Film Review

THE ROBERT ALTMAN FILES: A WEDDING (1978)

Robert Altman understands that weddings are semi-goofy affairs on which, each year, a whole lot of money is dropped on lavish, nerve-wracking, and anxiety-inducing ceremonies and even more unthinkably gaudy receptions, all in the service of unions that have less than a 50% chance of succeeding. He’s also keen on the notion that all weddings are secret disasters waiting to happen as the joining of two families is generally a nightmare recipe. So it’s curious that A Wedding, Altman’s first contemporary and reality-bound work since Nashville, feels like more like a rough idea than it does an actual movie. To be sure, it’s a mostly wonderful and quotable film, but it’s also frustratingly overstuffed, laboriously too busy (even for an Altman joint), and, perhaps most consequentially, permeated with an ugly and rank contempt for almost all of its characters.

A Wedding is the story of the wedding and subsequent daylong reception of Muffin Brenner (Amy Stryker) and Dino Corelli (Desi Arnez, Jr.). Opening as a grand and reverent enterprise, the film slowly peels layer upon layer from almost every character in its purview to the point where, at the end, the entire party on both sides of the aisle has been exposed as unpleasant, sick, and/or corrupted in almost embarrassing measures.

On the groom’s side is an air of a nouveau riche aristocracy and is one that is likewise laced with ennui-induced drug addiction. On the bride’s side, there is more established wealth that masks a lower-class of people where bored complacency leads to wanton hedonism and where familial relations are far too close for comfort. Between them is an assortment of friends, siblings, in-laws, ex-boyfriends, ex-girlfriends, estate staff, and event contractors, all of whom share secrets, desires, loves, laughs, drinks, weed, politics, and indignities throughout the day and into the evening.

I suppose that in his defense, Altman thought it was all ok if he stuck it to everyone on the screen with equal force and measure and therefore couldn’t be branded as an elitist if he did so. But it’s almost as if the cynical summations of America that he presented in both Nashville and Buffalo Bill and the Indians had disgusted Altman to the point where the poison couldn’t help but flow into his creative juices which, sometimes, does minor damage to the film. I mean, it’s one thing to introduce a creepy, almost incestuous relationship between two of the family members in the pursuit of some dark humor but, from a sexual standpoint, the bride’s side of the family is presented as such a gaggle of grossly dysfunctional and regressive hayseeds that the film sometimes veers dangerously close to being mean-spirited. Like the world on display in Buffalo Bill and the Indians, the groom’s side of the family is a closed, perverted environment and one that is so decadently incorrect that “Chairman of the Board” William Williamson (Altman regular Bert Remsen filing his last performance for the director) is the only guest to show amid the “few more than a hundred” regrets.

Sometimes, the need to cover everything crowds out Altman’s better sense and further dulls the piece. While the former supplies at least three of the film’s hilarious moments, both Viveca Lidfords’s Ingrid Hellstrom and Maureen Steidler’s Libby Clinton could have been completely excised from the film without affecting its structure in the least. Likewise, less time could have been spent on extraneous characters and situations such as the sometimes farcical security detail (which includes co-screenwriters Patricia Resnick and John Considine) and the film crew (which includes another co-writer, Allan Nicholls). While well-intentioned, neither of these conceits feel very organic and they likewise suck up a lot of oxygen that could have been of better use by focusing on the specific relationships between the myriad characters or on Geraldine Chaplin’s delightfully uptight wedding planner, smartly utilized as the film’s master of ceremonies/center of the hurricane.

As is to be expected, the entire cast is incredible. While her broadly pitched performance sometimes tilts in the direction of the Eunice character she created for her variety show, Carol Burnett is wonderfully hilarious as Tulip Brenner, mother of the bride. Almost better is Nina Van Pallandt as Regina Corelli, mother of the groom. Nursing a secret yet crippling addiction to heroin, Pallandt is by turns nervous and jittery before her performance relaxes into an enunciation minefield where all of her hard r’s are sanded down and she glides along on a soft, narcotic cloud. Vittorio Gassman, playing beleaguered father of the groom Luigi Corelli, turns in a softly hilarious and ultimately touching performance as he slowly reveals himself to be perhaps the most decent person in the whole bunch. But, if anything, the film’s greatest casting coup was to pair Paul Dooley and Dennis Christopher as father and son. Portraying, respectively, father and brother of the bride, Snooks and Hughie Brenner, both find the exact temperature in every scene they’re in and create a truly believable dynamic which no doubt led Peter Yates to cast them as father and son in the following year’s Breaking Away in which both gave career-best performances.

And on a technical level, A Wedding is a marvel. As much as any multi-tracked ensemble film from Altman, it demands to be seen twice as half of the film’s best jokes are found in the grout and away from the camera, in snippets of random dialogue that rise above the maelstrom of its staggering cast of characters (there are about twice as many people in this than in Nashville). Additionally, most of the scenes contain an energetic and bustling choreography of actors moving in and out of the staid and static frame that sit nicely alongside Altman’s more familiar, “roaming-eye” camera flourishes.

By now, it probably sounds as if A Wedding is something of an unlikeable failure which is most definitely not the case. While it’s far from a masterpiece, it contains a great many worthwhile insights that live underneath its thorny and acrid surface and, despite the film’s tone, the natural beauty of Altman’s style can’t help but elevate the picture to something more than just a moving portrait of unappealing wax dummies. Even though the air is mostly foul, there’s a vivaciousness in this movie and perhaps the point of the film is that it’s as as equally hilarious and nauseating as real life.

In retrospect, though, Altman’s greatest idea involves the death of Nettie Sloan (Lillian Gish). It’s probably no accident that Gish, the doe-eyed “First Lady of American Cinema,” is cast as the matriarch of a family which is helplessly dishonorable. Dying in the film’s early moments (setting up one of the film’s best gags that predates Ted Kotcheff’s Weekend at Bernie’s by a full decade), she seems utterly relieved to no longer have to lord over a family where the relationship between her daughter Clarice (Virginia Vestoff) and Randolph (Cedric Scott), the African-American house butler, is explicitly dictated to remain in the closet (as is the family’s biggest secret which reveals itself in the film’s closing moments). An antiquated sense of race and class dissolving as the natural winds of change blow about her, Altman symbolically uses Gish’s demise to trumpet the new cinema which had, by 1978, choked out the old system.

“When it’s over, it gets real sad,” says Rosie Bean (Lesley Rogers) to Geraldine Chaplin’s Rita Billingsley about the exhausting comedown that occurs after the ceremonial brouhaha surrounding a wedding. On one hand, it’s an indictment of the kind of dichotomy that naturally exists between a wedding and a marriage. On another hand, it’s something of an existential conundrum put to people like Billingsley who make a living feeding the beast and widening that delta. But another possibility is that it could also be Altman speaking to himself; reckoning that his Hollywood stroke had become less and less significant and perhaps feeling his best days were shrinking into the horizon behind him. But like the detestable and doomed Wilson Briggs (Gavan O’Herlihy) and Tracy Farrell (Pam Dawber), the bride and groom’s respective exes who each show up to the wedding reception as bad-faith discomfort agents, Altman was too busy being a condescending wisenheimer to see the jackknifed tanker sitting in the middle of the highway toward which he was barreling at top speed.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

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