Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Wedding (1978)


          By the late ’70s, director Robert Altman had found his stylistic sweet spot, blending downbeat irony and edgy social satire in seriocomic ensemble stories laced with semi-improvised acting. Actors clearly had a field day on Altman’s projects, because the director famously shot with long lenses and multiple microphones in order to capture everything—and then, during editing, the moment-to-moment focus went to whoever was doing the most interesting thing on camera at any given time. As a result, even middling Altman pictures like A Wedding have variety and vitality, with imaginative actors using Altman’s ambling storyline as a springboard for creating interesting behavior.
          The basic plot of A Wedding involves the union of Dino (Desi Arnaz Jr.), the son of an Italian businessman and his American heiress wife, to Muffin (Amy Stryker), the daughter of a self-made American entrepreneur and his dissatisfied wife. Taking place almost entirely at the posh reception held in the Italian’s mansion, the picture is a busy farce weaving together subplots about adultery, alcoholism, death, family secrets, illicit pregnancy, and youthful rebellion. Like most Altman pictures, subplots overlap with each other as the film bounces between short isolated scenes and long interwoven sequences. And like most Altman pictures, some of it works and some of it doesn’t.
          The standout performance is delivered by Altman regular Paul Dooley as the exasperated father of the bride, a corn-fed windbag so infatuated with his favorite daughter, Buffy (Mia Farrow), that he doesn’t realize she’s promiscuous and tweaked. Dooley’s ability to toss off tart dialogue while harrumphing through an uptight tantrum is a joy to watch. Howard Duff is fun as the perpetually inebriated family doctor who gropes every woman he “treats,” blithely shooting people full of feel-good injections. Carol Burnett, while perhaps working a bit too broadly for Altman’s sly style, provides her impeccable comic timing as Dooley’s lonely wife; her scenes of romantic intrigue with a balding oaf of a suitor (Pat McCormick) are silly but enjoyable. Screen legend Lillian Gish shows up for a sharp cameo at the beginning of the picture, adding charm and gravitas.
          Italian leading man Vittorio Gassman is less effective as the father of the groom, partially because his storyline is monotonously gloomy and intense; Altman frequently tried too hard to blend high comedy and high drama, and Gassman’s storyline in A Wedding is a good example of Altman veering too far into bummer psychodrama. Worse, some actors get completely lost—promising characters played by Dennis Christopher, Pam Dawber, Lauren Hutton, Nina Van Pallandt, and Tim Thomerson are introduced well only to fade into the chaos.
          Ultimately, however, the real problem with A Wedding is that it doesn’t go anywhere. Altman forces an ending through the introduction of a deus ex machina tragedy, but the story really just vamps in a pleasant manner for two hours until the narrative stops at a somewhat arbitrary point. Thus, while it contains many interesting things, A Wedding is like so many other second-string Altman pictures: a mostly well-executed trifle.

A Wedding: FUNKY

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