The first version of the script for The Wedding Ringer, a new comedy about a friendless schlub who rents a best man for his big day, was written back in 2002 — a fact that partly accounts for the whiff of stale leftovers that hangs over the movie from start to finish.
Several films have indeed been there, done that — or variations of that — in the 12 years since. Bridesmaids and The Hangover all but redefined the pre-marriage debauchery sub-genre, the former with its sharply drawn characters and refreshing all-female twist, the latter with its anarchic bravado and (sometimes) winning shamelessness. I Love You, Man was a knowing and ripely funny take on platonic man love. And in Hitch, Will Smith played a smooth-talking dating guru who helps a hapless white guy get the girl.
But a certain derivative, deja-vu quality isn’t the only sin this lazy, numbingly routine, very occasionally amusing comedy commits. An odd-couple bromance spiked with gross-out humor of a mainly unimaginative sort, The Wedding Ringer largely fails to accomplish its most basic mission: making us laugh.
Still, a welcoming release slot over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, coupled with the presence of stand-up star Kevin Hart (most recently seen as Chris Rock’s agent in Top Five), could give the movie a big boost at the box office.
Directed by Jeremy Garelick from a screenplay he wrote with Jay Lavender (the two formerly penned Jennifer Aniston–Vince Vaughn rom com The Break-Up), The Wedding Ringer opens with Doug (Josh Gad) nervously cold calling potential best men in preparation for his upcoming nuptials to Gretchen (The Big Bang Theory’s Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting). Alas, Doug is soft-spoken and overweight, which, in testosterone-drunk comedies like this one, means that he has no friends. Soon enough, he’s employing professional best man Jimmy Callahan (Hart) and a rag-tag team of groomsmen, each of whom is an ostensibly yuk-worthy “type”: the Fat Guy (played by Jorge Garcia of Lost fame), the Asian (Aaron Takahashi), the Redneck, the Beefcake (with a stutter — even funnier!), etc., etc.
As Doug and his homies-for-hire get acquainted, we’re treated to a variety of gags, including a boy getting hit in the gut with a baseball and a man breaking his own arm for show, as well as jokes about rape, child molestation and testicular deformities. Politically incorrect, lowest-common-denominator comedy and body horror humor can be sublime — see the best of those wildly erratic Farrelly brothers — when the timing is sharp and the staging inspired. But here, almost everything feels anemic. Dumb and Dumber To, to cite the brothers’ most recent (and overzealously maligned) film, for all its shortcomings, committed much more fully to its forehead-slapping idiocy, earning heartier laughs than anything in The Wedding Ringer. Garelick and Lavender consistently flirt with outrageousness without ever going all the way. Even a bachelor party set piece in which the term “service dog” is given stomach-turning new meaning (peanut butter lovers, be warned) feels half-hearted and half-thought-out; you giggle because of the situation’s bullying perversity, not because the execution is actually funny.
Slightly more amusing are some of the interactions between Doug and his future in-laws, thanks in large part to the skill of good actors slumming for a paycheck: Ken Howard as Gretchen’s macho dad, Mimi Rogers as her tightly wound mom, Olivia Thirlby as her too-cool-for-school younger sister and a sadly underused Cloris Leachman as her loopy grandma. If the movie has a high point, it’s surely the family dinner sequence that devolves into total chaos, culminating in Granny going up in flames. Moments like that one, as well as another that finds Doug and Jimmy hitting the dance floor at a wedding — breaking out moves ranging from hip hop to disco to Charleston with incongruous flair — momentarily breathe some much-needed comic life into The Wedding Ringer.
Too bad it’s not enough for Doug and Jimmy to have fun; they’re forced to learn something in the process, too, as suggested by the perfunctory heart-to-hearts the two have in the film’s third act, acoustic guitars strumming in the background.
Hart offers a more restrained spin on his usual high-pitched, high-strung persona, but the role is essentially watered-down shtick; the manic swagger he brought to last year’s About Last Night remake and even his endearingly yappy wannabe cop in another slapdash buddy flick, Ride Along, were more compelling. Meanwhile, Gad (who voiced Olaf in Frozen, played a sex addict in Thanks for Sharing and Zach Braff’s ne’er-do-well brother in Wish I Was Here) isn’t given much to do except look dim and dejected, the neutered straight man to Hart’s neutered real-life cartoon.
Some of the supporting players, like Ignacio Serricchio as a gay wedding planner who isn’t quite what he seems and Jenifer Lewis as Hart’s assistant, add some oomph to the proceedings.
Visually, Garelick doesn’t attempt much — graceless shot/reverse-shots abound — though an opening sequence in which the camera snakes its way through a crowd of wedding guests dancing with diligent enthusiasm has some panache. The filmmakers also insert winks at E.T., Rudy and The Usual Suspects — futile flourishes that only serve to remind us of better movies.
The rather obvious lesson here is that in the age of Apatow and his cronies, it takes more than fat dudes, dick jokes and dogs with wandering tongues to make us guffaw in spite of ourselves. Frankly, we’ve seen it all before.
Production companies: LStar Capital, Miramax, Screen Gems, Will Packer Productions
Cast: Kevin Hart, Josh Gad, Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting, Jorge Garcia, Cloris Leachman, Olivia Thirlby, Mimi Rogers, Ken Howard, Jenifer Lewis
Director: Jeremy Garelick
Screenwriter: Jeremy Garelick, Jay Lavender
Producers: Adam Fields, Will Packer, Valerie Bleth Sharp
Executive producers: Zanne Devine, Jeremy Garelick, Jay Lavender, Glenn S. Gainor, Ben Waisbren
Director of photography: Bradford Lipson
Production designer: Chris Cornwell
Costume designer: Genevieve Tyrrell
Editors: Jeff Groth, Shelly Westerman, Byron Wong
Music: Christopher Lennertz
Casting: Valerie Massalas, Ron Digman
Rated R, 101 minutes