The Robert Altman-directed A Wedding is tricky. I enjoyed the film while it lasted, but I have no intention of ever watching it again. The very first scene depicts the wedding itself, portraying the bride and groom as stoic beings. The Bishop, who stutters all his lines, asks the groom “do you, does he, you take her to be…” and on he goes. The groom (Desi Arnaz Jr.) stares into the camera (not from anyone’s POV but rather some unidentified space), his eyes wet and his voice dry and says, “I do.” There is no inflection or emphasis on the phrase, but instead it is recited as if he had rehearsed the line. The bride (Amy Stryker), with a mouth wound tight with dental-work, says the line with even more ambivalence. As you can see, what we have here is a dark comedy. If this scene doesn’t put you in stitches (for me, it did), then this is a wedding to skip.

The real meat of the story takes place after the wedding at the reception, held in an ostentatious “North Shore” home in Chicago. The father of the groom, Luigi Corelli (Vittorio Gassman), can afford the place with his flagrant ties to the mob. Who knew, with a name like that. The groom’s mother is Regina (Nina Van Pallandt), a woman who prefers her pills through a pez-dispenser. Then there is Katherine Brenner (Carol Burnett), mother of the bride with a saccharine facade and Liam “Snooks” Brenner (Paul Dooley) as the southern and drunk father. There are plenty more character to boot who are too numerous to mention. At around the 30 minute mark you’ve met all the players (I’d say close to 40, if not more) and it becomes increasingly difficult to follow the smaller roles and subplots, but I think that was Altman’s point. After all, whenever I attend weddings (or any family get together for that matter), I often find myself standing back, studying the people that stand before me, and ask “Who the hell are these people?” This theme is an easy sale thanks to Altman’s fantastic use of cinematography: The action just unfolds before us, often with many characters onscreen speaking over one another, with little discrimination for action. It merely observes, and it works.

The groom’s grandmother is the impetus that drives the main narrative, as her recent death (by recent, I mean mere seconds before the guests arrive at the reception) is sworn to secrecy by the select few who know: A doctor, an aunt, the caretaker, and I think some kid. Who knows, he could have been an uncle, but word travels fast around these parts and it isn’t long before the grapevine grows thick. It is only made thicker by the countless other subplots that occur simultaneously. I found these to be equally as intriguing (particularly the indecent pregnancy, the loving father, the Mafioso). These subplots often occur within the same scenes as one another. The camera may pan from one side of the room to the other, acting as if one’s interest is waning and chooses to follow another group of people. It’s in line with the theme of observation, but it often left me feeling as if Altman’s reach did not exceed his grasp. There is so much chaos, really, that it all too eerily reflects our everyday lives. I found it refreshing and alive, but I imagine most moviegoers go to the theaters or their televisions to escape the reality that envelopes them. This film, though certainly satirical of one of our most sacred events, is all to real. The film ends in quite a different way from where it started, foregoing the comedy but adding considerable depth. It lends the film an edge, but not one that’s sure to win over casual filmgoers. Give the first ten minutes a shot, and if it sticks with you, the rest will certainly delight.

Kyle Kogan is a film critic living in Chicago.

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