“Death is a four letter word”
It’s unfathomable to think that a film as elaborately sprawling as Robert Altman‘s A Wedding was given birth out of a joke, but that’s exactly what happened. Having some fun with an interviewer during publicity on 3 Women, the director exclaimed that his next work would be “a great big fancy wedding” and ultimately made good on the promise. He, John Considine, Patricia Resnick, and Allan F. Nicholls crafted their epic to the tune of two full months of production on an eighty-acre estate with forty-eight characters and almost as many secrets. What should be the greatest day of Muffin Brenner (Amy Stryker) and Dino Corelli’s (Desi Arnaz Jr.) lives quickly devolves into a circus-like farce in the best way possible. It will prove unforgettable for all involved.
If their worst problem was having aging Bishop Martin (John Cromwell)—who hadn’t officiated a ceremony in twenty-five years—doing the honors, things might have been okay. So he misses a few cues, stumbles over words, and needs his fellow priest to mouth the blessings along with him. Having him there is worth the trouble just to irk the groom’s affluent grandmother and Sloan family matriarch Nettie (Lillian Gish). She’s the one footing the bill for this soiree led by in-demand wedding planner Rita Billingsley (Geraldine Chaplin). Too ill to be present at the church, however, Bishop Martin’s stumbling ends up dragging things so long that Nettie can’t even wish the couple congratulations. Nope, her last breath comes as soon as the wedding party approaches her palatial estate.
But even that isn’t the worst of it. Well, it isn’t all of it at least. Not with forty other whirlwinds of ego spinning about. Between Muffin’s newly minted Louisville truck empire parents’ wealth (Paul Dooley‘s Snooks and Carol Burnett‘s Tulip) and Dino’s combination of established Chicago aristocracy (Nina Van Pallandt‘s Regina) and possible Italian mafioso ties (Vittorio Gassman‘s Luigi), money does nothing to guarantee etiquette, intelligence, or grace. You have the Sloan clan’s handsy drunk of a physician Dr. Jules Meecham (Howard Duff) plying people with non-descript drugs, a married man (Pat McCormick‘s Mack) declaring love to a married woman, pregnancy bombshells, vengeful exes, epileptic seizures, over-zealous security guards, and a rogue frog. Children run amok, rumors spread, and videographer Florence Farmer’s (Lauren Hutton) team shoots everything.
It’s all intricately woven with innocuous conversations revealed as crucial insight into actions by the end. A line joking that Dino’s military friend is gay isn’t a throwaway. Hearing Snooks’ worries about living by an army base risking his daughters’ chastity isn’t idle chatter. And Mack’s over-zealous lust for an unavailable woman isn’t simply funny once tragedy strikes to inject feelings of karmic retribution. Even what we assume is a lie with young Hughie (Dennis Christopher) popping pills under the auspices that they’re “medication” comes back without warning. On its surface A Wedding is your family dysfunction brought up to eleven on the crazy scale. But if you pay attention to each character as equally important, the film also becomes a wittily constructed depiction of hubristically misguided superiority.
This is its strength and point of contention because the sheer breadth can be overwhelming. Whereas it takes some out of the experience due to confusion, it had me investing more. The key is to understand that some may never receive the spotlight. This fact isn’t meant to lessen their value; it’s just to temper expectations. A secret relationship between Nettie’s butler Randolph (Cedric Scott) and her daughter Clarice (Virginia Vestoff) is intriguing solely from its commentary on interracial unions at this time. It’s enough to find complexity in Nettie’s knowledge and everyone else’s ignorance than to watch a grand declaration. So much is said with subtlety here. Heck, Muffin’s sister Buffy (Mia Farrow) serves as a plot lynchpin despite having only one line in the entire film.
The appeal is Altman’s expert precision in finding a rhythm to each role’s screen time. How he handles the security team, for example, adds physical comedy as well as a vehicle to introduce the others’ faults. Their attitude towards the gift room and anyone sniffing around to touch, cover, or steal is a wonderful contrast to the families’ otherwise unchecked entitlement. The way Altman switches Tulip’s revulsion towards the idea of an affair with Mack into a necessity is done with a single brutishly demeaning utterance from her husband Snooks. It feels weird to commend the economy of such a lavish ordeal, but that’s exactly what I must do. While two hours in length, the film is so streamlined that it feels barely more than one.
Characters as unnecessary to the bigger picture as Reverend David Ruteledge (Gerald Busby) have their place if only for a single chuckle. Caterer Ingrid Hellstrom’s (Viveca Lindfors) illness does nothing but allow her to get inebriated enough to cause a raucous and speak out of turn; Dino’s ex Tracy (Pam Dawber) and Muffin’s ex Briggs (Gavan O’Herlihy) arrive so late and disappear so quickly that you forget about them at the moment Altman hopes; and it’s impossible not to appreciate Toni’s (Dina Merrill) air of self-importance or Aunt Bea’s (Ruth Nelson) uncensored politics despite knowing they could be removed without losing much in the way story clarity. They’re the reason we go to weddings, though. Besides sucking up to the newly-weds, weddings are all about the people watching.
So we rejoice in their shenanigans: every overt faux pas, periphery eye-roll, and insane rumor turned reality. Motivations are born from pacts and actions lost to the past and yet we feel as though we know all. From the lack of guests due to the nature of Luigi’s background to his reaction upon seeing his non-English speaking brother after so long to the cavalier nature of Muffin and Dino’s affections for others to the sweet display of love courtesy of Aunt Marge (Mary Seibel) and Sloan gardener Jim Habor (Robert Fortier), it’s all beautifully fleshed out in expressions as much as dialogue. Love, money, ego, and death arrive in equal measure with no one truly proving victorious in happiness or satisfaction except us—the flies on the wall.