Saturday, March 22, 2014

Flashback, March 1994: ‘4 Weddings and a Funeral,’ ‘90s Rom-Com Classic, Opens

I could, I suppose, never get around to noting the 20th anniversary this month of the release of Four Weddings and a Funeral, the comedy that became the highest-grossing British film in history. But it would be more than an oversight: overlooking it in this space would feel downright unjust.

Quite simply, I can’t think of another rom-com from that time that gave me such all-around pleasure. Quite a few in the cast and crew would go on to have other moments of triumph, but to my mind, none would ever again appear in a work that shone so brightly—including the male lead, Hugh Grant.

Till then, Grant had been known primarily for dramatic fare (though his role as composer Frederic Chopin, confused and sputtering about force of nature George Sand, in Impromptu, had given a hint that he possessed broader range). Screenwriter Richard Curtis has claimed that the actor won the role of Charles, the inevitable best man at weddings who never gets to the altar himself, after more than 70 actors had auditioned for it. That might be an exaggeration, but it seems impossible now to imagine anyone else in the role. 

In a retrospective on the film in Britain’s The Guardian, Catherine Shoard wryly observed that Grant represented “an aspirational version of Curtis, with glossier hair and deeper cheekbones.” True, perhaps. The implication is that Grant won the role because of his looks, but Curtis has been adamant that he was reluctant to see him in the role because he was too good-looking. 

It was good the screenwriter overcame his resistance. While possessing the requisite looks that would make female viewers melt, Grant caught every nuance of wit and awkwardness of his commitment-phobic bachelor. The dark looks and effortless wit invited inevitable comparisons to an earlier Briton with the surname Grant—Cary—though with enough stammers to make him more approachable than godlike.

The comment by a female friend of mine about Grant—“he’s adorable!”—summed up pretty nicely the feminine reaction to the actor (until the news broke a couple of years later of his encounter with Divine Brown, anyway). His presence surely accounted for this sleeper hit's appeal to one half of its audience. But the film also caught the frequent male yearning for The Woman Who Got Away. (See, for instance, Bernstein’s reflection in Citizen Kane, 40 years after the fact, of seeing a woman in a white dress, carrying a white parasol, on her way to New Jersey on the ferry: “I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since that I haven’t thought of that girl.”)

The actress who ended up playing “that girl” in Four Weddings and a Funeral, Andie MacDowell, has come in for a fair amount of criticism from fans of the film. Kate Nagy, posting on the “Heroes and Heartbreakers” blog last year, offers a sort-of defense of the actress. (To sum up her argument: Yes, MacDowell was bad, but the script offered little to no room for development, anyway.)

There are a couple of ways to approach this question. First, was MacDowell talented to begin with? The answer to that, in the affirmative, had been given five years before, in Sex, Lies and Videotape.

Second, were there actresses who could have played the part better? This last one becomes more interesting, though also trickier. After the successful art-house film Enchanted April, director Mike Newell could pick from a large pool of actresses ready to play the American beauty Carrie in Four Weddings and a Funeral. The one he originally cast, Jeanne Tripplehorn, had to withdraw for personal reasons, but there is no certainty at all that she would have been better than MacDowell. (She did not, after all, display much chemistry with Grant a couple of years later when they were paired in Mickey Blue Eyes.)

Another early candidate for Carrie is more intriguing: Marisa Tomei. The one trait that Curtis’ script mentions about Carrie—her fairly sizable list of lovers—was meant to convey not that she was promiscuous but that she was a spunky free spirit. Tomei could have embodied that effortlessly (see, for instance, her Oscar-winning role in My Cousin Vinny) and might have inspired Curtis to tailor more material for her talents.

The fact that Curtis didn’t create in Carrie the kind of vivacious heroine of Thirties romantic comedies such as Irene Dunne, Claudette Colbert, Carole Lombard or Jean Arthur comes from the time and craft he spent on the subsidiary characters who swirl around Charles, in some of the most memorable scenes in 1990s cinema. These include Rowan Atkinson's exceptionally nervous minister; Kristin Scott Thomas' Fiona, the cynical aristocratic friend who can’t help carrying a torch for Charles; David Bower as Charles' deaf (and ribald) brother David; and John Hannah, whose Matthew, eulogizing his male longtime companion, started a rush to the bookstores by reciting W.H. Auden’s poem “Funeral Blues.”

Curtis took up directing after Four Weddings and a Funeral. With the film he released last fall, About Time, he has announced that though he’ll remain active in the film industry, he will no longer helm any pictures. This may be just as well, since, in his two subsequent vehicles for Grant—Notting Hill and Love Actually—the sentimentality that remained under control in his collaboration with Newell became unchecked, with no other creative force to balance out his creative choices with a dash of vinegar.

But, along the way, Curtis had still managed to write a script that, if not perfect, was so consistently winning that nobody noticed the difference. My own favorite scene in the Oscar-nominated Four Weddings and a Funeral involves Charles and Carrie. MacDowell doesn’t have to do much here, but Grant nails Charles’ hilarious—and humanizing—tongue-tied eloquence definitively:

[Charles comes running after Carrie]

Charles: “Ehm, look. Sorry, sorry. I just, ehm, well, this is a very stupid question and... , particularly in view of our recent shopping excursion, but I just wondered, by any chance, ehm, eh, I mean obviously not because I guess I've only slept with 9 people, but-but I-I just wondered... ehh. I really feel, ehh, in short, to recap it slightly in a clearer version, eh, the words of David Cassidy in fact, eh, while he was still with the Partridge family, eh, ‘I think I love you,’ and eh, I-I just wondered by any chance you wouldn't like to... Eh... Eh... No, no, no of course not... I'm an idiot, he's not... Excellent, excellent, fantastic, eh, I was gonna say lovely to see you, sorry to disturb... Better get on...”

Carrie: “That was very romantic.”

Charles: “Well, I thought it over a lot, you know, I wanted to get it just right.”

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