Film and TV

Wedding Comedy Table 19 Looks Like It Can't Miss, but Finds a Way

Courtesy of Fox Searchlight

How could this not work? Table 19 boasts the right premise and a top-shelf cast: Anna Kendrick, Stephen Merchant, June Squibb, Craig Robinson and the great Lisa Kudrow as the randos consigned to a wedding reception’s least choice table, the one way in the back by the bathrooms. Mostly strangers to each other, the outcasts become a sort of grown-up Breakfast Club, wreaking havoc, learning some lessons, saving the day.

Robinson and Kudrow play a bickering married couple, which was all the reason I needed to give this a shot; that inveterate scene-thief Merchant goes full ne’er-do-well as a white-collar convict on leave and lying at every moment that he’s “a normal person” and “a successful businessman.” You could guess without seeing a trailer that Squibb’s beatific nanny has pot stashed in her purse, or that Kendrick’s character should be in the bridal party but has been demoted after being jilted by the best man. What do you want to bet she’ll find love by the time the ‘80s cover band starts packing up?

Everything you would expect happens, but little of it is funny or affecting. Instead of letting us watch these nimble comic performers egg each other on around that benighted table, Table 19 dashes us away from the wedding so that this crew can mope stoned in the woods, the movie growing as aimless as their baked thoughts. The filmmakers — director Jeffrey Blitz co-wrote the script with Mark and Jay Duplass — never commit to a tone, opening with pratfalls and fizzy romantic comedy before striving for Little Miss Sunshine–style life-and-death dysfunction drama.

The lessons, like the jokes, are as warmed-over as reception catering: Dope’s Tony Revolori plays an awkward teen virgin on a mission to get laid, and, acting on vague tell-girls-what’s-good-about-you sitcom-style advice from Robinson’s character, approaches a young woman and declares that he’s packing an enormous penis. It’s not funny from a president-to-be in a debate, and it’s not funny here. Robinson and Kudrow get the worst of the material, as their comic bickering soon proves not comic at all. Rather than spark against each other, this couple grinds, crabbing and frumping until just before the end, when movie magic demands they both realize that being married means being present.

Kendrick, meanwhile, is typically game and accomplished, not just hitting her marks but finding dizzying variations on them. Early on, punch-drunk from the attentions of a dashing hunk, her character tries to swallow back her obvious crush, to keep on being surly and disappointed despite the smile threatening to crack her scowl. The scene is a perfect celebration of her gifts: She speaks some words too loudly, repeats others in a stammer, marches away with stiff-legged seriousness and gives the game away with a goony grin that flashes as she exits.

She’s good throughout, of course, at the romance, comedy and the uncertain drama. Her character’s ex (Wyatt Russell) is the best man at this wedding, and the filmmakers are too humane to let him just be the ass he seems at first. But those initial impressions (and Russell’s ickily stringy hair) are so convincing that it’s easy as a viewer to resist the later developments — and to root actively against the rom-com plotting that Table 19 half-embraces and half-parodies. You’re right for guessing that there’s a climactic scene of one lover desperately chasing a vehicle in which the other lover is departing despite the fact that they both have cellphones. The only novelty: which lover, which vehicle and the sad vision of Stephen Merchant not scoring laughs.
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Alan Scherstuhl is film editor and writer at Voice Media Group. VMG publications include Denver Westword, Miami New Times, Phoenix New Times, Dallas Observer, Houston Press and New Times Broward-Palm Beach.
Contact: Alan Scherstuhl