Skip to main content

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.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

He’s probably paranoid, high-strung, doesn’t like daylight. You know, has a lot of crumbs in his beard, if he has a beard.

Godzilla vs. Kong (2021) (SPOILERS) I’d like to report I had a blast with Godzilla vs. Kong . It’s lighter on its oversized, city-stomping feet than its slog of a MonsterVerse predecessor, Godzilla: King of the Monsters , and there are flashes of visual inspiration along with several engaging core ideas (which, to be fair, the series had already laid the seeds for). But this sequel still stumbles in its chief task: assembling an engaging, lively story that successfully integrates both tiny humans and towering titans.

You stink, my friend.

Mulan (2020) (SPOILERS) Let that be a lesson to Disney. It’s a fool’s errand to try and beat the Chinese at their own game, no matter how painstakingly respectful – or rather, pandering – you are. Indeed, Mulan ’s abysmal $40m box office take in the country – where it did get a proper release, so no plandemic excuses can be cited – feels like a direct rebuke; don’t try and tell us how to suck eggs. There’s an additional explanation too, of course. That Mulan sucks.

Roswell was a smokescreen, we've had a half a dozen better salvage operations.

The X-Files 1.24: The Erlenmeyer Flask The Erlenmeyer Flask makes for a fast-paced, tense and eventful ride, but does it make any sense? That less than mattered at the time, but revisiting the mythology arc (for probably the fourth or fifth time) reveals increasingly tenuous internal coherence as the various conspiracy elements begin to pile up and the situations become ever-more convoluted. This will become the Chris Carter’s signature: don’t examine the details too closely, go with the flow. Trust Chris implicitly.

By heaven, I’d thrash the life out of you… if I didn’t have to read the Nine O’Clock News.

The Green Man (1956) (SPOILERS) The Green movie from Launder and Gilliat starring Alastair Sim that isn’t Green for Danger. Which is to say, The Green Man can’t quite scale the heady heights of that decade-earlier murder mystery triumph, but neither is it any slouch. Sim is the antagonist this time – albeit a very affable, Sim-ish one – and his sometime protégée, a young George Cole, the hero. If the plot is entirely absurd, Robert Day’s movie wastes no time probing such insufficiencies, ensuring it is very funny, lively and beautifully performed.

It's Dark Age, by Jupiter!

The Dig (2021) (SPOILERS) An account of the greatest archaeological find Britain would know until Professor Horner opened the barrow at Devil’s End. And should you scoff at such “ fiction ”, that’s nothing on this adaptation of John Preston’s 2007 novel concerning the Sutton Hoo excavations of the late 1930s. The Dig , as is the onus of any compelling fictional account, takes liberties with the source material, but the erring from the straight and narrow in this case is less an issue than the shift in focus from characters and elements successfully established during the first hour.

UFO IN MOSSINGHAM?

A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon (2020) (SPOILERS) One might reasonably suggest the recourse of the ailing or desperate franchise is to resort, seemingly out of nowhere, to space aliens. Even Police Academy didn’t go that far (to Moscow, yes, but not to space). Perhaps animators think kids have no skills of discernment and will swallow any old sugar-coated crap. Perhaps they don’t, and they will. Ice Age had been enjoying absurd success until Collision Course sent Scrat spinning into the cosmos and grosses tumbled. Shaun the Sheep has been around for a quarter of a century, but this is only his second movie outing and already he’s pulling an E.T. on us. Of course, this may all be part of the grand scheme, and Nick Park is simply doing his bit to familiarise the tots in time for Project Blue Beam.

Careful how much boat you’re eating.

Onward (2020) (SPOILERS) Pixar’s Bright , or thereabouts. The interesting thing – perhaps the only interesting thing – about Onward is that it’s almost indiscernible from a DreamWorks Animation effort, where once they cocked a snook at such cheap-seats fare, seeing themselves as better class of animation house altogether. Just about everything in Onward is shamelessly derivative, from the Harry Potter /fantasy genre cash-in to the use of the standard Pixar formula whereby any scenario remotely eccentric or exotic is buried beneath the banal signifiers of modern society: because anything you can imagine must be dragged down to tangible everyday reference points or kids won’t be able to assimilate it. And then there’s the choice of lead voices, in-Disney star-slaves Chris Pratt and Tom Holland.

Farewell, dear shithead, farewell.

Highlander II: The Quickening (1991) (SPOILERS) I saw Highlander II: The Quickening at the cinema. Yes, I actually paid money to see one of the worst mainstream sequels ever on the big screen. I didn’t bother investigating the Director’s Cut until now, since the movie struck me as entirely unsalvageable. I was sufficiently disenchanted with all things Highlander that I skipped the TV series and slipshod sequels, eventually catching Christopher Lambert’s last appearance as Connor MacLeod in Highlander: End Game by accident rather than design. But Highlander II ’s on YouTube , and the quality is decent, so maybe the Director’s Cut improve matters and is worth a reappraisal? Not really. It’s still a fundamentally, mystifyingly botched retcon enabling the further adventures of MacLeod, just not quite as transparently shredded in the editing room.

A subterranean Loch Ness Monster?

Doctor Who The Silurians No, I’m not going to refer to The Silurians as Doctor Who and the Silurians . I’m going to refer to it as Doctor Who and the Eocenes . The Silurians plays a blinder. Because both this and Inferno know the secret of an extended – some might say overlong – story is to keep the plot moving, they barely drag at all and are consequently much fleeter of foot than many a four parter. Unlike Malcolm Hulke’s sequel The Sea Devils , The Silurians has more than enough plot and deals it out judiciously (the plague, when it comes, kicks the story up a gear at the precarious burn-out stage of a typical four-plus parter). What’s most notable, though, is how engaging those first four episodes are, building the story slowly but absorbingly and with persuasive confidence.

Suspicions of destiny. We all have them. A deep, wordless knowledge that our time has come.

Damien: Omen II (1978) (SPOILERS) There’s an undercurrent of unfulfilled potential with the Omen series, an opportunity to explore the machinations of the Antichrist and his minions largely ignored in favour of Final Destination deaths every twenty minutes or so. Of the exploration there is, however, the better part is found in Damien: Omen II , where we’re privy to the parallel efforts of a twelve or thirteen-year-old Damien at military school and those of Thorn Industries. The natural home of the diabolical is, after all, big business. Consequently, while this sequel is much less slick than the original, it is also more engaging dramatically.