A throwback to family comedies of yesteryear, "Polish Wedding," Theresa Connelly's feature directorial debut, provides a schmaltzy, old-fashioned chronicle of one large Polish-American family living in a Detroit working-class neighborhood.

A throwback to family comedies of yesteryear, “Polish Wedding,” Theresa Connelly’s feature directorial debut, provides a schmaltzy, old-fashioned chronicle of one large Polish-American family living in a Detroit working-class neighborhood. An extremely attractive and hard-working cast headed by Lena Olin, Gabriel Byrne and Claire Danes struggles valiantly to overcome a frivolous script that’s full of cliches. Bound to be dismissed by the more cerebral critics as too broad and outmoded, Fox Searchlight release will have to rely on the sex appeal of its stars, which is abundant here, and on the feel-good nature of the romp, which goes out of its way to please viewers.

It’s so rare nowadays to see onscreen an American family that’s not dysfunctional, that writer-helmer Connelly deserves credit for going against the grain. She constructs a portrait of a family that, while boisterously turbulent, still manages to keep a unified facade and maintain its motto, passed down from one generation to another, that there’s nothing more important than “making life and making love.”

In theory, “Polish Wedding” aspires to do for its ethnic community what Norman Jewison’s “Moonstruck” (1987) did for the Italian-American. But, at this phase of her career, neophyte Connelly lacks the flair and visual style that elevated “Moonstruck” way above its slight plot. Nor does she possess sharp writing skills to endow her episodic movie with bright vignettes and acute observations.

The gorgeous Olin stars as Jadzia Pzoniak, a middle-aged matriarch who runs her family with an iron fist. An extremely proud woman who cleans toilets for a living, Jadzia boasts of giving birth to five children, “four of them real men,” as she says. While the boys always obey her, her beautiful adolescent daughter, Chala (Danes), proves strong-willed and independent.

On the verge of exploring her sexuality, Chala attracts the attention of the entire community. Late at night, she has a secret rendezvous with Russell (Adam Trese), her neighbor cop, and it doesn’t take long for her to become pregnant by him. In the manner of ’50s melodramas, Chala’s pregnancy and Russell’s being forced to marry her become the main thread in the otherwise plotless narrative. The only novel and modernistic aspect in Connelly’s rendition of communal life is her explicit treatment of sex.

Though seemingly happily married to Bolek (Byrne), a laid-back man who works at a bakery, Jadzia has a longtime affair with Roman (Rade Serbedzija). It’s almost an open affair, as hubby and other family members are always around when Jadzia prepares for her weekly assignation. There’s also malicious gossip to fight within the closely knit neighborhood. “Polish Wedding” is the kind of farce in which, whenever somebody has illicit sex, someone else wakes up suddenly, as if sensing that something fishy is going on. Some tensions prevail in the marriage of Ziggi (Daniel Lapaine) and Sofie (Mimi Avital), whose baby is crying all the time. Still suffering from a painful birth, Sofie is determined not to have babies anymore, which of course irritates the matriarch. Connelly briefly acknowledges these strains, along with Chala’s feelings that she is trapped in a dull town. But for the sake of having one big cheerful ending — a clamorous Polish wedding — all conflicts are neatly silenced, if not resolved.

Since not much in the film is realistic or credible, the only way for contempo audiences to accept this conservative ideology of happy families is to suspend disbelief and go along for the ride by concentrating on the gorgeous people who decorate the screen.

“Polish Wedding” is a movie of gratifying small moments, some of which are hilariously funny and charged with healthy eroticism — for instance, the scene in which all the women in the family confide that they got married as adolescents because they were pregnant, and the sexual reconciliation between Jadzia and Bolek.

Whatever is missing by way of rigorous structure or substance is partly compensated for by the alluring thesps, most of whom are asked to behave like buffoons.

Guy Dufaux’s lensing is remarkably sensual, the camera caressing the performers in a flattering manner that accentuates their natural sex appeal. Nonetheless, Curtiss Clayton and Suzanne Fenn’s editing can’t conceal a disjointedly messy movie that plods along until it reaches its predestined conclusion.

Polish Wedding

Production

A Fox Searchlight release, in association with Lakeshore Entertainment, of a Fox Searchlight presentation of an Addis/Wechsler production. Produced by Tom Rosenberg, Julia Chasman, Geoff Stier. Executive producers, Nick Wechsler, Sigurjon Sighvatsson, Ted Tannenbaum. Co-producers, Gregory Goodman, Richard S. Wright. Directed, written by Theresa Connelly.

With

Jadzia Pzoniak - Lena Olin Bolek Pzoniak - Gabriel Byrne Chala Pzoniak - Claire Danes Russell Schuster - Adam Trese Sofie Pzoniak - Mimi Avital Ziggi Pzoniak - Daniel Lapaine Roman - Rade Serbedzija
Camera (Deluxe color), Guy Dufaux; editors, Curtiss Clayton, Suzanne Fenn; music, Luis Bacalov; production design, Kara Lindstrom; costume design, Donna Zakowska. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (premiere), Jan. 17, 1998. Running time: 107 min.

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