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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Romance is the weakest aspect of one of the most celebrated rom-coms of the ’90s

Romance is the weakest aspect of one of the most celebrated rom-coms of the ’90s

Screenshot: Four Weddings And A Funeral

Before diving into its hilarious opening act, Elton John’s cover of the Gershwins’ “But Not For Me” warns us that Four Weddings And A Funeral won’t be all romance and comedy. “They’re writing songs of love, but not for me,” he moodily croons, setting the tone for the surprisingly melancholy film that follows. There are times when Four Weddings And A Funeral feels almost macabre—not just because it involves a funeral and not just because Kristin Scott Thomas’ Fiona seems like she could be a missing member of The Addams Family. The most prominent emotions running through Four Weddings are fear and regret. The magic of the movie is how it balances those painfully real feelings of thirtysomething angst with fairy-tale romance, comedy, and, most importantly, a lovely tribute to the importance of friendship.

No one expected Four Weddings And A Funeral to be a major hit when it was released 25 years ago. It was a tiny British film plagued by funding issues and production delays, eventually shot over 36 days for about $4.4 million. When it premiered at Sundance in 1994, a Mormon town council walked out during the opening scene of people repeatedly saying the word “fuck.” “Perhaps it’s not going to be as popular as we’d hoped,” writer Richard Curtis remembers Hugh Grant quipping. Yet thanks to a glowing Variety review, a big marketing campaign, and the fact that Grant’s publicity tour charisma turned him into America’s newest heartthrob basically overnight (a headline-grabbing Elizabeth Hurley dress played a role in all this, too), the film eventually made $245.7 million worldwide, becoming the highest-grossing British film in history at the time.

The success of Four Weddings had a massive effect on the British film industry, paving the way for movies like Trainspotting and The Full Monty to find international audiences. It also pretty much singlehandedly created the British arm of the ’90s rom-com renaissance, and established Grant and Curtis as two major players in the genre, both separately and together. (They later re-teamed on Notting Hill, Bridget Jones’s Diary, and Love Actually.) Grant took home a Golden Globe for Best Actor, and the film received Academy Award nominations for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay, where it lost to Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction, respectively. Four Weddings And A Funeral has remained a perennial rom-com favorite ever since. Mindy Kaling is even adapting the film into a series for Hulu.

What’s remarkable about the massive success of Four Weddings And A Funeral is that it’s kind of a weird movie. Save for one scene that takes place on a rare Saturday where Hugh Grant’s Charles doesn’t have a wedding to attend, the film unfolds exclusively across the five events of the title. We follow the same core group of characters, but only check in on them at months-long intervals within the unusual environments of weddings and funerals. How they all know each other, what their daily lives are like, and the events that take place between those ceremonies are left purposefully underexplored.

I don’t mean to make Four Weddings sound like it’s some abstract arthouse film. It’s definitely funny, accessible, and filled with conventional rom-com beats. But structurally, it’s more like a high-concept play than a straight-down-the-middle romantic comedy. You need only look at Curtis’ Notting Hill—another film in which Hugh Grant woos an inaccessible American woman with the help of a kooky group of friends—to see a similar story told much more traditionally.

Romantic comedies usually guide their audience through the emotional arcs of their main characters, but Four Weddings And A Funeral is more observational. Its slice-of-life storytelling leaves you a little bit outside of what its characters are thinking and feeling. Where that choice hurts the film is in its central romance between Charles and his poised American paramour Carrie (Andie MacDowell), who have a fling at the film’s first wedding and then become victims of bad timing and missed opportunity. Although it’s nice that Four Weddings offers a reversal of traditional rom-com gender tropes, in that Charles is the clumsy lovelorn protagonist while Carrie is the confident and sexually vociferous object of his affection, the film also fetishizes Carrie as this kind of inherently unknowable creature. That makes it hard to believe that Charles’ love for her is anything other than infatuation, or to understand why she’s drawn to him at all.

It’s entirely up to the audience to fill in the motivations behind the fragments we see of Carrie’s odd offscreen arc—one in which she has a swift marriage and then a swift divorce from a Scottish politician three times her age. MacDowell has taken a lot of flack for her performance over the years, but I don’t think the blame rests entirely on her. It doesn’t feel like her performance is aiming for something and missing the mark. It’s just hard to imagine what the mark is even supposed to be for this strange, enigmatic woman. That’s a problem for a film that relies on its audience fully buying into Charles and Carries’ love-at-first-sight connection.

(For what it’s worth, however, noted Four Weddings super fan Kumail Nanjiani is absolutely right when he argued on Pop Culture Happy Hour that MacDowell’s much-mocked line, “Is it still raining? I hadn’t noticed,” is clearly supposed to be a joke she’s making in the moment, not her literal inability to tell she’s standing in a massive downpour. The rest of her lines in the scene are all about how soaked she is.)

The film’s odd, observational tone helps it get away with a romance that’s more of a curio than something you actively root for. If the weakness of the central love story doesn’t drag Four Weddings down, it’s because it’s a film about friendship as much as romance. Carrie remains a curiously enigmatic presence, but we get a better feel for Charles’ eccentric group of friends, who are as much the loves of his life as she is. Save for long-term couple Gareth (Simon Callow) and Matthew (John Hannah), Charles’ posh cohorts are stuck at the same emotional crossroads as him, one in which they’re just starting to shift from “proudly single” to “panicked about the future.” Four Weddings And A Funeral is like the equivalent of Meg Ryan’s “I’m going to be 40!” breakdown from When Harry Met Sally, only stretched to feature length and tamped down under layers and layers of British repression.

Glamorously icy Fiona has spent years in unrequited love with Charles—a subplot the film handles so gracefully and poignantly it only makes the Carrie romance feel even weaker by comparison. Charles’ free-spirited roommate Scarlett (Charlotte Coleman) is “a bit nowhere” romantically, trapped between men who want to sleep with her but not date her and men who want to date her but who she doesn’t want to sleep with. Fiona’s buffoonish brother, Tom (James Fleet), is like a Shakespearean clown who starts out as a joke only to reveal himself to be the heart of the whole film. For a bit of contrast, there’s also Charles’ dishy younger brother, David (David Bower, a deaf actor playing a deaf character), who seems the least stressed about his love life and finds romance the easiest.

Curtis’ screenplay proves the old axiom that the more specific something is the more universal it feels. The particulars of Charles’ friend group aren’t hugely relatable (Fiona and Tom come from the seventh-richest family in England, with friends who can just randomly lend them a castle for the evening), but the group’s snarky, sarcastic, supportive dynamics are. There’s nothing they won’t mercilessly mock, including each other, yet they’re also exactly the sorts of people you want by your side during a crisis. There’s an emotional depth to their dynamic, which emerges most strongly when the film gets to the inevitable funeral of the title.

Director Mike Newell pushed for that groundedness throughout production, sometimes to the surprise of his cast. “[Newell] seemed to be giving direction against what I thought were the natural beats of the comedy. He was making a film with texture, grounding it, playing the truths rather than the gags,”Grant said around the time of the film’s release. As Curtis sums it up, “It’s a sketch movie, and [Newell] directed it as if it were a drama.” For example, when the film delivers a well-worn comedic beat in which Charles accidentally insults an acquaintance’s old girlfriend, not realizing they’ve since gone on to get married, Newell actually lets that hurt linger rather than just landing the laugh and moving on. During Charles’ charming, funny best man speech, the camera cuts back to that hurt acquaintance, undercutting Charles’ charisma just a bit and acknowledging that the film knows that Charles and his friends can be kind of the worst sometimes.

There’s a whole other article to be written about how this breakout performance singlehandedly shaped not only Hugh Grant’s career but also his entire celebrity persona as well. Regardless of what you think of Grant (I’m personally a big fan), there’s no denying that he’s absolutely phenomenal in Four Weddings. He delivers a masterful comedic performance that established his trademark bumbling humor while echoing Cary Grant in his knack for physical comedy—particularly doing a sequence in which Charles tries to sneak out of a room in which two people have unexpectedly started having sex. Grant’s the perfect avatar for the romantic awkwardness the film is so interested in. When Charles does anything remotely bold it’s always with a shocked “I can’t believe I just did that” energy, not the confidence of a classic leading man.

More importantly, and less appreciated, is the level of emotional vulnerability the star brings to the role. To the degree that the film’s romance works at all, it’s thanks to how earnestly Grant plays it. There are lines that don’t necessarily stand out on the page but which become something remarkably poignant thanks to his delivery. When he unexpectedly runs into Carrie, Charles drops all sense of cool to just endearingly admit, “Sorry, I’m overwhelmed to see you.” Lines like Charles’ wistful, “Why am I always at weddings and never actually getting married?” or his only half-joking “You ruthlessly slept with me twice and never rang me” linger all the more because of how tossed off they feel. Along with stellar supporting performances from Shaw and Hannah, Grant drives the film’s distinctive funny-sad energy.

For all the ways in which Four Weddings And A Funeral feels like a familiar early ’90s rom-com and for all the flaws in its central romance, it has a unique tone that has never quite been matched. It’s a film that knows that moments of sadness make the moments of joy land even stronger. In its easily wrapped-up happy endings, it definitely has its cake and eats it, too. But that only seems fair after all those weddings.

Next time: To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before and the Netflix rom-com phenomenon.

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Caroline Siede is a pop culture critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. Her interests include superhero movies, feminist theory, and Jane Austen novels.