In a romantic comedy, any good-looking British actor can probably coast along on his charm and accent and manners. But to do what Hugh Grant did in the ’90s — to make you believe that for all his cultivation and civilized sex appeal, he lives inside a spectacular thicket of self-doubt that’s even more enchanting than pure confidence…well, that takes a true actor, and maybe a star. And that’s the quality Sam Claflin has in the minor but captivating “Love Wedding Repeat.” He plays Jack, who spends his sister’s wedding trying to put out a dozen fires at once (and to woo the love of his life, who he may never see again). To say that the character is working overtime to hold himself together would be an understatement. He’s exquisitely flummoxed.
At the outset we hear a narrator, who sounds like the ribald version of a “Masterpiece Theatre” host (to my ears it sounded like Judi Dench, though there’s no listing in the credits), as she offers up cynical bites of wisdom like “One bit of bad luck, and it all goes tits up.” It, in this case, being life.
The opening sequence is set in Rome, where Jack has just been shown around the city by his sister’s friend, an American war journalist named Dina (Olivia Munn). As their moment of farewell approaches, they appear to be warming up to a first kiss, but they’re interrupted by a pushy former school chum of Jack’s who offers to take him to the airport. And Jack is so nice and polite that he can’t nudge the dude away; he blows his big moment. In movies, this sort of “Quick, call the life coach!” ineptitude can be a funny thing, but when the comedy of romantic anxiety approaches the threshold of pain, it’s no mere laughing matter. Claflin, in this role, shows Grant’s ability to keep a scene of stammering geekishness light and bubbly and, at the same time, sincere.
Three years later, the film cuts to a sun-drenched Roman villa where Haley (Eleanor Tomlinson), Jack’s peachy-sweet and frazzled sister, is marrying Roberto (Tiziano Caputo), a courtly Italian who’s elegant with a touch of mystery, like a missing Corleone brother. The rest of the film is set at the wedding reception, an idealized afternoon it views as a roving microcosm of human foible and folly. Dina is there, so Jack will get another chance to connect with her. They’ve both had failed relationships in between, and given how they melted together before, you think: What could go wrong? The answer, of course, is everything. Yet the quirky elegance of “Love Wedding Repeat” is that it keeps the mishaps flowing in a life-size way.
The writer-director, Dean Craig, has written and produced episodes of shows like “Hit the Road” and “Off the Hook,” but this is his first time directing, and he’s got a spry and glancing champagne touch, a way of crafting scenes that go right to your head. “Love Wedding Repeat” is a loose riff on the 2012 French movie “Plan de Table,” and it unfolds, more or less, in real time, which gives it an existential comedy-of-suspense element that trumps the usual Styrofoam rom-com plotting. The classical music playing in the background doesn’t make the film stodgy; it creates a sustained operatic flow.
And the actors are simply terrific, from Claflin, who manages to be all-thumbs neurotic and matinee-idol dashing at the same time, to Olivia Munn, who knocks dialogue back and forth with ping-pong timing even as she summons the ravishing glamour of Sophia Loren, to Joel Fry, who plays Haley’s “man of honor” Bryan as a gangly soul who’s like Kramer from “Seinfeld” crossed with Hamlet, to Eleanor Tomlinson as the bride who’s all but quivering with the secret that could ruin her life, to Jack Farthing as the coked-up stalker who shows up to spill it, to Freida Pinto as Jack’s imperious sharp-tongued ex to Allan Mustafa as her dull-witted music-producer boyfriend (whose obsession with the size of his genitals is a farce that’s also a crusade), to Tim Key as a kilt-wearing car-insurance salesman whose cluelessness with the ladies is matched only by his confidence.
The movie, even as it percolates with romantic hope, turns into a slow-motion chain reaction of disaster. It all emerges from the glitch that takes place when Haley orders Jack to spike a champagne flute with a powerful sleeping sedative, so that Marc the stalker won’t spill the beans on the fact that he and Haley shagged a few weeks ago. But the wrong person gets drugged, and the rest is (farcical) misery.
That is, until the movie, halfway through, pushes reset. It plays out the same wedding scenario all over again, only with a different person — in this case, Jack — getting drugged. Yes, it’s one of those movies. But we haven’t had a good one in a while, and “Love Wedding Repeat” returns us to the fanciful confectionary ’90 vibe of “Sliding Doors” and “Serendipity” and “Run Lola Run,” in which tiny events set off erupting particle chains of fate. For a bit, the second scenario looks even more hapless than the first (it kicks off with Dina catching Jack in the men’s room in the most hilariously compromising of positions). But that’s all intentional. “Love Wedding Repeat” is about life’s way of snatching triumph from the jaws of desperation. It’s also about Jack learning not to be such a nice guy. When he finally casts off his straitjacket of exquisite British manners, you’ll want to applaud.