Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994): Mike Newell’s Romantic Comedy, Starring Hugh Grant and Andie MacDowell

At the premiere of Four Weddings and a Funeral, at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival, screenwriter Richard Curtis described his film as a “radical” romantic comedy. But there’s nothing radical about a movie that celebrates matrimony as the ultimate moral experience.

Indeed, except for some stylistic touches, such as having a funeral as a major episode in an otherwise dizzy comedy, and the inclusion of a happy gay couple among the main characters, the ideology of this British comedy is as safe and mainstream as can be.

Four Weddings and a Funeral is actually an attempt at a classic screwball comedy, that uniquely American genre that reigned supreme in Hollywood of the 1930s and 1940s.  Some viewers will find it refreshing to see a contemporary film from Britain that doesn’t deal with social class and that is not overtly contemptuous of the Thatcher regime. In fact, there is very little politics in this movie.

The title could not be more precise as this coy love story literally takes place during four weddings and one funeral. At its center is Charlie (Hugh Grant), a young, witty and handsome hero who adores women, but just can’t make a commitment to any of them. Charlie is another version of that popular type, a repressed Brit, who is detached and maybe even disengaged from his true feelings.

The more weddings Charlie and his friends go to, the less they feel they want to get married themselves. But Charlie’s ambiguous attitude toward settling down, a love-hate relationship, changes on one fateful Sunday, when he eyes Carrie (Andie MacDowell), an unusually beautiful, sharp-witted though elusive American woman.

Four Weddings exhibits most of the elements of a classic screwball comedy, while shrewdly updating others. For example, Carrie is described as a free spirit, and to make the tale a bit more complex, she gets married to an older man, who’s clearly not her match.

At the end, when Charlie finds himself at his own wedding, he realizes what he has known subconsciously all along, that Carrie, not the woman he’s engaged to, is the one he should marry. We have seen such “dramatic” wedding scenes before and, miraculously, they always seem to work. You may recall Claudette Colbert, defying her father’s wish, in It Happened One Night, or the heartbreaking scene in The Graduate, when Dustin Hoffman kidnaps Katharine Ross at the last minute from her own wedding.

Screenwriter Curtis shows facility with fast and smart repartee, though his glib script is a bit shallow. For instance, he never bothers to establish what Charlie and his confreres do for living. Overall, Four Weddings is a glitzy comedy without much substance.

Hugh Grant is easily the busiest actor in England today; he can be seen at the moment in Los Angeles in two other pictures: in Sirens and in Roman Polanski’s Bitter Moon (which is finally getting theatrical release in the U.S.). Grant gets by on his handsome look, strong screen presence and comedic skills–some critics are already comparing him to the young Cary Grant.

Same cannot be said about Andie MacDowell, who is beautiful and charming, but is not a skilled comedienne; the film calls for somebody as adept as Claudette Colbert or Katharine Hepburn were. And there’s not much chemistry between her and Grant: Unlike other screwball comedies, you are never sure that the two are fated to be together.

Even so, Four Weddings boasts such an accomplished supporting cast and has so many other things to offer that ultimately it doesn’t matter much. Set in beautiful churches, with chic receptions and bawling bridesmaids, the film is astutely directed by Mike Newell, who has proven himself to be an extremely versatile director.

Newell differs from the more “angry” and bitter directors of his generation, such as Mike Leigh or Ken Loach. He appears to be interested in making pictures that, though grounded in a specific British locale, would also have appeal in the international film market. If you liked Newell’s Enchanted April, which became a popular art house hit, you’ll also enjoy Four Weddings, a stylish comedy that shows considerable taste and elegance.