Farces might be cheap to make, but no other genre offers a smaller margin of error — the good ones are heavenly, the bad ones are hellish, and the space between is limited. At least the infernally flat and instantly forgettable wedding comedy “Table 19” has the courtesy to register its awfulness right from the start, its lifeless first scenes sparing viewers the trouble of having to figure out which way this thing is going to go.
Like a train that derails before it even leaves the station, the movie opens with a series of wildly uninspired character introductions that preemptively sour the film’s clever premise. Anna Kendrick, who has mastered the fine art of playing the jilted girlfriend who is forced to suffer through someone else’s wedding, stars as Eloise McGarry; she’s the first person we meet, and the only one we really get to know. As the film begins, she’s staring at a fancy invitation and agonizing over whether or not to RSVP. She checks one box, then the other, and then sets the paper on fire in a fit of frustration. She used to be best friends with the bride, we learn, but then the bride’s brother (Wyatt Russell) dumped her, and things have been a bit awkward ever since. That’s why Eloise is sat at the dreaded table 19, the island of misfit toys, located closer to the bathroom than it is to the dance floor.
One by one, we meet the unfortunates who are sitting with her. There’s Walter Thimble (Stephen Merchant), a gawky convict who’s down on his luck and trying to enjoy a brief respite from the halfway house where he spends most of his time. There’s Renzo Eckberg (“The Grand Budapest Hotel” breakout Tony Revolori), a horny teenage virgin who wears a furry bowtie and has no clear reason for being at the wedding or in the movie. There’s Jo Flannagan (June Squibb), the bride’s first nanny, whose presence ensures that every scene is at least a little sadder than it needs to be. And there’s Bina and Jerry Kepp (Lisa Kudrow and Craig Robinson), a playful married couple who co-own a diner in Columbus and haven’t had sex in three years. Unlike everyone else, these last two characters are warm and charming and filled with life (Kudrow and Robinson, both underutilized dramatic actors, share a comfortable chemistry) — exactly like everyone else, their stories are stunted, confused and completely uninteresting.
Scripted and directed by Jeffrey Blitz (who previously collaborated with Kendrick on the charming high school comedy, “Rocket Science”), and based on a story that Jay and Mark Duplass sold long before they were indie royalty, “Table 19” has been kicking around for too long for anyone to accurately pinpoint when it went off the rails, but it has the distinctly disjointed feeling of a movie that was made during a writer’s strike. It’s rough enough that it wastes a handful of great actors on a chintzy collection of sitcom clichés, but the movie never gives its cast a credible space in which to do their thing.
There has never been a less believable wedding reception in the history of movies, let alone movies where said reception is the only location. Even if Blitz’s idea was for these to be some really half-assed nuptials, the kind of party where they serve the kind of dry country club steak that would give Martha Stewart a heart attack, the decision to omit any glimpse of the ceremony cuts the comedy off at the knees. The people at table 19 feel so distant from the action that it’s like the party isn’t really happening — they’re not on the periphery, they’re in another universe, as disconnected from the premise as their characters are from their own storylines.
Blitz manages to land the occasional punchline, but the smattering of decent jokes only call further attention to the film’s complete lack of rhythm. A farce can be very precise, or it can be a whirling dervish — the best ones are both, the bad ones are neither. “Table 19” hopelessly aims right down the middle, alternating between broad comedy and sub-Sundance quirk with every scene. Major conflicts are introduced during the final 20 minutes, life-altering revelations interspersed between shots of people walking through the woods beneath a soundtrack of twee guitars. At one point, all of these stuffy caricatures smoke pot and start falling over things, because that’s just what happens in movies like this. The wedding cake, ominously introduced in the first act, has by far the film’s most interesting character arc. And, to top off a wedding movie that doesn’t get anything right, it looks absolutely delicious.
“Table 19” opens in theaters on Friday, March 3.