After the Wedding
2019, PG-13, 110 min. Directed by Bart Freundlich. Starring Julianne Moore, Michelle Williams, Billy Crudup, Abby Quinn, Alex Esola, Susan Blackwell.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Aug. 30, 2019
It's rare to see a film shoot itself in the foot in its opening scene, but somehow After the Wedding pulls that trigger with having one of its rich, white, American leads explaining meditation to a bunch of Indian street kids. It's a blissfully unaware introduction to Isabel (Williams), a free spirit who helps run the cleanest, most photogenic orphanage on the subcontinent. Her trip to New York introduces two of writer-director Bart Freundlich regulars, Julianne Moore and Billy Crudup (whose stock-in-trade now seems to be "stoical husband"). Moore is Theresa, a media tycoon on the edge of selling her company, so she has a few million to burn on a charitable endeavor. Yet before signing her pledge, Theresa insists that Isabel attends the wedding of her daughter, Grace (Quinn). Odd ask, but with a couple million on the line she'll eat some shrimp and make awkward small talk. However, as soon as Isabel spots Theresa's husband, Oscar (Crudup), there's some heavily telegraphed emoting of recognition (as Joey Tribbiani would describe it, smell-the-fart acting), and a slow revelation of a hidden secret.
There's a brief, glorious moment when it almost feels like After the Wedding will take a sideways lurch into delicious, Michael Haneke-esque cruelty. After all, watching the oblivious upper classes tear themselves apart is never less than entertaining. Instead, After the Wedding transforms into a high-budget Hallmark Channel movie, based on a proposition so absurd that its hard not to laugh – A-list cast or no. The enigma becomes a ludicrous plot twist, and it lumbers to its convoluted conclusion without hitting a single believable emotional beat. Crudup, Moore, and Williams all gamely try to add some plausibility, but it's hard to feel either sympathy or empathy for any of them because of a script so oblivious of its own shortcomings. Yes, we have re-entered The Book of Henry territory, with a hearty splash of goop.
In adapting Susanne Bier's 2006 Oscar-nominated Danish film Efter Brylluppet, Freundlich (who also wrote the script) makes a major alteration in gender-swapping the leads. However, that's such a pivotal change that it completely switches the dynamic of the revelation: Isabel's putative sin now becomes radically different to that committed by Jacob Pederson (as played by Mads Mikkelsen). But that's a minor error in translation compared to the complete removal of anything approximating to social commentary. It's not just that galling intro: It's the rewriting of Bier's class critique as some kind of neo-Eat Pray Love. No one in their right mind can possibly think that Isabel, with her flawless pale skin, manicured nails, and $300 Upper East Side haircut, has spent the last 20 years working in an Indian orphanage.
It's astounding to think that this is the same Freundlich that created one of the defining portrayals of the bourgeois American family in collapse in his breakout debut, 1997's The Myth of Fingerprints. There's a clumsiness here, a succession of setups and awkward payoffs that are so on-the-nose, so cringe-inducingly earnest, that it's hard not to laugh. Even the story behind Grace's name is more likely to trigger guffaws than the kind of sentimental welling-up intended.