'License to Wed': Disturbingly Funny
Tuesday, July 3, 2007
The prospects for a coherent, hilarious and consistent American comedy seem to lessen every year, as the poor waterlogged, gassy corpse called "Evan Almighty" proved when it floated ashore recently.
So there's a temptation to think too highly of Robin Williams's uneven but occasionally funny "License to Wed." For much of the time, it's highly amusing and its cast is extremely persuasive, playing the kind of roles that kill most careers: genuinely nice people. (Young actors: Avoid nice! Nice is death! Nice is dinner theater in Milwaukee. How many times can you sing "The Sound of Music" to Wisconsinites eating from the buffet?)
The movie, however, is not without its abundant curiosities, as if director Ken Kwapis and his writers weren't sure what kind of work they were making and were left with chunks of differently toned material, some of which never fits together. In the new comedy, I guess, tonal consistency isn't a problem; if it's funny, light, dark, surrealistic, situational, blasphemous, sexual, slapsticky, it stays.
By its story alone, "License to Wed" could just as easily be a dark, dark thriller, similar to one already on Williams's résumé, "One Hour Photo," that paean to inappropriate obsession. This time, instead of playing a department store photo shop employee queasily attracted to a handsome family, he plays a single minister queasily attracted to a young woman about to get married. He puts her and the beau through a kind of ordeal by marriage counseling that seems, for the longest time, calculated to drive them apart (and allow him to claim the woman for himself).
The two kids, Ben and Sadie, are played with a great deal of likability by Mandy Moore and John Krasinski (of "The Office," in which he also plays a nice guy). In Hollywood, face is destiny, so these two are fated to long years ahead submerged in the role of decent suburbanites with laughably minor neuroses, perhaps too trusting for their own good. Both characters, it seems (by T-shirt evidence), went to Northwestern, that very pleasant suburban university that swaddles the Evanston shore of Lake Michigan; both, it seems, have migrated south to the very hip Near North Side, one of the coolest urban zones in America. They each have careers, though the movie is at pains to avoid intense descriptions: She has just started a florist business, he is either a volunteer basketball coach and Home Depot careerist or a basketball careerist and Home Depot volunteer. Anyhow, they're ironic without being smug, cool without being sanctimonious, attractive without being dangerous. A good couple.
The complication is the Rev. Frank (Williams). Catholic, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Zoroastrian, Santerian? The movie doesn't specify, though it implies one of the less rigorous Protestant denoms. (None of the chastity stuff, so annoying.) Anyway, Frank, along with his Mini-Me, the curious Choir Boy (Josh Flitter), puts Ben and Sadie through his famous premarital counseling school, which seems to be total immersion full-contact marriage without the sex. He wants them to feel the secret hate and resentment that most love conceals, and encourages them in a number of ways to let the animal inside go. Of course, they're too shallow to have animals inside -- maybe kitty cats and puppies, but no ranting beasts, no plate-throwing, phlegm-spewing Gogs and Magogs of the sort that creep into most marriages at a certain advanced point.
The movie does a lot of things well. It finds an appropriate spot for, but doesn't yield entirely to, Williams's trademark stream-of-consciousness riffs that seem like Joyce's longest sentence read on amphetamines, but funny. It encourages his best thing as an actor, which is the fabulous sincerity of his insincerity. It lets him dominate -- for a bit -- then moves back to Ben and Sadie.
And Ben and Sadie are up to it. Krasinski is a rubber-limbed comic presence with the gleam of intelligence in his eyes; he's got an advanced sense of timing and a kind of low-key Everyman vibration going on. Moore is more: She reminds me of all the pretty New Trier High School girls who, quite wisely, would never date me. They could effortlessly hit a golf ball 300 yards and got 1350s on their SATs on the way to Wellesley, after which they married doctors. Now they're divorced. Hah! See how much better it would have been to have gone out with me!
Anyway, the movie also does some strange things. The strangest: It never confronts the darkness of its own premise. Frank is not just over-interested, he's psychotic. (And what about the thing with the choir kid?) Frank is kind of creepy, actually, when he bugs their apartment, then shows up to prevent sex. What about the "free-association game" he encourages, in which her posh family (Winnetka all the way) vents its doubts over Ben's appropriateness for Sadie in ugly terminology, while he plays the class card, screaming at the older people (among them Peter Strauss as her dad; how could anyone scream at Peter Strauss?) that they think they can buy anything and anybody.
Then there's an extremely disconnected segment -- funny, but seemingly from another movie -- in which Frank gives Ben and Sadie two science-fiction "robot twins," who, like real babies, fill the air with noise, liquid and unpleasant substances at the most inopportune times. Krasinski's Ben responds with rage, attracting a great deal of attention in a department store, but the joke, after all, is about child abuse. That's not funny, which of course means it's very funny, because we all know we're not supposed to laugh at it.
Other disappointments: Her family, with a bitter grandma (Grace Zabriskie), a fragile divorced older sister (Christine Taylor) and an unambiguously gay friend, Carlisle (Eric Christian Olsen), seemed to promise much dysfunctional, recognizable mirth, but it never registers much. And a big laugh sequence -- Sadie drives blindfolded while Ben guides her -- never pays off.
And what's the deal with that kid?
License to Wed (95 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for heavy sexual innuendo and profanity.