’s Brigadoon! It’s bloody Brigadoon!”). Hannah, wry and insightful, gets to deliver the touching eulogy (his misstep would come with Sliding Doors a few years later, daring to do a Monty Python impression on film). James Fleet’s typecasting as an affable chap would start here (he’d be consigned to The Vicar of Dibley by the end of the year). The sadly missed Coleman adds a sliver of contrast to the posh frocks – and her and Grant’s “fuckity-fuck” back-and-forth opener remains something of a classic – while Scott Thomas effortlessly conjures gravitas in Fiona’s confessional to Charles and so steals away from under him any hope the picture has of true love winning out.

The loose conceit of the title is slight but agreeable; it means the otherwise uncertain structure is laid out on a platter, helpfully doing the heavy lifting for Curtis. All he needs do is play to or subvert that unfolding. The soundtrack was made infamous by Wet Wet Wet’s interminable chart dominance, but most notable is how generically romcom most of it is, courtesy of Richard Rodney Bennett and a selection of classic MOR tracks (Curtis meanwhile lets his muso status show, name-checking David Cassidy and John Lennon; this would culminate in the dreadful The Boat that Rocked).

So how has the picture aged? I’ve outlined its most resounding drawback – sorry, Andie – but what’s notable is how a picture then hailed as fresh now seems to be scraping by on a rather haggard formula. The Curtis brand back then was the sharp and gleefully merciless Blackadder, but it has since become warm, fuzzy and ineffectual. We’ve seen a whole cottage industry subgenre based on the Curtis-Hugh feel-good tourist vision of Britain, and Four Weddings and a Funeral is emblematic of their amiably inconsequential nature, meaning the film’s awards recognition, like several other ‘90s romcom Best Picture nominees (Jerry Maguire, As Good as it Gets) was very much a credit its financial success rather than its quality.


One Red Nose Day and a Wedding
(2019)

Included for completion’s sake. Curtis’ Vicar of Dibley fuddy-but-progressive bent is in full effect (“Today, you’re going to hear from the best woman”) in this charity short, married to some incredibly laboured dialogue and rote comedy (having to get Hugh to laugh at Rowan is a bad sign). It’s nice to see the characters again – I suppose – but the succession of call-backs rather underlines how middling Curtis’ writing is (and Sam Smith?) It’s all a bit strained and not a little desperate. Or not desperate enough. And Andie. She’s still a blank.



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