Not two minutes into “The Big Wedding,” we know what its primary purpose is: to allow Robert De Niro to earn a paycheck for minimal work. The film begins with lackadaisical voiceover from the legend-turned-professional-phoner-iner that’s reminiscent of most of the other roles he’s collected on lately, in “New Year’s Eve” and “Little Fockers” and “Everybody’s Fine” and so on and so forth. He speaks about his character’s cutely dysfunctional family in that relaxed tone that has become commonplace in the latter portion of his career: vaguely pleasing (he is De Niro, after all), but all too compliant to read from lackluster scripts. Isn’t it something of a tragedy that the man who was once the premier American actor has relegated himself to these bastions of mediocrity? He was a raging bull, now he’s a raging bullshitter.
Of course, De Niro isn’t the only veteran Oscar-winner slumming here, presumably for the sake of bolstering their grandchildren’s inheritance. He’s joined by Diane Keaton and Susan Sarandon, playing his ex-wife and new girlfriend, respectively, and Robin Williams, playing a wisecracking priest, apparently because writer/director Justin Zackham was the only person who found Williams’ similarly loony reverend in 2007’s “License to Wed” amusing. Perhaps the worst thing about “The Big Wedding” is the simple fact that this is the project that such talented actors chose to spend their time working on, when they were capable of so much more. The younger cast—Amanda Seyfried (who’s gifted but chooses the worst films), Katherine Heigl, and Topher Grace, plus no-names—are much more suited to this style of Hallmark cinema.
Who is the target audience for “The Big Wedding”? The film is a contradiction in that it’s the kind of sleepy, old-folks-headlined ensemble comedy that would typically appeal to senile senior matinee-hounds, but it’s also full of bawdy, R-rated “humor” outside that audience’s comfort zone. As De Niro and Keaton’s clan convene for the wedding of their adopted son, Alejandro (Ben Barnes), they end up encountering more bodily fluids and functions together than the average family does in their entire lives. Heigl vomits on De Niro, Keaton walks in on De Niro performing oral sex on Sarandon, the desirability of a 40 minute-long orgasm is debated — the list goes on. Did these gags represent filmmaker Zackham’s futile attempts to make the film seem hipper, to appeal to twenty- and thirty-something couples in addition to the oldsters attending for the cast? If they were borrowed from the well-liked 2006 French film this is supposedly based on, “Mon frère se marie,” they were almost certainly more tastefully employed there.
There’s very little plot, just various farcical situations that emerge in the days leading up to the wedding (which, disproving the film’s title, barely gets 15 minutes of screen-time). Alejandro’s biological mother (Patricia Rae), who’s virulently Catholic and therefore disapproving of divorce (forget about the indiscretions that led to her giving her son up), is flying into town, meaning De Niro and Keaton must pretend to still be married, even though Sarandon must remain present to cater the wedding. Grace, a 30-year-old virgin, becomes determined to get himself deflowered by Alejandro’s biological sister (Ana Ayora), who on Keaton’s advice decides she’ll make him work for her vagina. And Seyfried’s mother, Muffin (Christine Ebersole), is a deplorable racist. You’ll notice that Alejandro and Muffin were the only character names distinct enough for me to remember — it’s no wonder, given the cardboard-thinness of all these “people.”
As forced as its attempts at comedy are, “The Big Wedding” is never more painful than when it attempts pathos, for no apparent reason other than that a dose of Humanity™ seems obligatory in Hollywood projects. There’s no way Zackham could have possibly believed that Heigl’s marital strain resulting from her inability to conceive or De Niro’s alcoholism or Sarandon’s fractured relationship with Keaton (they were best friends before the latter stole the former’s husband) would legitimately tug at our heartstrings, is there? If so, then he’s not just a talentless filmmaker, but a delusional one. Still, as long as De Niro and company are willing to show up, utterly terrible movies like “The Big Wedding” will continue to get made. Somebody needs to start an Occupy Hollywood movement to protest such releases, which represent the epitome of the one-percent profiting while the masses suffer.