Destination Wedding (2018)
Dir. Victor Levin; Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder
[1 out of 4 stars]
We seem to be living in something of a return to form for the feel-good romantic comedy, that movie which you can put on when it is dark and dismal outside and you just need to feel like there is a burst of sunshine somewhere in the world. Classics like When Harry Met Sally (1989) set a gold standard for the roll out of the ‘meet-cute’ and the touching and humorous love affair that followed, promising substantial box office returns along the way. The mid-2000s pulled away from the genre, favoring raunchier fare in the vein of Knocked Up (2007). Studios tried to hold onto an audience that flocked to the steady stream of Will Ferrell-fronted comedy vehicles, such as Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006), which did away with any of the tongue-in-cheek innuendo in favor of gross-out humor and a constant stream of genitalia-based jokes. The rom-com did not go away, but the hits came fewer and far between, such as The Proposal (2009), which launched Ryan Reynolds into a different stratosphere of fame. Nonetheless, starting really with Trainwreck (2015) and reaching a new peak this past year with the wonderful The Big Sick (2017), as well as Netflix’s surprise Set it Up (2018), we have returned to an era of the inventive rom-com. Victor Levin’s Destination Wedding (2018) seems to desperately want to be one of these fresh takes on the rom-com, but alas it is not one by any measure of quality.
Starring Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder, reunited for a fourth time on screen together, Destination Wedding tells the story of just what its title suggests, a destination wedding, in the Napa Valley. Frank (Reeves) and Lindsay (Ryder) are both guests invited to this wedding, but are the type of guest that you imagine the husband and wife to both wish would just throw away the invitation and forget all about the day. Frank is the never-named groom’s half-brother, I think, though the specifics of exactly how they are related are fuzzy, to put it lightly. Lindsay dated the groom for a number of years, and then he unceremoniously dumped her for the woman he is now marrying. Frank and Lindsay meet while waiting at the airport for the little plane, the type that seems just a notch above paper and paste, that will transport them to the wedding. Lindsay waits in line and Frank comes up beside her, making light conversation before effectively cutting her in line, sparking an argument between the two that leaves them quite at odds just before boarding the tiny plane where they are forced to sit next to one another the whole time. What follows is really a series of dialogues between Frank and Lindsay, stretched out over various circumstances from waiting at the hotel check-in to avoiding the groom at the rehearsal dinner, and a lovely wine country wedding ceremony.
Frank and Lindsay are utterly acrimonious, the kind of people you try not to make eye contact with on the train for fear of them haranguing you. Frank looks for the negative in every situation he is confronted with, and while Lindsay pushes back at times, she is most often characterized by a frantic nervousness. Both become tiring offering little redemption to their characters. This, at least, seems to be Levin’s point, even giving us a bit of dialogue that lands with the light touch of a jackhammer: while at a wine-tasting Lindsay asks Frank, “But don’t you believe there’s someone for everyone?” to which he responds, “Close. I believe there’s nobody for anyone.” Such lines highlight the basic dynamic at play between the two where Lindsay wants to hold on to some belief that there are redemptive qualities to the world while Frank looks to dismiss any suggestion in that regard she may make. She thinks the food is nice at the rehearsal dinner, but Frank knows it will give him heartburn, and so on and so forth. It really is not worth it to list any more specifics because each scene boils down to the two either disagreeing about their views on life or insulting the nameless faces around them, be they wedding guests or plane passengers. There are brief reprieves where there sardonic remarks leads to a chuckle, such as when the two discuss Frank’s father and stepmother. Frank says, “I guess the heart wants what the heart wants,” and Lindsay offers instead “at least what the pacemaker says it can have.” It’s far from uproarious, but there is a certain wit at moments, albeit at moments which come about once every twenty minutes – not a good rate for any sort of comedy.Furthermore, Levin writes his script so that there is not a single other character who has significant screen time: all of the spoken lines in the movie come from Frank and Lindsay and are delivered to one another.
In this way, it resembles a two-person stage show, and could quite possibly play better in that venue than it does on screen, due in large part to the fact that Levin’s directing is as uninspired and unchanging as the characters on screen. Whenever he can, Levin sets the camera at roughly eye-level and trains it on Frank and Lindsay in a static medium shot, peppering in the occasional establishing shot of the Napa Valley or a series of shot-reverse-shot close-ups to spice up the conversation. Even when the two are walking, he keeps the camera as still as possible, rarely wavering from the medium shot. At possibly its most ridiculous, Levin adheres to the medium shot even when Frank and Lindsay have sex on a hillside after escaping a puma (you really need no context, it does not make any more sense even with it). We see the two from the waist up as they carry on a snarky dialogue during the deed. The camera does not move. The actors do not move. Everything remains static. .
And yet, there is something mildly enticing about Reeves and Ryder. I would not go even close to saying either was good in the movie. Nonetheless, they are so absurdly bad that you start to wonder if they meant to be. Both performances are the acting equivalent of an off-key Gregorian chant: they drone on and on sticking to the same characterizations of disgust and misanthropy. Neither performer seems to actively push against their onenote renditions making them extreme caricatures of the criticisms both have had leveled against their acting. Reeves has always been associated with a cardboard sort of performance devoid of expression or personality, something that played in his favor in The Matrix (1999)…. and just about nowhere else. Ryder, on the other hand, is in the midst of a comeback with her much-lauded role on Stranger Things (2016-), and so it is curious that she chose to do this oddball of a movie which redirects attention to her tendency to overplay neurotic tendencies, gesticulating wildly and stuttering all over the place. Put together, and with no other characters to interrupt or disturb them, they load their personalities with quirks just crazy enough for us to wonder about them: Frank inexplicably rubs a finger in his ear and makes a sound like a cat having a hairball, done repeatedly and for no explained reason; Lindsay blows on plants because she is convinced that it helps them grow. As I watched the two of them continue on and on, they settled into a sort of rhythm that slowly let in a tinge of amusement in watching them go along. Once you accept that they are mean and rather awful people all around, it is entertaining to see just how bad they, both the performances and the characters, can be. Destination Wedding is not in the echelon of The Room (2003) bad, but Reeves and Ryder imbue it with a commitment to the schlock that is impressive if not admirable.
Nonetheless, the movie cannot even stick to its own ‘everything sucks and nobody loves anyone’ mantra. At the close, these two miserable people, who decided earlier that even after having sex on a hillside in wine country, they cannot be together, suddenly decide to give it a whirl. If Levin had had the gall to stick to his throughline, he would have walked away with an anti-rom-com which would not have been good by any measure, but would have been a fascinating oddity. Instead, he cuts to a stock ending that leaves you all the more disappointed because the movie could not even be bad correctly. Instead of resigning to the fact that the script was half-baked, the performances were deficient, and the director had no inspiration, they carried on trying to be something more: it had to have a dose of aspiration to being a better rom-com. The irony is that such aspiration killed its one chance of being something interesting. There are still good rom-coms to be made, and an argument for the possibility of an anti-rom-com somewhere down the line, but Destination Wedding just makes you wonder why anyone felt it was worth putting together.