Polish Wedding (1998): Theresa Connelly’s Directorial Debut, Comedy Starring Lena Olin, Gabriel Byrne, and Claire Danes

Sundance Film Fest (Premiere) 1998–A throwback to Italian and American family comedies of yesteryear, Polish Wedding, Theresa Connelly’s feature directorial debut, provides a schmaltzy, old-fashioned chronicle of one large Polish-American family living in a Detroit working-class neighborhood.

An attractive and hard-working cast, headed by Lena Olin, Gabriel Byrne and Claire Danes, struggles valiantly not only to command a convincing Polish accent, but also to overcome a frivolous script that’s full of cliches. Bound to be dismissed by the more cerebral critics as too broad and outmoded, Fox Searchlight release will have to rely on the sex appeal of its stars, which is abundant here, and on the feel-good nature of the romp, which goes out of its way to please the viewers.

It’s so rare now-a-days to see on screen an American family that’s not dysfunctional that writer-helmer Connelly deserves credit for going against the grain and constructing a portrait of a family that, while boisterously turbulent, still manages to keep a unified facade and maintain its motto, which is passed down from one generation to another, that there’s nothing more important than “making life and making love.”

In theory, Polish Wedding aspires to do for its ethnic community what Norman Jewison’s Moonstruck (1987) did for the Italian-American. But, at this phase of her career, neophyte Connelly doesn’t command the flair and visual style that elevated Moonstruck way above its slight plot. Nor does she possess sharp writing skills to endow her episodic movie with bright vignettes and acute observations about Polish-American families that go beyond the familiar notions.

The gorgeous Olin stars as Jadzia Pzoniak, a middle-aged matriarch, who runs her family with an iron fist. An extremely proud woman (who works at cleaning toilets), Jadzia boasts of giving birth to five children, “four of them real men,” as she says. While the boys always obey her will, her beautiful adolescent daughter, Chala (Danes), proves to be as strong-willed and independent as her own mother.

On the verge of exploring her sexuality, Chala attracts the attention of the entire community. Late at night, she has secret rendez-vous with Russell (Adam Trese), her neighbor cop, and it doesn’t take long for her to become pregnant by him. In the manner of 50s melodramas, Chala’s pregnancy and forcing Russell to marry her become the main thread in the otherwise plotless narrative.

The only novel and modernistic aspect in Connelly’s rendition of communal life is her explicit treatment of sex and sexuality. Though seemingly happily married to Bolek (Byrne), a laid back man who works at a bakery, Jadzia has a longtime affair with Ramon (Rade Serbedzija). It’s almost an open affair, as hubby and other members are always around when Jadzia prepares for her weekly assignations. Living in a closely-knit neighborhood, there’s also malicious gossip to fight. Polish Wedding is the kind of farce, in which wherever somebody has sex, another member wakes up, as if smelling that something fishy is going on.

Some tensions prevail in the marriage of Ziggi (Daniel Lapaine) and Sofie (Mili Avital), whose baby is crying all the time. Still suffering from a painful birth, Sofie is determined not to have babies anymore, which of course irritates the matriarch. Connelly briefly acknowledges these strains, along with Chala’s feelings that she is entrapped in a dull town. However, for the sake of having one big cheerful ending–a clamorous Polish wedding–all conflicts, within and without the family, are neatly silenced, if not resolved. Since not much in the film is realistic or credible, the only way for contempo audiences to accept this conservative ideology of happy families and babies is to suspend disbelief and go along with the ride by concentrating on the gorgeous faces (and bodies) that decorate the screen.

Polish Wedding is a movie of disparate but gratifying small moments, some of which are hilariously funny and charged with healthy eroticism. For instance, the scene in which all the women in the family confide that they got married as adolescents, because they were pregnant, or the sexual reconciliation between Jadzia and Bolek, after years of barren life. The sight of Olin scrubbing the floors in a suggestive pose, or locked in a room full of pickle jars, also provides visual pleasure.

Whatever else is missing by way of rigorous structure or substance is partly compensated by the irresistibly alluring thesps, most of whom are asked to behave like buffoons. Guy Dufaux’ lensing is remarkably sensual: the camera caressing the performers in a flattering manner that accentuates their natural sex appeal. Nonetheless, Curtiss Clayton and Suzanne Fenn’s editing can’t conceal a disjointedly messy movie that plods along until it reaches its pre-destined conclusion.

Credits

A Fox Searchlight presentation and release, in association with Lakeshore Entertainment of an Addis/Wechsler production.
Produced by Tom Rosenberg, Julia Chasman, Geoff Stier.
Executive producers, Nick Wechsler, Sigurjon Sighvatsson, Ted Tannenbaum.
Co-producers, Gregory Goodman, Richard S. Wright.
Directed, written by Theresa Connelly.
Camera (DeLuxe, color), Guy Dufaux; editors, Curtiss Clayton, Suzanne Fenn; music, Luis Bacalov; production design, Kara Lindstrom; costume design, Donna Zakowska.
Running time: 107 min.

Cast

Jadzia Pzoniak…….Lena Olin
Bolek Pzoniak….Gabriel Byrne
Hala Pzoniak……Claire Danes
Russell Schuster….Adam Trese
Sofie Pzoniak……Mimi Avital
Ziggi Pzoniak…Daniel Lapaine
Roman……….Rade Serbedzija