Film

‘Table 19’ Is As Weird As The Last Wedding You Went To (And That’s What Makes It Good)

A surprisingly funny and fresh wedding rom-com from the Duplass brothers.

Table 19

The pleasure of weddings — onscreen and off — lies in their balance of the generic and the specific. We all know the basic story beats: the aisle walk, the rings, the kiss, the food, the speeches, the cake, the first dance, the dancing and the aftermath. But we take pleasure in anticipating how each particular wedding will unfold, who’ll be there, and how we’ll interact with them.

But would you spend 87 minutes with the random misfits at the worst table at the reception? The guests “who should have known to send regrets” but turned up instead? I recommend you do. Directed by Jeffrey Blitz (Spellbound) from a script by Jay and Mark Duplass (Togetherness), Table 19 subverts the ‘wedding rom-com’ genre machinery and takes its characters to places you don’t expect.

When the lights came up at the media screening, two older male critics scoffed contemptuously to each other, “Who’d go see that?” It’s an interesting question. Who’d go see you? I found Table 19 refreshing because it seeks the humanity of characters who would usually be the background colour in other movies. It allows people their moments of meanness and messiness, but also lets them realise and compensate for their mistakes.

Cake-And-Switches

On film, weddings are both spectacular and comforting. As the peak ritual of monogamous romance, they offer endless opportunities for both drama and comedy. They can be bleak psychological studies, as in Muriel’s Wedding or Rachel Getting Married, or sweet-natured screwball comedies, as in Father of the Bride and My Big Fat Greek Wedding. They can focus on bride wars, bridesmaids, best men, groomsmen, best friends, circles of friends, even wedding planners and wedding singers.

Table 19 is a series of bait-and-switches that teases us with classic wedding-movie tropes before disobeying our expectations of how a scene will play out. It opens with the agonies of Eloise (Anna Kendrick), who’s unsure whether to RSVP yes or no to her oldest friend Francie’s (Rya Meyers) wedding. Eloise is a mess because she was meant to be maid of honour, but Francie’s studly brother Teddy (Wyatt Russell) has dumped her via text message. Now she’s been bumped to Table 19, while Teddy’s ex-and-maybe-again-girlfriend Nikki (Amanda Crew) steps into her role.

Blitz shows us Eloise’s tablemates receiving their invitations — mostly with pleasure. They are Francie and Teddy’s former nanny Jo (June Squibb), bickering married diner owners Jerry and Bina (Craig Robinson and Lisa Kudrow), the bride’s disgraced cousin Walter (Stephen Merchant), and teenage mummy’s boy Renzo (Tony Revolori).

Their painful attempts to socialise are background business to what initially seems to be the main event: Eloise’s over-the-top fussing at seeing her frattish, irresponsible ex again. She’s told she doesn’t belong here, that she always “makes a scene”. And when a hunky stranger called Huck (Thomas Cocquerel, using his own Aussie accent) strikes up a conversation with Eloise, then crashes the wedding to dance with her, it’s looking like a classic movie meet-cute — and Teddy’s looking jealous.

And then Eloise and her tablemates destroy the wedding cake. Please enjoy this real-life recreation:

Most romcoms would save such a slapstick device for the end of their second act, but here, it’s the curtain raiser. Throughout, Table 19 dangles a genre staple, and then twists it. Apart from romantic newcomer Huck, there’s a hidden infidelity, a shouted declaration of love to a departing ferry, a coming-of-age story and a cathartic final dance-floor scene — none of which go the way I was expecting.

It’d be easy to find this frustrating, and to call Table 19 a badly scripted, tonally incoherent film. But I don’t think it is. Instead, the cake-and-switch trick allows Eloise and her tablemates to just get up and walk away from the wedding into their own story.

Oddballs And Actual People

Wedding movies traditionally offer plenty of oddball characters, and that’s what Table 19 initially promises. I enjoyed Blitz’s first fiction film, Rocket Science — in which Anna Kendrick also appeared — because it observed weirdos with patience and sympathy. But Blitz isn’t the kind of director — and the Duplass brothers aren’t the kind of writers — to conflate quirkiness with likeability. These characters are all initially very irritating… but once they’re freed from the wedding, we find out who they are.

Kendrick often comes across as neurotic and supercilious, if that mixture makes sense — which is why I enjoy her better when she plays against type, as in last year’s unexpectedly not-awful Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, or leans into it, as in Happy Christmas. Here, she’s both uptight and irrational. But this, we come to realise, is because we’re seeing Eloise at her worst.

Nanny Jo figures it out — and in turn, Eloise figures out something important about Jo. And once Eloise figures out more about Huck and Teddy, she realises that the ‘caddish ex’ and the ‘appealing new guy’ are both two-dimensional romantic stereotypes. This is the kind of film that invites you to figure out its characters. It signposts this by having Jerry read a mystery novel at the table, explaining to his tablemates that he’s a ‘detective’.

Jerry and Bina are trying to figure out if their marriage is over. They’ve fallen into a patter of back-and-forth sparring that initially reads as two similarly sarcastic personalities, but is revealed as a mutual loneliness. When Renzo looks to Jerry for help figuring out girls, it’s Jerry who ends up following his own advice. Robinson and Kudrow — whom you’d expect to be the broadest comedians in the cast — actually offer the most affecting dramatic performances.

Merchant cuts a clownish, Mr Bean-like figure, and has some of the best comic moments in the film. But behind the low-level Four Weddings and a Funeral-type awkwardness engendered by Walter’s English diffidence, his subsequent estrangement from his family turns out to be quite sad — and made even sadder by his cheery resignation to his lot.

Too often, romantic comedies are slaves to their story beats: characters act in certain ways because the story requires them to. But I didn’t feel that way about Table 19. In its final act, the film certainly indulges in sentimentality, but it’s earned. The writers and director have taken stock comic characters and made them seem like actual people.

Table 19 is in cinemas now.

Mel Campbell is a freelance journalist and cultural critic. She blogs on style, history and culture at Footpath Zeitgeist and tweets at @incrediblemelk.