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Hollywood Wedded to The Formula
Bridal Films Ply the Same Scary Image

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 8, 2009

The monster in "Bride Wars" is diabolical and insidious, duplicitous and horrifying. It replaces the film's sweet heroines with evil versions of themselves, zombie-eyed as they carry out the monster's bidding.

The monster's weapons are petits fours and tulle.

The monster is the wedding.

Its vehicle -- the wedding movie -- is a familiar one. We've been watching it for years. Here Comes the Crazy Bride. Again and again and again.

Long after marriage is out, after we're all polyamorous or something, we'll still be watching it, or some holographic version of it. Julia Roberts, wearing Blush and Bashful, will play the feisty great-aunt of the bride.

It's puffy, it's poufy, it's crinoline and buttercream. But lick off enough layers of icing, and there lurks the monster. Our heroine must wrestle it to the ground, narrowly escaping disaster, to learn if she's captured the right prince.

* * *

"Bride Wars," opening tomorrow, is about, uh, bride wars.

Kate Hudson and Anne Hathaway are Liv and Emma, childhood best pals who get engaged the same week, then book the same venue, then learn that due to a scheduling mix-up one of them has to choose another location, but the venue is THE PLAZA HOTEL IN JUNE, so --

Wait, are you still reading?

Because plot is totally extraneous to this movie. You do not need to follow the plot, nor does your brain need to register inconsequential details like dialogue (it mostly takes place in a dialect known as "squeal") or grooms (essentially walking pants, played by Chris Pratt and Steve Howey, whom you have never heard of).

This movie is for people who are less about plot, more about place cards.

Those who will nod along with Candice Bergen, as wedding planner Marion St. Claire, when she tells the newly engaged Emma during their first planning session, "You have been dead until now."

Emma whispers in reply, "I understand."

So much freesia, so much Vera, and in between that, things happen that you would expect would happen. (In a movie, at least -- if they happened in real life, it would be either your wildest dream or worst nightmare.) Consider the following to be spoilers only if you have never seen a film in which two people say "I do":

It's sort of like "27 Dresses" (released last January), in which a meek woman has been planning her nuptials since embryo, or like "Made of Honor" (May) in which an engagement prompts old friends to reconsider their platonic relationship, or like "Sex and the City: The Movie" (also May) in which wedding planning causes psychosis.

Oh, but you know what else it's like? "The Philadelphia Story" (1940), in which a drunken escapade liberates an otherwise prim character shortly before the big day.

In fact, just about any movie with organza in the production budget ends up looking something like this:

Girl, having already met Boy, begins a zany trip down the aisle, and often ends up at the front of the church with a different groom than she started out with.

(This last bit makes wedding movies the ultimate romantic comedies: The audience gets to see both flirtation and gown montages. Because as anyone knows, most romcoms end with a first kiss, not a wedding, and two people planning a stressful wedding together rarely ever flirt.)

The stories are the same, and the weddings in them are all the same, too: White ball gowns, blue garters, drunken uncles, teary moms, a getaway Rolls trailed by shoes and tin cans.

Wedding-in-a-box.

A wedding is a good insta-device, says Murray Horwitz, director of the American Film Institute's Silver Theatre. "It's like in soap operas, when a scene isn't working right the director will say, 'Prop department, get me a gun!' The gun changes the whole scene because suddenly everyone knows what's at stake."

Prop department, get me a wedding!

Viewers know what's at stake (eternal happiness), and they also know what to expect. "It's a highly qualified setting for a movie because everyone has these sentimental expectations," Horwitz says. "You can either punch holes in them or live up to them."

In the movies, planning the wedding becomes the ultimate test in the couple's relationship, and the catalyst that prompts the bride to "find herself." She gets plastered ("Bride Wars"), she spins insane lies ("Sweet Home Alabama"), she throws punches ("My Best Friend's Wedding").

If the groom can embrace the bride's edgy behavior ("My Big Fat Greek Wedding," "Runaway Bride"), that means that he can embrace her. But if the groom doesn't embrace her newfound spunk ("The Wedding Singer," "Wedding Crashers"), then she'll end up with a different, more awesome guy who does.

Either way, the wedding movie provides "cultural comfort food," Horwitz says, because everyone ends up happily ever after one way or another, like that tiny couple atop the cake.

* * *

It's all so different from the wedding in "Rachel Getting Married," which was released in October.

Coincidentally, that movie also stars Hathaway. In "Rachel," she played Kym, a drug addict on leave from rehab to perform maid-of-honor duties at her sister's wedding. Hathaway's performance has generated Oscar buzz, but anyone who saw the movie knows the real star (besides pain) was the wedding. Its preparations, from tent erection to desiccated cake, served as the backdrop to the action.

What a wedding it was: The wedding march was played on electric guitar, the (non-Indian) bride and bridesmaids wore saris, the guests participated in an atonal chant during the processional. And this was all before the Carnival dancers showed up for the reception.

The effect was jarring. Well, the whole movie was jarring -- but it was made even more jarring by the fact that all our wedding expectations were AWOL. Where was the catfight? Where was the Chicken Dance? Where was the bridezilla, forcing her 27 bridesmaids into mutton-sleeved chartreuse?

Of course, "Rachel Getting Married," despite its title and its rehearsal dinner, was not a wedding movie. Not by any stretch. Not because of the saris (Hello, "Monsoon Wedding"!), but because there was never any doubt that Rachel and Sidney would get married. The torment in that movie was family trauma, and not the madcap kind, but the kind that really can capsize happily ever after.

In other words, it was like real life.

Which is so not what we want from a wedding movie.

What we want from a wedding movie is reassurance. Reassurance that we are not as crazy as the bridezillas on screen, and reassurance that even if we were, someone would love us anyway. If not Kevin McKidd, then Patrick Dempsey. If not Patrick Dempsey, then Josh Lucas. If not Mr. Big, then our brunch bunch.

That part actually is like real life.

"Weddings are expected to be this burdensome event," says Rebecca Mead, author of "One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding." "There's this idea that: 'Oh, this is the first real test of our relationship. If we can survive this, we can survive anything.' Like your wedding is a hurricane or something."

Of course most brides don't get in wrestling matches at the altar. They don't, midway down the aisle, decide to marry Cary Grant instead of John Howard. Those things only happen in the movies.

Or in our wildest dreams. Or our worst nightmares.

But as long as wedding movies work as stand-ins for our darkest fears and deepest desires, they will keep being made.

Just consider Hathaway's next project, which is called "The Fiance." Completing Hathaway's nuptials trifecta, it's about a woman who tries to break off an engagement to a man her parents adore.

Here Comes the Bride. Again and again and again.

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