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THE BIG WEDDING

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French comedies generally haven’t traveled well in terms of Hollywood remakes, and “The Big Wedding” is no exception to the rule. It’s based on Jean-Stephane Bron’s 2006 “Mon frère se marie,” and despite a strong ensemble cast Justin Zackham’s redo has about as much distinction as its blander-than-bland title.

Bron’s original was about the upcoming nuptials of a Vietnamese boy who’d been adopted by a Swiss couple. The arrival of his traditionalist biological mother and uncle required his dysfunctional family to strive to pretend amity for the duration. Zackham changes the setting to the US, and turns the Vietnamese lad into a Colombian. His mother is a hard-lined Catholic, and the local parish priest, despite some personal quirks, is equally so. Many other complications ensue, which turn the story into an extended sitcom with a particularly raunchy streak that grows more and more artificial and hard to stomach as it proceeds.

The kernel of the Bron/Zackham premise derives from “La Cage aux Folles,” and it’s really no more reasonable this time around. Alejandro (Ben Barnes) is marrying Missy (Amanda Seyfried), daughter of Muffin (Christine Ebersole) and Barry (David Rasche). Fearful of what his mother Madonna (Patricia Rae) will think of his adoptive parents Don (Roberto De Niro) and Ellie (Diane Keaton) being divorced, he asks them to pretend still to be happily married. Unfortunately that will freeze our Bebe (Susan Sarandon), Don’s long-time live-in girlfriend (and Ellie’s onetime best friend), who also happens to be catering the wedding party.

Then there are Alejandro’s siblings, Lyla (Katherine Heigl) and Jared (Topher Grace). She’s estranged from her father and separated from her husband. And when she visits her brother, a doctor, at the hospital where he works, she faints at the sight of the newborns—which signals something immediately to the audience, though Doc Jared, slow on the uptake, won’t understand the significance until way down the line. Jared, meanwhile, has been turning down women’s approaches until he finds his authentic soul mate. But when Madonna shows up with her beautiful daughter Nuria (Ana Ayora), however, he’s instantly smitten, and the girl seems ready to party.

The final figure in the equation is Father Monighan (Robin Williams), the parish priest who’s to perform the ceremony, and who reads the young couple the riot act during their pre-nuptial conference.

With an ensemble like this, one would expect some laughs—and a bit of depth. Unfortunately, you get very little of either. Zackham’s default setting is sexual naughtiness (nothing too steamy, but a lot of slapstick in the sack and out), and always at embarrassing moments. Worse, the script doesn’t lend any consistency to the characters, who abruptly change from moment to moment for the sake of some cheap laugh. Even in farce a character needs a basic grounding to function effectively within a plot, however intricate it might be. Here, though, the characters are mere pawns who will be at odds one moment and in bed the next (or drunk and then suddenly sober, irate and then abruptly calm), to serve the needs of the script. The result by the close—which itself brings some truly weird, incredible revelations—is that the story has lost the most elementary basis in realism, which even a sitcom needs.

Still, the cast do try hard, as embarrassing as some of the stuff they have to do might be. Among the leads De Niro and Keaton are worst used, though they’re certainly game, while Sarandon is stuck with the more serious, sentimental stuff. Among those in support, you most pity Heigl and Grace, while Williams tries to get by through underplaying (not very successfully, his character being so poorly written). But even he is better off than Barnes, since Alejandro (like the son in “La Cage”) is basically a jerk, or Rasche and Ebersole, who as the prospective in-laws are compelled to act like a couple of nitwits. (The jokes about Muffin’s cosmetic surgery are particularly crude.) On the visual side, the picture is bright and classy, with an agreeable production design (Andrew Jackness), elegant costume design (Aude Bronson-Howard) and lush cinematography (Jonathan Brown).

Undemanding viewers of mediocre network sitcoms might enjoy “The Big Wedding,” which is about on a par with them. But in the end it’s as synthetic as the script tells us Muffin’s face has been rendered by constant nipping and tucking, and feels especially noxious because of all the acting talent it wastes.

TO THE WONDER

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Banal ideas presented as deep thoughts and bandied about in a self-consciously poetic style are the essence of “To the Wonder,” the latest unsuccessful effort by Terrence Malick to prove he’s the cinematic artist so many critics have claimed he is. It has some beautiful images—though frankly not as many as one might expect—but is unconscionably obvious and redundant, shedding no appreciable light on the subject it seeks to address. Though smaller in scale than Malick’s previous film, the flamboyantly artsy “The Tree of Life,” it’s similarly potent evidence of the writer-director’s descent into a profound pretentiousness of message, unhappily wed to an equally profound pretentiousness of technique. The real reason for wonderment is that many critics are likely to shower it with lavish praise.

The film begins—and closes—with the structure that’s identified as the titular “wonder”—the medieval Norman-Breton monastery of Mont-Saint-Michel, which we first see Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) visiting. In addition to investigating the interior gardens of the remarkable abbey—built on an offshore hill over 200 feet high linked to the mainland by a causeway that was once covered by the sea when the tide came in (and the most popular tourist site in France after Versailles)—the couple walk on the surrounding land as it’s slowly being covered by the water.

That ebb and flow becomes the motif of the film, which goes on to portray the on-and-off character of Neil and Marina’s relationship. The joyful moments are depicted through repetitive scenes of her gamboling about beautiful Parisian parks and then vast Oklahoma fields, where the two move (along with Marina’s 10-year old daughter Tatiana, played by Tatiana Chiline), though she even dances atop their bed in Bartlesville, where they settle (and where Neil, who’s some sort of engineer, stalks around oilfields for signs of environmental contamination). Meanwhile the episodes of romance on the rocks are represented by long, desultory shots of Neil and Marina brooding and grimacing as they prowl around their house’s hallways and large, barren yard. These sequences—which drag on interminably, accompanied by supposedly penetrating though actually vacuous narration from Marina—are apparently intended to prove that Malick is the American Antonioni. (He wishes.) And they’re interrupted by an episode in which Marina actually goes back to France—and Neil takes up briefly with an erstwhile girlfriend (Rachel McAdams)—before she returns and they resume their now-joyous, now-poisonous life together.

But there’s a second strand to the “plot,” which one can trace back to the sacred space of Mont-Saint-Michel too—a search for communion with God. That’s represented by Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), Bartlesville’s morose parish priest, who—between pedestrian sermons that he doles out to sparse congregations, marriages he performs without conviction, and sessions with Marina (at one point giving her communion privately in church)—wanders about the poorer sections of town, offering comfort to the downtrodden that proves cold indeed, both for them and him, while reciting lugubrious voice-overs about his desperate desire for a sense of personal union with Christ that he never really feels. It seems that in Malick’s universe, it’s as hard to connect with God vas it is to enjoy a relationship of continuing love with another human being.

Admirers might call all this ruminative, even somehow deep; but in reality it’s merely languid (even in the sequences of Marina’s joyful dancing, which go on forever) and shallow. Things perk up momentarily in a few scenes with Chiline as the volatile, mouthy Tatiana, and there’s a curious sequence with Romina Mondello as Anna, Marina’s fiery Italian friend, who shows up without explanation to encourage the unhappy woman to break out of her rut and declare her independence. But these more energetic interruptions don’t add much meat to the dramatically desiccated bones that make up the picture’s flabby narrative. “To the Wonder” winds up in a single shot of Mont-Saint-Michel in the distance, as if to remind us of the key metaphor the picture started with but signally failed to illuminate with any emotional impact.

One pities the cast, especially Affleck, who’s stuck with a part so vacuous that it might have been played by a handsome wooden mannequin, and Bardem, whose doleful countenance and unvaryingly pained manner make him a consummate bore from his first appearance. One senses more depth in Marina, but the character remains obstinately opaque, and Kurylenko can do little to bring her to life, though she prances about with aplomb in those repetitive dance sequences. But all three, as well as the supporting players, are props that have as much authentic humanity to them as the wheat in the Oklahoma fields that Emmanuel Lubezki has photographed, along with everything else, with poise, even in the hand-held shots. The background score makes use of classical clips—most notably from Wagner’s Parsifal prelude—interspersed with newly-composed cuts by Hanan Townshend that are fairly innocuous and unobtrusive.

As so often happens with bad movies, “To the Wonder” includes a line of dialogue that somehow seems a perfect summation. This time it comes from the exuberant Anna, who looks around at Marina’s life and says, “There’s nothing here!” Malick’s film will get predictable plaudits from many critics, but the fact is that once again, this cinematic emperor arrives very scantily attired.