Films about weddings are really budget-conscious disaster movies.
In the annals of American comedy in particular, nuptials proceeding without a hitch are as likely as Martians officiating the vows. Multi-thousand-dollar dresses will be ripped and torn, the wedding entertainer will do something louche and embarrassing, a wayward cousin will make an ass of himself in his reception speech. Uncomfortable revelations will inevitably crater the celebration, most of which will be captured on video for ignominious posterity. Inevitably, that towering, sculpted wedding cake will wind up on somebody’s glittering dress.
So it is, basically, with Table 19, a tepid but painless ensemble comedy with dramatic ambitions from co-writer/director Jeffrey Blitz. The not-insignificant difference this time around is that the wedding couple is incidental to the action. We don’t see the ceremony, and the bride doesn’t even have a speaking part until the end of the film. Blitz dispenses with the syrup and pageantry of weddings to focus instead on a blighted contingent of invitees. These are guests who might be social pariahs or estranged relatives or guilty concessions, sequestered from the high-functioning couples and eligible singles to the wilderness of the titular table.
This basket of endearing outcasts includes Bina and Jerry Kepp (Lisa Kudrow and Craig Robinson), Midwestern diner proprietors whose marriage has atrophied; Walter Thimble (Stephan Merchant), a sweetly naïve convict attempting to conceal his incarceration from the table; Renzo Eckberg (Tony Revolori), a fumbling, libidinous high schooler with a symbiotic relationship to his overbearing mother; and Jo Flanagan (June Squibb), the bride’s long-forgotten childhood nanny, just pleased as punch to be invited.
Sucking most of the table’s oxygen is the film’s ostensible lead, Eloise McGarry, played by a frustratingly typecast Anna Kendrick as a burbling fount of insecurity, passive-aggression and social gracelessness. Two months ago, she was primed to be the maid of honor — until she was unceremoniously dumped, via text message, by the bride’s brother (Wyatt Russell), for whom she still pines.
As cakes topple and secrets unspool in pot-laced getaways, Blitz tries to make up in backstory what he lacks in character depth. He wrote the script from a story conceived by Mark and Jay Duplass, but their intimate understanding of human foibles is sorely missed from the broad strokes of Blitz’s screenplay and direction.
Revolori’s Renzo is the stockiest of stock characters. Defined by an unseen, oppressive matriarch, he’s essentially a pre-Bernadette Howard from The Big Bang Theory. Kudrow and Robinson make for unusual casting — not only because mainstream Hollywood still has an aversion toward interracial coupling — but they’re ultimately wasted: These skilled comic improvisers are saddled with de-fanged, quiet-desperation roles that squelch their natural talents.
Faring better are Merchant, a gangly presence whose familiar combination of unease and affability receives a poignant and genuinely funny showcase; and Squibb, an actor who can do no wrong, and who sells her character’s emerging truths with heart and class.
Mostly, though, Table 19’s problem is one of identity. As a comedy, it’s a decaffeinated diversion, and as a drama it merely skims surfaces of pain, sorrow and regret. Tonally scattershot, it’s a lurching seesaw between these clashing modes. Even its most earnest character spelunking is punctuated by slapsticky pratfalls: The movie literally stumbles when it should dramatically rise.
Table 19 is a reminder of how difficult it is to capture the tragicomic synergy that directors like the Duplass brothers have mastered across multiple mediums. They treat genre with renegade elasticity, disregarding it when the moment calls for it, namely when it’s time to illuminate the darker corners of the human experience. Blitz’s film isn’t nearly so confident. Despite its calculated aspirations, this wedding rom-com remains an awkward slave to its durable formula.
TABLE 19. Director: Jeffrey Blitz; Cast: Anna Kendrick, Stephen Merchant, Lisa Kudrow, Craig Robinson, Wyatt Russell, Tony Revolori, June Squibb; Distributor: Fox Searchlight; Rating: PG-13; Opens: Friday at most area theaters