The internet will correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure “The Wedding Guest” is the first time Dev Patel has handled a firearm in one of his movies. Five minutes into Michael Winterbottom’s Pakistan-set thriller, the actor walks into a shop, asks to try out a gun, and proceeds to inspect a semiautomatic pistol before settling on another. At this point, we don’t know the character’s name — and besides, we’ve seen him slip passports with four aliases into his suitcase — but Winterbottom is already actively manipulating stereotypes.
“The Wedding Guest” turns out to be the story of a professional, played by Patel but of the sort usually embodied by white men with square jaws and power-drill stares, who is contracted to kidnap a woman (Radhika Apte) on the eve of her arranged marriage and deliver her to the man she loves. But Winterbottom, as globe-trotting and genre-defying a filmmaker as they come, shows only limited interest in telling that kind of movie, leveraging unconventional settings, actors, and techniques to overturn what we expect from such a plot.
So, while “The Wedding Guest” assumes the superficial aspects of an action movie, it is in fact a far subtler enterprise at its core: In its attention to the gender dynamics and subtle power games underlying such a premise, the film plays out like Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s “About Elly” with guns, providing an edgier (if ultimately less effective) take on how a woman betrothed to a man she doesn’t love manages to disappear. Beneath the surface — and the somewhat artificial suspense of whether Apte’s character will run off with Patel — Winterbottom’s film serves as a critique of the limited options available to women in the Middle East.
It is not, as you may imagine, a movie that audiences will be flocking to see in theaters, or on demand for that matter, and though indie distributor IFC Films has enjoyed a certain amount of success with Winterbottom (dating back at least to “The Killer Inside Me,” but with “The Trip” and its sequels especially), this title seems destined soon to be forgotten by all but Patel’s fans.
The actor’s career began just over a decade earlier with the British coming-of-age series “Skins,” and took off in a significant way the following year when he starred in the Oscar-winning “Slumdog Millionaire.” Around that time, Patel gave an interview to a British paper in which he noted, “Asian actors tend not to be sent Hollywood scripts that are substantial or challenging. I’m likely to be offered the roles of a terrorist, cab driver, and smart geek.” This film is a step above, but hardly the breakthrough Patel deserves.
As fellow British actor Riz Ahmed recently explained to NPR, non-white actors often face a frustrating three-stage process to overcome typecasting. Early on, they tend to be offered what he called “Stage 1” roles — reductive, race-based bit parts — whereas “The Wedding Guest” provides Patel a rarer “Stage 2” opportunity, what Ahmed describes as “stories that take place on explicitly ethnicized terrain, but aim to subvert those [stereotypes].” The goal, in Ahmed’s eyes, is to reach “Stage 3,” “where I’m not shackled to my ethnicity.” But Patel has a unique kind of problem: He’s an infinitely likable actor of limited range, and as such, he’s bound by more than just his skin color: Regardless of race, he’s a scrawny, youthful, and thoroughly nonthreatening presence onscreen.
To see Patel wielding a gun, as we do in “The Wedding Guest,” doesn’t register as it ought to. It’s assumed, but never explored, that such a for-hire specialist would have navigated situations like this before, but he botches the extraction, shooting an armed guard in the escape, and he does a clumsy job of explaining the situation to the client. Why present Patel as the middleman at all? Wouldn’t it have been more directly engaging if he had been the bride-to-be’s secret lover, come to spirit her away on the eve of her marriage? And wouldn’t the unexpected course their relationship sets in its final minutes have worked just as effectively if he’d been infatuated with her since the beginning, as opposed to falling for her so late in the film?
Winterbottom has spent far more time than most Western directors making Middle East-set stories. He first featured Pakistan in 2002’s “In This World,” and has returned to the region several times since, which pays off here in the almost casual way he incorporates the atmosphere of his Indian locations — whether it’s a crowded market or an isolated desert-scape — into the film. What’s lacking is personality from the human characters, which is a serious failing, considering how the film shifts into character mode as Apte slowly emerges as an equal to Patel, while both remain too guarded for audiences to fully appreciate as people.
That’s not entirely surprising, since Winterbottom’s best movies have been those credited to writers other than himself. Here, watching him juggle the expectations of genre with the elements intended to make this particular entry feel original, one is easily reminded of more successful attempts at refreshing the abduction/rescue formula — films like “Out of Sight” or “You Were Never Really Here,” whose directors mixed a specificity of character with their lead actors’ natural charisma to steer things in an original direction. Winterbottom works differently, taking material shot in a dizzying array of locations and honing it down as if making a documentary. While that approach makes for an unconventional thriller in an unusual milieu, it mistakes texture for the sort of character details that would have made such an excursion feel convincing.