Weddings, or incipient weddings, are the traditional tags of English comedy. The idea is, if everybody ends up paired off at the end, then everything must have worked out all right. Director Mike Newell, a Brit not known as a laugh riot until recently--he gave us Dance With a Stranger and The Good Father before lightening up with Enchanted April--has made a comedy challenging the idea of weddings as resolutions.
Four Weddings and a Funeral follows a young London bachelor named Charles (Hugh Grant) and several of his friends as they're guests at the title functions. Charles is a pained, morose little fellow, and at all but one of the occasions--the funeral--he manages to end up in an agony of embarrassment. He also finds himself increasingly in love with a ravishing American woman named Carrie (Andie MacDowell), whom he meets at the first wedding. But he's wedding-shy, perhaps understandably, so he doesn't pursue Carrie beyond their postreception flings.
It's a very funny film, in its meanspirited way. The script is by Richard Curtis, who with Ben Elton wrote the marvelous, acidic BBC comedy Blackadder, and he comes up with plenty of nasty hilarity here (Rowan Atkinson, Blackadder himself, has a broad bit as a neophyte vicar). The license which weddings breed in their guests--for drink, for fighting, for brutal honesty and hurt feelings and especially for sex--is quite notorious, and it's the source of most of the gags. Cleverly, it's also the source of Charlie's nuptiaphobia--he judges the institution of marriage by what he witnesses at weddings, and by how often marriages fail. It takes a long while for it to occur to him that the attempt at monogamy, however ill-advised, and the use of that attempt as an excuse for a pagan party, are two different things. Charlie's friends are a stereotypical lot--they're along the same lines as Peter's friends of a year or so ago--but they're nicely played. There's his scroungy roommate Scarlett (Charlotte Coleman), who shares and abets his chronic lateness; the elegant and funny Fiona (Kristin Scott Thomas), who gracefully carries an unrequited torch for Charlie; Fiona's brother, a sweet-natured, upper-class twit named Tom (James Fleet); Charlie's hearing-impaired brother David (David Bower); and the ebullient Gareth (Simon Callow) and his boyfriend Matthew (John Hannah), the only happily monogamous couple in the group. Each is given the opportunity to contribute a fine moment or two.
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Grant, a compact young man familiar from a variety of Merchant-Ivory-type stuff, gives an admirable display of high-comedy clowning in the lead, making an utter ass of himself repeatedly without losing his charm. The same, sadly, cannot be said for MacDowell, who is the film's major liability. She is, without question, about as lovely a camera subject as could be found, so it's understandable that directors would wish to use her. And she isn't unlikable; one roots for her to do well. Steven Soderbergh got an extremely effective, naturalistic performance out of her in Sex, Lies, and Videotape, and she was okay in St. Elmo's Fire, where she was supposed to be a nasal pill. But her flat inexpressiveness has been a drag on the other films she's done, and it's especially injurious here (as far as I was concerned, Fiona had it all over Carrie). There are plenty of laughs in Four Weddings and a Funeral, but the film somehow doesn't jell in the end. In part, this is because of the central unevenness of the acting, but it's also because of the attempt by Newell and Curtis to temper the fierceness of the humor with a softer side. Curtis never gave in to the urge to soften up Blackadder (though he sometimes gave it a touch or two of darkness), and that's part of what made it such a great show. Here his mitigation of the film's caustic tone takes the disappointing form of standard meeting-cute romance, and that's at odds with the satire of social rituals as grotesque public psychodramas. Over four weddings and a funeral, we're given two comedies, and the routine one slowly saps the strength of the imaginative one.