“I provide best man services for guys who lack in such areas.”
Despite a trailer that did the film zero favors, “The Wedding Ringer” was pretty relentless with its marketing campaign. Almost every movie I saw in the fall (or at least it felt like every single one) was preceded by a “Ringer” trailer and each time I glimpsed the same series of dull, uninspired jokes I started to get this sinking feeling that the film was just going to be worn out on delivery. Plus, the trailer-capping gag teasing a disastrous brunch that goes up in flames (literally) when Cloris Leachman is suddenly ablaze and the family uses alcohol (!!!) to try and put the fire out was so shocking and tasteless that ultimately the biggest question I had in regards to any of the narrative happenings within “The Wedding Ringer” was, does Cloris Leachman survive this movie? And if so, then how? I was so concerned for the character’s livelihood that I knew last night’s preview screening would at least be a safe investment; my biggest curiosity would finally be answered.
Now, I can thankfully say that Cloris Leachman does survive this film (don’t ask me how) and, against all odds, the rest of the movie surrounding this single startling moment is actually not nearly as bad as you/me/everybody might have expected. It’s no new classic, it’s nothing I would tell you to rush out and see, it’s not even a ‘great’ comedy – though with more gifted, edgier writers it might have had a fighting chance – but it does get the job done and does a few things right: It provides a strong showcase for the very talented Kevin Hart, it makes good use of Josh Gad’s abilities, and it carries enough physical humor and inoffensive, workable jokes to carry it along to a satisfying finish. It doesn’t always land, and when it gets desperate for laughs it tends to dry up fast, but given what the trailers were promoting, “The Wedding Ringer” is enjoyable enough to be considered a surprise.
The premise is actually super solid: Doug Harris (Gad), a friendless groom-to-be, is on the hunt for a best man and seven groomsmen to flank him on his wedding day, which happens to be in less than two weeks. With the help of a flamboyant wedding planner, the eager groom lands at The Best Man, Inc., a rental service headed by Jimmy Callahan (Hart) that provides various Best Man Packages that can include anything from just an appearance and speech on the big day, to a handful of groomsmen, a bachelor party, etc. Doug, unfortunately, has come to Jimmy with what Jimmy refers to as ‘The Golden Tux,’ a mythical Best Man package that will contribute a wedding party, a bachelor party, familial interactions, a catalogue of photos and stories that exemplify the friendship the groom shares with his best man and groomsmen, and then, most importantly, a speech on the big day. Jimmy says ‘The Golden Tux’ is impossible to pull off, but Doug is desperate. Coming in at a $50,000 price tag, Jimmy agrees to do his best while enforcing that the payment defines the relationship as strictly a business one; it is not a means to a new friendship. Doug understands, but as the days leading into the wedding tick by, Jimmy finds himself strangely fascinated by the idea of continuing this friendship into the future.
While watching “The Wedding Ringer” I couldn’t help but imagine what this concept in the hands of someone like Todd Phillips would be like. Probably grosser, harsher, much more mean-spirited, and if not for the better, it would at least have a hint of the crassness that Jeremy Garelick’s version is noticeably missing. Even with the R rating, you can feel hesitance on every frame of the “The Wedding Ringer;” the envelope is not pushed and the vibe is interestingly tame. I’m not saying that the film needed a tough Phillips touch, but it could have been a rougher around the edges.
Simultaneously, when I found myself laughing (something I never imagined I’d do during this film), I started to imagine what this concept with this cast would have been like in the hands of “Forgetting Sarah Marshall’s” Nicholas Stoller. A healthy stamp of directorial creativity would have nicely enhanced what good there is in “The Wedding Ringer.” Plus, knowing Stoller’s preference for riffing, it would have given Gad and Hart an exciting opportunity to really cement their on screen partnership. Stoller, even if his films run too long, really knows how to direct his actors in a way that demonstrates their chemistry, and with Gad and Hart as the film’s greatest merits, “The Wedding Ringer” might have had a fighting chance at really wowing as a buddy comedy. Unfortunately, it gets bogged down in some long sequences that are desperate for laughs taking away from the asides and raucous physical stuff that is more humorous that it has any right to be.
I’ve discussed the Cloris Leachman scene as much as I really need to, but that’s an overlong sequence that expresses the kind of the comedic lengths “The Wedding Ringer” strives for. There’s a bachelor party sequence that starts off like a borrowing from “Old School” and then gets weirdly gross before spiraling into a long-winded car chase that includes a stunt jump photographed exactly like an iconic moment from “Speed.” Similarly, there’s a pre-wedding football game that, again, feels like this movie’s version of a memorable scene from “Wedding Crashers,” but then becomes a long, mud-spattered beat down between some weird middle-aged dudes and senior citizens. Director Garelick pictures these scenes as the ones that will be the biggest takeaways from the movie, and I admire his attempt to craft comedic set pieces (he actually scores big with a dance sequence between Gad and Hart at a random wedding they attend), but “The Wedding Ringer” is at its most comforting when he lets Gad and Hart do what they do best, and at its strongest when Hart just rips lines at the speed of light.
Kevin Hart is the kind of performer that deserves to work with better filmmakers and stronger writers. He’s an overcharged energy who performs to the back row and the fact that he has some acting skills to show off is a major benefit. His personality radiates off the screen and it more than makes up for his size which more times than not comes as an additional strength because it’s funny to watch the little comedian go flying through the air, or explode into a verbal tirade opposite actors who are sometimes double his height. “The Wedding Ringer” plays to all of Hart’s strengths even it’s ultimately just beneath him, but, like with “Ride Along” this time last year, this mid-January patch that usually sees subpar releases shoveled into big multiplexes, “The Wedding Ringer” should do a killing at the box office. Hart’s track record and likability is enough for it to do big business and with Gad coming off “Frozen,” and making the talk show rounds (he was really fantastic on Jimmy Fallon last night), I’m predicting a #1 steal for this film this weekend.
I went in hoping that the character played by a veteran actress survived what is fortunately the film’s only truly awful gag, and I came out surprised that I can even think positively about the film overall. “The Wedding Ringer” isn’t priority viewing, but it’s far from a bad time; in a year, you’ll probably catch the film in the HBO or Starz rotation and you’ll be surprised by how much you’re laughing. I hope that another success for Kevin Hart will mean that he’ll eventually move on to stronger projects (“Get Hard” with Will Ferrell which comes out in two months will hopefully help as well), and as far as counterprogramming goes for January, “The Wedding Ringer” could have, and maybe should have, been a whole lot worse.
Low expectations definitely assisted this one, but I’m happy for the two gentlemen at the center of this thing – a motormouth who manufactures his friends, and a shy longer who will pay to hire some – that “Ringer” has all the making of 2015’s first big commercial success.
Review by Mike Murphy