You’re only a few minutes into The Big Wedding before Don (Robert De Niro) greets his estranged daughter Lyla (Katherine Heigl) in a country club restaurant, determined to extract a hug even as she pushes him off, insisting, “I don’t feel well.” A moment later, she’s puked all over his jacket and you know why.
This isn’t because she’s already explained that she’s left her boyfriend, Andrew (Kyle Bornheimer), or because she’s confided in her brother Jared (Topher Grace) or mother Ellie (Diane Keaton) or even has a moment in the bathroom where she discovers her condition alone, via a pregnancy test. No. It’s because you know why every young woman pukes in a romantic comedy, especially when she’s got an estranged father’s shoulder in front of her.
That The Big Wedding is predictable is, well, predictable. It’s one of those crazy-family-get-togethers adapted from a French original (in this case, a movie called Mon frère se marie), where everyone learns in the most sensational and loudest way possible about everyone else’s secret pasts and stupid choices. The usual frenzy of the titular occasion is exacerbated by the fact that the groom is Don and Ellie’s Colombian-born adopted son, Alejandro (Ben Barnes), who has neglected to tell his ardently Catholic mother Madonna (Patricia Rae) that his parents have been divorced for a decade. She and his sexually adventurous sister Nuria (Ana Aroya) are coming to Connecticut for the wedding and so, he’s got a problem (how Nuria has hidden from her other how adventurous she is remains a mystery). Believing that Madonna is incapable of accepting that his parents are imperfect, he convinces everyone — including Father Moinighan (Robin Williams playing yet another version of the character he always plays) — to pretend Ellie and Don are still married, just for the weekend.
This premise — the usual sort where one honest word would undo all of it — makes for elaborate discomfort, in particular with regard to Alejandro’s earnestly uninteresting fiancée Missy (Amanda Seyfried), her patently racist, foolish, pastels-wearing parents Muffin (Christine Ebersole) and Barry (David Rasche), and oh yes, the woman who has functioned as his mother throughout his life, also known as Don’s live-in lover Bebe (Susan Sarandon). Once Ellie’s best friend, she’s apparently been incredibly patient with the excruciatingly selfish Don and devoted to his and Ellie’s kids. Ellie’s absence is briefly noted here by way of a line that, in another movie would have constituted a brief aside, but here becomes a running joke. This line, informing the guests at a rehearsal dinner that Ellie’s adventures include traveling to an exotic elsewhere to learn how to have nine-hour orgasms, here generates cartoony eye-pops and faux flusteredness, corny grimaces and astonished gasps.
That this bit comes up more than once underlines a couple of things. One, the movie is short on ideas about, say, parents and children, sibling relationships, or, oh, I don’t know, weddings. And two, to make up for this rather egregious lack, The Big Wedding relies instead on business, most often, the kind of R-rated business that marketers tend to draw as the primary lesson of Judd Apatow’s success. That’s not to say that other lessons are not available as well, and certainly worthy debates have emerged as to how R-rated comedies have at least made visible broad cultural anxieties over “language” or gross-out sex imagery, over what counts as funny, or whether bodies in various states of very visible disarray are fundamentally transgressive or deeply conservative. It is to say that this movie asks none of those questions… or any others that might be remotely interesting.
Instead, The Big Wedding — even its title is pathetically unimaginative — offers up the genre’s usual succession of aimless episodes, wherein individuals pair off or gather in noisy groups in order to make faces, offend or betray one another, have sex or otherwise expose themselves in completely banal ways. That they might do this through while using words like “cunninlingus” and “cock-blocked” or giving hand jobs under the tablecloth doesn’t make these little bits of plot or the seeming revelations they yield any less stale.
The main elements in this particular staleness tend to philandering jokes and lesbian jokes (because what coud be more startling or titillating than roving husbands with heir female neighbors than roving wives, with one another?), and also race stereotypes. While sex and marriage and even sexuality are commonplace in the R-rated comedy (those that aspire to Apatowian formula and those that don’t even pretend to have aspirations of any kind), race identifications and race anxieties remains trickier to negotiate. When pert little Missy accuses Muffy and Barry of not wanting beige grandbabies, their vaguely horrified expressions serve as the awkward punchline: they will deserve all the ugly embarrassment and comeuppance the film can muster. Other instances are less overtly comic, but just as reductive: Ellie speaks loudly to Madonna because she doesn’t speak English, or Nuria offers herself up to Jared as a delectable brown object (that is, the oposite of her chaste mother) or, one more time, Madonna says that watching the white people act out their fantasies and terrors is “like watching Telemundo.” Like Muffy and Barry’s horrified faces, these are cheap punchlines, not based on character or even any particular situation: they might have happened in any similarly lazy movie. All of which is to say: The Big Wedding is small.