REVIEW: The Wedding Guest [2019]

Score: 5/10 | ★ ★


Rating: R | Runtime: 94 minutes | Release Date: March 1st, 2019 (UK)
Studio: IFC Films
Director(s): Michael Winterbottom
Writer(s): Michael Winterbottom

“That’ll be a lot more work”

There’s actually a lot to like about Michael Winterbottom‘s The Wedding Guest from its performances to its locale and onwards towards its characters always proving to be more than our preconceptions initially allow. We’re talking about a serious criminal in Jay (Dev Patel) who has the ability and mindset to hurt people, but genuinely prides himself on not doing so because he values human life. There’s the seemingly pampered victim of his kidnapping plot (Radhika Apte‘s Samira) who is quickly revealed as more modern European than the rural bride-to-be introduced from afar in Punjab. And of course we can’t forget the lover who hired Jay to extricate his darling so they could live as fugitives only to lose his backbone the instant something goes awry (Jim Sarbh‘s Deepesh).

Had this trio been brought together under circumstances that didn’t pretend to be motivated by thrills, I do believe it would have worked better. Make this a love triangle from the start wherein Jay is Samira and Deepesh’s friend—loyal enough to help get the two together, but desperate enough to swoop in and declare his silent adoration when things inevitably get rocky. That sort of history is necessary if we’re to believe the sexual tension every frame fails to contain when Jay and Samira are alone together. He being a sympathetic bad guy and she being a far cry from innocent victim isn’t enough to combat the dark situation that brought them into each other’s orbit. They steal power from Deepesh too soon for suspense to form.

The film therefore works better as a romance than a thriller and yet we can’t accept it as such when the main coupling contains two strangers who met while one had a gun to the other’s head. Oh, you’re telling me Jay is sensitive, though? And he merely agreed to a job that would reunite two people who want to spend the rest of their lives together? When you put it that way … no. I can’t blindly ignore the scenario when Samira becomes a willing participant either. And don’t even try telling me her falling in love with Jay makes it better since her affection is clearly a result of Deepesh growing skittish and thus no longer the person to supply what she craves: freedom.

How long before Deepesh is taken out of the equation upon earning the ire of both the lover he promised everything to and the dangerous employee unwilling to cut her loose as collateral damage? How long before Jay and Samira take their relationship to the next level and thus necessitate our asking when one will double-cross and/or kill the other? Maybe some suspense does still exist in those questions, but it’s hardly the stuff of shock and awe for anyone who’s watched a western or noir before. Winterbottom sets up their sense of selfish ambition from frame one and never does anything to subvert it. This is a “When?” movie than constantly asks “If?” and the answer is always frustrating. We’re left waiting for excitement that never arrives.

It’s a shame because the lackluster plot wastes two very captivating performances in the process. Patel is the easy standout with his conflict between mind and soul forever etched upon his brow, but Apte is the more interesting piece of the puzzle. We’re constantly reading her in response to their current situation since we only know what Jay was told by a guy who treats her like his property. So when Deepesh does share firsthand details that might shed light on her potential duplicity, we don’t believe him because he’d say anything to wipe his hands clean of the entire episode. Here we are assuming Samira is a victim when she’s quite obviously anything but. I’d imagine a subsequent viewing shows Apte was even better than remembered.

What does that supply to the whole, though? More empty promises. It’s as though Winterbottom is toying with us by presenting atmosphere that should put us on the edge of our seats only to reward our attention with a whimper. His characters act like they’ve sold their souls to the Devil and yet they always stop short of proving their conviction is anything but a means to survive. They don’t do bad things because they enjoy them. They don’t even do bad things because they can. Instead they run up to the cliff’s edge and hope it won’t come to jumping until someone pushes them and in turn takes the blame off their shoulders. Nobody actually wants to do anything. Their actions are forced upon them.

Winterbottom is more or less counting how many times he can foreshadow something dramatic before easing off the gas to deliver the tamest conclusion possible for every scenario. At first I smiled at being duped. Then I wondered if it was all deflection for something even bigger waiting in the wings. Eventually, however, I realized The Wedding Guest was just an anti-climactic character study uninterested in fulfilling its promise. The thrills of pitting Jay against Deepesh are quickly extinguished via elitist ineptitude. The burgeoning romance between Jay and Samira is forever undercut by thoughts of them conning the other through sexuality. Winterbottom is experimenting with genre conventions, but how he meshes them together strips each of the intrigue they might have brought to the table alone.


photography:
[1] Dev Patel as “Jay” in Michael Winterbottom’s The Wedding Guest. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.
[2] Radhika Apte as “Samira” in Michael Winterbottom’s The Wedding Guest. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.
[3] Dev Patel as “Jay” in Michael Winterbottom’s The Wedding Guest. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.

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