The sweet-and-salty chemistry of Josh Gad and Kevin Hart is good for a few yuks in “The Wedding Ringer,” a well-cast but clumsily assembled buddy-for-hire comedy that increasingly smacks of desperation as it approaches its big-day climax. It’s not that there’s anything wrong, in theory, with setting Cloris Leachman on fire or showing a guy getting fellated by a dog, but these and other sub-“Hangover” hijinks feel like over-the-top distractions from an otherwise predictably earnest tale of a big-hearted loner in need of some bromance en route to the altar. The ever-popular Hart scored a January 2014 smash with “Ride Along,” and if this Screen Gems item doesn’t hit quite the same box-office sweet spot, it could nevertheless pop a few champagne corks in Sony’s beleaguered executive suites.
Hart previously played a best man in last summer’s “Think Like a Man Too,” and he mercifully embodies a less manic, more toned-down version of that role here. That’s because his Jimmy Callahan is a consummate professional — a last resort for those socially inept, testosterone-deficient grooms who don’t have enough close guy friends to round out a proper bridal party. Pay Jimmy handsomely enough and he’ll throw you a crazy Vegas weekend, find you a few groomsmen, and give you a best-man toast to remember, crammed with fake tears and made-up memories — all before making off into the night with your money in his pocket and one of the more attractive wedding guests on his arm.
His latest and most difficult client is the nice, likable but improbably friendless Doug Harris (Gad), who’s desperate to find a best man just 10 days before his marriage to Gretchen (Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting). Enter Jimmy — or rather, enter Bic Mitchum, Doug’s fictitious best friend, a U.S. military priest who’s been ministering overseas and has just flown in for the impending nuptials. Gretchen being a spoiled blonde princess with hard-to-please parents (Ken Howard, Mimi Rogers) and no fewer than seven bridesmaids, Jimmy/Bic is also tasked with pulling off what is referred to, in best-man-industry parlance, as a “Golden Tux.” Basically, that means hiring a bunch of losers and layabouts — including an ex-con (Colin Kane), a hunky doofus (Alan Ritchson) and a guy with three testicles (Aaron Takahashi) — and training them to masquerade as Doug’s groomsmen, all without giving the game away.
The usual adolescent-horndog shenanigans ensue, involving all manner of random, highly exaggerated comic violence: Not surprisingly, canine sex act turns out to be the most ill-advised of Doug’s bachelor-party highlights (dogs have teeth, after all), while the fate of Gretchen’s grandmother (Leachman) seems to emerge from no particular comic motivation beyond “Old people are funny! And flammable!” In perhaps the most vigorous sequence attempted by debuting feature helmer Jeremy Garelick (who co-wrote the script with Jay Lavender), Doug’s future father-in-law challenges the groom-to-be and his “friends” to an epically muddy football game, shot and edited in only slightly more incoherent, slammed-together fashion than the rest of the movie.
The modest pleasures of “The Wedding Ringer” come from seeing Hart not just run his always-impressive motormouth, but deftly maneuver his way through a minefield of potential giveaways — a challenge that forces the actor-comedian to focus and deliver a shrewder, less obnoxious, more slyly modulated performance than usual. Gad, best known in movies for his delightful vocal turn as Olaf the snowman in “Frozen,” proves a similarly endearing live-action screen presence, and doesn’t let the top-billed Hart monopolize all the gags. It’s an inspired if not combustible screen pairing, partly because of the duo’s amusingly mismatched body types — it’s fun to see the heavy-set Gad dipping the diminutive Hart on the dance floor — but also because of the movie’s unforced but unmistakable subtext, predicated on the spectacle of a Jewish guy and his black sidekick charming their way into a lofty WASP enclave.
That reading is compounded by the casting of Argentine-American actor Ignacio Serricchio as Edmundo the wedding planner, a mincing gay stereotype who’s like a Latino version of Martin Short in “Father of the Bride” — but who, in one of the script’s better gags, turns out to be more complicated than he appears. That revelation dovetails nicely with the film’s eminently sensible message that it’s silly to try and impress people by putting on an elaborate masquerade — which is, in a sense, what too many weddings (and the industry that supports them) have become.
For all these assets, “The Wedding Ringer” ultimately flattens out in all-too-familiar ways as it tries to convince us that Jimmy/Bic is a needy, sensitive guy underneath it all, relegating the Doug-Gretchen romance to an afterthought. Unsurprisingly, this rowdy male-bonding exercise doesn’t encourage the most enlightened view of women — who, with the exception of the always-welcome Olivia Thirlby as Gretchen’s shrewd sister, exist mainly to be ogled, abandoned or immolated, as the situation demands.