Truly beguiling romantic comedy is one of the hardest things for a modern film to pull off, but a winning British team has done it in “Four Weddings and a Funeral.” Frequently hilarious without being sappily sentimental or tiresomely retrograde, this Gramercy release, which bows tonight as the opening-night attraction at the Sundance Film Festival, holds strong appeal as a date- and couples-oriented entry and should be a good vid title as well.
Whether or not they acknowledge their antecedents (as “Sleepless in Seattle” did), romantic comedies these days have a great deal of trouble not looking like pale copies of the dizzy and enchanting entertainments that Hollywood did so well in the 1930s. Another problem is that the screen’s increased frankness makes adherence to the traditional standards seem coy or naive, but foisting too much lewdness on old-fashioned conventions often produces coarse and unconvincing results.
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Screenwriter Richard Curtis (“The Tall Guy,” many award-winning BBC productions) has hit just the right balance with this story, which is original in every sense of the word. The splendidly performed account of how an unlikely match is made across the bridge provided by the five title events, Mike Newell’s pic is knowingly funny about sex and structurally unusual enough to set it apart from countless other films in the genre, old and recent.
Charles (Hugh Grant) is a charming bumbler whose natural elegance, wit and good looks give him a certain advantage over the other men in his circle of friends, but who still suffers from the same self-doubts as everyone else. At an English country wedding, he meets and, after a series of missed connections, is very willingly seduced by another guest, the gorgeous and exceedingly accommodating American Carrie (Andie MacDowell).
At another wedding three months later, the mere sight of Carrie sets Charles’ heart aflutter, but his hopes are dismally dashed when Carrie announces that she’s engaged.
Back in London, in the film’s only non-ceremonial interlude, the lovestruck Charles sits at a cafe as Carrie reels off a chronological and rather lengthy enumeration of her lifetime’s worth of bedmates, and then can’t help but blurt out his profound feelings for her even as she’s heading to the alter with a wealthy older Scotsman (Corin Redgrave).
So it’s with wistful resignation that Charles journeys to the knight’s northern castle for Carrie’s wedding. A sudden death at the reception precipitates the funeral, at which the heretofore unknown diversity and depth of Charles’ inner circle is revealed.
Just when it seems that the scenarist has boxed himself into a corner by climaxing matters with Charles’ own wedding (to one of his former girlfriends), out comes a string of nifty surprises that may lead to a predictable end but make the viewer squirm with delightful anxiety through the final reel.
Like a good deal of first-rate screwball fare, much of this can be characterized as the comedy of frustration and humiliation.
As always, the success of such lighthearted nonsense depends upon the appeal, adeptness and timing of the cast, and it is here that the film really soars. Since making his mark in “Maurice,” Grant has scored mostly in deftly etched supporting roles, but here he emerges as a first-class romantic farceur who, in his ability to absorb innumerable comic arrows with grace, recalls a fellow Brit with the same surname who excelled at this sort of thing some 60 years ago. Grant’s got just the combination of good looks, rueful self-disparagement, quickness and bespectacled nerdiness to carry off refined, sophisticated screen comedy.
MacDowell gives her role everything it needs — allure, warmth, a natural breeziness and a worldliness enhanced by romanticism. As they should in comedy, the supporting players cut vivid figures at the outset and seem like old friends by the end. Simon Callow, James Fleet, John Hannah, Kristin Scott Thomas and Charlotte Coleman all have memorable moments as regulars in the traveling company of celebrants, and David Bower has a couple of choice scenes as Charles’ deaf brother. Best of all is Rowan Atkinson, uproarious as a priest who can’t quite get the names of the wedding party right.
Displaying full responsiveness to the nuances of the script, director Newell (“Enchanted April”) sets a sly tone at once and keeps the characters’ humor and libidos bubbling throughout. Tech crew has supplied the film with a lush look that boosts the material.