Frida Betrani, Benjamin Ratner

Helmer Bruce Sweeney hits a homer his third time at bat. The first-ever Western Canadian effort to open the Toronto fest, "Last Wedding" is as precise a record as anyone could hope for when it comes to Vancouver and its sushi-chomping discontents, circa 2001.

Helmer Bruce Sweeney hits a homer his third time at bat. The first-ever Western Canadian effort to open the Toronto fest, “Last Wedding” is as precise a record as anyone could hope for when it comes to Vancouver and its sushi-chomping discontents, circa 2001. A veritable catalog of bad behavior and urban unease, the pic bears some resemblance to the dyspeptic black comedy of Neil LaBute and the ensemble-workshopping of Mike Leigh, but Sweeney is much more forgiving of his screw-ups, who hover on the edge of self-knowledge. Within the three matched — or, one could say, grossly mismatched — sets of strangers who populate this dark landscape, breakout perfs come from Benjamin Ratner and Frida Betrani, who rack up more screen time as the inexplicably engaged couple of the semi-apocalyptic title. While not exactly brimming with hope or belly laughs, stunningly frank depiction of modern sexuality and steady stream of razor-sharp banter suggest that the good-looking, fast-running pic could be marketed successfully as an upscale answer to the Farrellys.

This “Wedding” starts and ends with three men in a hot tub, but too much strange mojo is destined to happen in between to allow them a comfortable soak at either juncture. To begin with, repressed, needy Noah (Ratner), who repairs the leaky condos that plague rain-battered Vancouver, can’t get his pals excited about the marriage he’s so fervently talking himself into. Truth be told, he and pretty, dark-eyed Zipporah (Betrani), an aspiring country singer whose music he’s never heard, don’t have much in common besides a mutual attraction and an almost grim determination to get hitched before their mid-30s are over.

His buds seem better off, but not for long. A garrulous college-lit prof with a sloppy appetite and bad clothes sense, Peter (Tom Scholte) appears well suited to Leslie (Nancy Sivak), a soulfully bookish librarian — until a sexy student (Marya Delver) broadsides him with a self-penned ode to female lust.

Meanwhile, intensely bearded architect Shane (Vincent Gale) is having problems coping with the sudden success of his live-in g.f. Sarah (Molly Parker), a somewhat superficial go-getter who’s gone straight from graduate school into a high-toned building firm.

Surrounded by this sea of desire and conceit, Noah and Zippy have their blessed union, followed by much door-slamming and feeble attempts by each, alternately, to reach and wrest power from the other. Neither is congenitally designed to talk about general interests, let alone deeper fears and feelings, so their only meeting place is in the bedroom. With all three couples, the withholding and bestowing of sex is the ultimate indicator of who’s currently holding the reins, and a few scenes here — especially ones depicting rewards literally handed to out-of-control guys — are guaranteed to turn Jack Valenti’s last two dark hairs white.

Sweeney, who again scripted (after intense rounds of improvisation) and used many of the same people who populated his first two outings, “Dirty” and “Live Bait,” favors viciously barbed language and shocking twists (underlined by Ross Weber’s vertiginous clipping), but the more inflammatory the material, the less sensational his approach becomes. Where the earlier pics were stark, grainy and agitated in style, this one consists of smooth, placid surfaces and soothing pastel tones.

Lenser David Pelletier and designer Tony Devenyi aptly capture appearance of gentle sophistication that belies the raw, rootless energy of the Upper Left Coast, and this conflict between form and feeling informs much of the chatter, rife with specifics that connect various kinds of politics, with the sexual and social in the foreground. Some religious asides are also sharply amusing, as when a rabbi patiently explains to the not-exactly-observant fiancees why they can’t, you know, get married on a Saturday!

Cast is uniformly strong, with the elegant Parker making a welcome move away from her stoical bad-girl roles. It could be argued that script might have revealed more underpinning to characters’ particular hiccups; Zippy is afforded some back-story, through incisive scenes with her pushy, exasperated mother and too-perfect sister (Babz Chula and Kathleen Duborg, respectively), while Noah is pretty much on his own. But Sweeney is going for a Beckett-like blankness at times, with the thesps providing all the coloration their outlandish situations will allow. (As in helmer’s past, music is a rather perfunctory ingredient.) Final shot of the newlyweds, with her peering through a smashed window at hubby hiding behind a bed, is unforgettably emblematic of “Wedding,” and perhaps of marriage itself.

Last Wedding

Production

A Last Wedding Prods. (Vancouver) production, with support from the Canadian Television Fund, Telefilm Canada, in association with TMN, Chum Television and BC Film. (International sales, excluding U.S.: ThinkFilm, Toronto.) Produced by Steven Hegyes. Executive producer, G.D. Sweeney. Directed, written by Bruce Sweeney.

Crew

Camera (color), David Pelletier; editor, Ross Weber; music, Don MacDonald; production designer, Tony Devenyi; set decorator, Dina Zecchel; costume designer, Andrea Hiestand; sound, Jeff Carter; sound design, Adam Boyd; line producer, Jacquelyn Renner; assistant director, Dave Bene. Reviewed in Vancouver, Sept. 1, 2001. (In Toronto Film Festival -- Galas, opening night; Vancouver Film Festival.) Running time: 101 MIN.

With

Noah - Benjamin Ratner Zipporah - Frida Betrani Peter - Tom Scholte Leslie - Nancy Sivak Shane - Vincent Gale Sarah - Molly Parker
With: Babz Chula, Kathleen Duborg, Marya Delver, Jay Brazeau, Kevin McNulty, Jennifer Clement, Bredan Beiser, David Lovgren, Jason Gray-Stanford, Rebecca Harker, Wendy Noel, Simone Bailly, Jillian Fargey, Sam Feldman.
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