Parky At the Pictures (7/2/2020)
(Reviews of Parasite; Daniel Isn't Real; Le Grand Voyage; and Plus One)
South Korean director Bong Joon-ho is not one to repeat himself. Since debuting with Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000), a black comedy about an unemployed college professor turning on the canines running amok in his apartment block, Bong has turned his hand with equal adeptness to the serial killer crime drama (Memories of Murder, 2003), the creature feature (The Host, 2006), grim social dramedy (Mother, 2009), the sci-fi actioner (Snowpiercer, 2013) and the political allegory (Okja, 2017). Yet, while these films may be different in theme and tone, they are united by a lacerating sense of satire that denounces the growing divide between the classes in a country forever looking over its shoulder at it dangerously unpredictable neighbour to the north.
It's become unfashionable to label film-makers as auteurs, but Bong confirms his status with Parasite, which saw him become the first Korean director to win the Palme d'or at Cannes. Indeed, he now looks set to add the Academy Award to the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs he has already won for a howl of rage that often feels like a Korean variation on Hirokazu Kore-eda's Shoplifters (2018), another Cannes winner that approached the theme of poverty with narrative boldness and disarming wit.
Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) lives in a cramped Seoul basement with his wife, Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin), and children, Ki-woo (Song Kang-ho) and Ki-jeong (Park So-dam). Despite being willing to work, the Kims can only find jobs in the gig economy and make a botched job of folding boxes for a nearby pizzeria. However, Ki-woo's friend, Min (Park Seo-joon) offers him the chance to take on his home-tutoring job while he is studying in the United States. Using photoshopping skills that her father considers worthy of the Oxford School of Forgery, Ki-jeoing creates some certificates for her brother and he sets off to meet Park Da-hye (Jeong Ji-so), a 15 year-old who resides with her father, Dong-ik (Lee Sun-kyun), mother, Yeon-gyo (Cho Yeo-jeong), and brother, Da-song (Jung Hyeon-jun), in an elegant, gated house with a sprawling garden in a smart part of the city.
Shown into by housekeeper Gook Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun), Ki-woo makes an immediate impression on Yeon-gyo, who decides to call him Kevin after watching him take Da-hye's pulse during the tutorial in a bid to show her how she needs to keep calm when answering exam questions. As he is leaving, Ki-woo has a sucker arrow fired at him by Da-song, a wild child with an obsession with Native Americans and an eccentric gift for art. Ki-woo tells Yeon-gyo about a college classmate named Jessica, who trained in the United States and she immediately asks him to bring her to the house.
Of course, Jessica is Ki-jeong, who impresses Yeon-gyo with her calm control over her son and her insistence that he needs art therapy four times a week to suppress his potentially psychotic tendencies. However, Da-hye is jealous because she thinks Ki-woo has a crush on Ki-jeong and he has to pay her a lavish compliment and kiss her on the lips in order to reassure her. Chauffeur Yoon (Park Geun-rok) is also suspicious when Ki-jeong asks him to drop her off at a train station rather than drive her to her door. Realising he could be a threat, she plants a pair of knickers under the driver's seat for Dong-ik to find and he and Yeon-gyo agree to replace him with Ki-taek, who poses as an experience chauffeur and friend of Ki-jeong's family.
He passes a coffee cup cornering test with flying colours and Dong-ik quickly comes to confide in Ki-taek. Thus, when they discover that Moon-gwang is allergic to peaches, the Kims devise an elaborate ruse to convince Yeon-gyo that the housekeeper is suffering from tuberculosis. They even smear a tissue with chili sauce to make it look like she has coughed up blood. No sooner has she been dismissed than Ki-taek tells Dong-ik about an exclusive domestic service called The Care and Ki-jeong puts on a droning voice to pose as the company secretary when Yeon-gyo calls to find a new housekeeper and is informed that Chung-sook would suit her perfectly.
The Kims are delighted to have found well-paid jobs with the Parks and put it down to the scholar stone that Min gave them before going abroad. But they are put on the alert when Da-song accuses Ki-taek, Chung-sook and Ki-jeong of smelling alike and they agree to use different soaps and fabric conditioners - and move out of the basement where drunks frequently stop to pee - in order to remove the smell of poverty from their clothes.
When the Parks go away on a camping trip, the Kims move into the house for a week of light, space and luxury. Chung-sook is less than amused by the prospect of having to pamper the three Park dogs, Zoonie, Berry and Foofoo, but she agrees with her husband that it's a small price to pay, especially as the Parks are so nice - for rich people. They particularly like Yeon-gyo, as she is so naive and malleable. But Ki-woo admits to having a crush on Da-hye and suggests they could even marry one day. The family is joking about how they would have to hire actors to play them on Ki-woo's wedding day when their reverie is interrupted by Moon-gwang, who shows up in the middle of a thunderstorm and asks via the intercom if she can tend to something she had left behind in the kitchen basement.
Leaving Chung-sook to answer the door, the other three snoop from behind a pillar and follow Moon-gwang into the secret room where she has been hiding her husband, Geun-sae (Park Myung-hoon), from vicious loan sharks for over four years. She explains that Namgoong, the architect who built the house, had not told the Parks about the hideaway and she had used it to keep her spouse safe. She offer Chung-sook some money to keep feeding Geun-sae, but she unexpectedly gains the upper hand when Ki-taek, Ki-woo and Ki-jeung tumble out of their hiding place and Moon-gwang captures Ki-woo calling Ki-taek `dad' on her mobile phone. She threatens to send the clip to Yeon-gyo unless they co-operate.
Upstairs, Moon-gwang has the Kims kneel on the floor with their hands in the air, while she gives Geun-sae a massage. He compares the send button to Kim Jong-un's nuclear launcher and laughs as his wife impersonates a North Korean newsreader hailing the Supreme Leader's sagacity in turning the country's last weapon on this wicked family. However, they momentarily take their eye off the ball and the Kims leap on them and not only delete the footage, but also overpower their conquerors.
At that moment, the phone rings and Yeon-gyu orders Chung-sook to cook a special noodle dish for Da-song, who is sulking because they had to abandon the campsite because of the storm. They are eight minutes away and the Kims have to use some peaches to incapacitate Moon-gwang, while Ki-woo and Ki-jeong try to remove evidence of their presence and Ki-taek drags Moon-gwang and Geun-sae back into the secret room. The former escapes just as the Parks arrive and Chung-sook knocks her cold by kicking her down the stairs and Ki-taek is able to pull the shelving back in front of the entrance before anyone notices.
Da-song (who once saw Geun-sae and thought he was a ghost) is determined to camp and fetchesh his teepee from his room and his parents allow him to sleep in the garden. They decide to spend the night on the sofa so they can keep an eye on him. Dong-ik thinks he can smell Ki-taek, as he has a distinctive odour of boiled radishes. But they soon start fondling each other, unaware that the Kims are hiding under the table in front of them and that Ki-taek has been nettled by the remark about the poor having a telltale smell.
When Dong-ik and Yeon-gyo fall asleep, the trio emerge from under the table, but Ki-taek nearly gets caught when Da-song sends a walkie-talkie message about not being able to sleep and his parents wake up. The Kims manage to make their escape through the garage and run through the streets in the torrential downpour. They arrive home to find that their apartment has flooded and they are only able to salvage a few possessions before the water rises too far. Meanwhile, back in the Park basement, the concussed Moon-gwang can feel herself losing consciousness and she tells Geun-sae that Chung-sook kicked her downstairs. Despite being bound and gagged, he uses the button for the hall light to spell out `H-E-L-P' in Morse code and Da-song gets the message.
Ki-taek and his children are forced to spend the night in a gymnasium and he tells Ki-woo that making plans is foolish because they never work out. The next morning, they have to accept donated clothing in order to come to the impromptu garden party that Yeon-gyu has decided to throw for Da-song's birthday. She upsets Ki-taek in the car by feeling queasy when she gets a whiff of his body odour, while Dong-ik urges Chung-sook to set up the tables quietly because Da-song is taking a nap in his tent.
Watching the party guests while kissing Da-hye in her room, Ki-woo seems distracted and wanders off carrying the scholar stone. While Dong-ik explains to Ki-taek how they are going to stage a mock Native American tomahawk fight with Da-song to boost his self-esteem, Yeon-gyu corrals Ki-jeung into carrying her son's birthday cake. Meanwhile, Ki-woo goes into the secret basement, only to be overpowered by Geun-sae, who caves in his head with the stone before making his escape. Grabbing a knife from the kitchen, he goes in search of Chung-sook, but stabs Ki-jeong in the chest instead.
This causes Da-song to have a fit and Dong-ik calls to Ki-taek for the cat keys so he can drive him to the hospital. As he tosses them from beside a profusely bleeding Ki-jeong. Chung-sook attacks Geun-sae with a meat skewer and he lands on the keys. Seeing Dong-ik react to Geun-sae's smell, Ki-taek snaps and he picks up the carving knife and stabs his employer before staggering away in a daze.
A month later, Ki-woo comes out of a coma to learn that his sister had died of her wounds. Unable to do anything but laugh, he goes on trial with his mother for fraud and various other charges. They receive a suspended sentence and he revisits the house and sees the landing light flashing out a message in Morse. He learns that his father is hiding in the basement room and sneaks out to steal food from the German family renting the property. Living in the family's renovated apartment, Ki-woo writes a letter to Ki-taek promising to make enough money to buy the house and set him free. But, while this seems eminently possible in his imagination, the truth is somewhat harsher.
Putting a bleakly comic twist on the home invasion format, this fascinating, but far from faultless film contains echoes of everything from Jean Genet's The Maids (1947) and Joseph Losey's The Servant (1961) to Pier Paolo Pasolini's Theorem (1968) and Claude Chabrol's La Cérémonie (1995). Yet, for all the ingenuity of Bong's direction and the brilliance of his estimable ensemble, this often feels as calculating as the brand of `soapcial realism' that Ken Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty peddled in Sorry We Missed You, which throws everything but the kitchen sink at a Newcastle family of four.
The characters are ciphers who exist to fulfil their role in the scenario. But, while Bong and Han Jin-won's writing couldn't be more precise in its exposition of this specific example of the chasm between the Korean classes, there's no real sense of lives being lived outside the Kim's dead-end subterranean flat that confines them below the lowest rung on the ladder and the Park's opulent abode, which was designed to show off its creator's genius rather than provide a comfortable living space. Indeed, the only time we gain a wider perspective comes when the Kims are forced to sleep in a gym with neighbours who have been driven out of their homes by sewage caused by the same deluge that barely disturbs Da-song in his American-bought wigwam.
Not a detail inside Lee Ha-jun's impeccable production design is wasted, but this reinforces the sense that Bong is manipulating the audience's response to material that has been expressly designed to balance antipathies while provoking outrage at the state of millennial capitalism and the indifference of the Haves towards the murderous struggle of the Have-Nots for the crumbs being thrown from their table. Why else would Dong-ik's software company be called Another Buck or would Chung-sook have once been a medal-winning shot putter? But what else do we know about them or their personalities or their ideals and aspirations? They are merely pieces in a fiendishly elaborate parable about the occupation of the moral high ground that is neither as funny as it could be or as disquietingly furious as Lee Chang-dong's study of working-class angst, Burning (2018).
Despite describing this as `a comedy without clowns, a tragedy without villains', Bong isn't in the same league as Luis Buñuel when it comes to bashing the bourgeoisie. But, make no mistake, this is film-making of the highest order, with Hong Kyung-po's photography, Yang Jin-mo's editing and Jung Jae-il's score enhancing the sense of accomplishment and polish. Moreover, Bong is absolutely right to rail against the inequality of opportunity in the modern world and the way in which the cosseted children of privilege are being stunted by indulgent parents straining to protect them from reality. But, with the exception of the consciously messy denouement, his approach is too neat and knowingly sophisticated to drive home the point with the rawness, raggedness and recklessness that one associates with the best satire.
DANIEL ISN'T REAL.
In Some Kind of Hate (2015), the debuting Adam Egypt Mortimer posited what would happen if one's past could return in menacing physical form. Now, in loosely adapting Brian DeLeeuw's novel, In This Way I Was Saved, as Daniel Isn't Real, he explores the possibilities of an imaginary friend running amok. Mortimer freely admits the influence of Adrian Lyne's Jacob's Ladder (1990), David Fincher's Fight Club (1999) and Darren Aronofsky's Requiem For a Dream (2000). However, this visually inventive, but narratively derivative horror also invokes the likes of Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Henry James's `The Turn of the Screw' (which was so memorably filmed as The Innocents by Jack Clayton in 1961) and Richard Kelly's Donnie Darko (2001) in sacrificing unsettling psychological suspense for some workaday genre jolts.
On the day his father walks out after a blazing row with mother Claire (Mary Stuart Masterson), eight year-old Luke (Griffin Robert Faulkner) makes a new friend outside the Brooklyn Heights coffee shop that has just witnessed a mass shooting. Seeing how happy he is, Claire indulges her son's obsession with the imaginary Daniel (Nathan Chandler Reid). However, when he claims that his friend told him to put Claire's psychiatric medication into a smoothie in order to give her superpowers, she persuade Luke to lock Daniel in her mother's vintage dollhouse.
Several years later, Luke (Miles Robbins) is at college and pays frequent visits home to check on Claire, whose schizophrenia has worsened. Following a hallucinatory incident of his own at a disco, Luke consults Dr Cornelius Braun (Chukwudi Iwuji) and confides his fear that he could wind up like his mother. The psychiatrist encourages Luke to reconnect with his childhood imagination and, during a sleepless night, he unlocks the dollhouse. The next morning, he is surprised to find the now strapping Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger) lolling in the bath while Claire has an episode in which she breaks a mirror (because she cannot abide her reflection) and attempts to attack Luke with a pair of scissors.
Glad to have someone in his corner again (especially when he peels off his shirt in an exam to reveal the answers written on his rippling torso), Luke allows Daniel to advise him when he befriends Cassie (Sasha Lane), an artist who had bumped into him on her skateboard, and Sophie (Hannah Marks), a psychology student with a Louise Brooks bob, whom he met at a campus party. They also have fun at the expense of his macho roommate, Richard (Andrew Bridges). But the Patrick Bateman-like Daniel is possessive and nicks Luke's neck with a razor when he passes out in a bathroom at a party and looks on aghast when he sleeps with Cassie after she paints his portrait (complete with a mysterious shadow that she claims gives off an aura of danger) after they break into a library after hours and Luke impresses Cassie by quoting from her favourite volumes with the unseen help of Daniel.
Luke's photography also has an impact on Sophie, who brings a friend to his room to do drugs before heading off into some steam tunnels. When Luke feels guilty about cheating on Cassie, Daniel offers to take over his body and their faces meld in an ickily Cronenbergian manner. Sophie is taken aback by the roughness of Daniel's lovemaking and is appalled when he violently turns on Richard for snooping on them. She reports him to the college authorities and Luke is banished from the campus. Despariing at losing the chance to become a lawyer like his father, Luke goes to see Claire at her care home. She senses he is troubled, but it led away by men in white coats, who presume she is the problem.
Having failed to impose his will on Daniel and force him back into the dollhouse, Luke thinks back to when they first met and calls on Percy Thigpen (Peter McRobbie), the father of the coffee shop killer, who shows him some disturbing drawings that his son had done as a child. He also reveals that John had an imaginary friend named Daniel.
Convinced he is being pushed towards committing a similar atrocity, Luke goes to see Dr Braun and admits to having tried to kill Claire when he was a kid. He also drops in on Cassie, who throws him out when he shows her John Thigpen's drawings and tries to tell her about Daniel. In desperation, Luke calls Braun, who agrees to come to Claire's house in the middle of the night. Using a Tibetan singing bowl, he hypnotises Luke in the hope of talking to Daniel, but proves powerless to prevent him from taking possession of Luke's body and stabbing Braun with the obsidian dagger he had brought as a symbolic weapon to slay Luke's trauma.
Luke sees the body on waking next morning, but is unable to prevent Thigpen from locking him in the dollhouse and taking control of his body. Slicking back his hair and donning a new red jacket, Luke comes to resemble Daniel and even adopts his persona to call on Cassie. She suspects something is wrong and that the shadow Luke had been so frightened of has taken control. While she uses anything that comes to hand to fight off Luke/Daniel's approaches, Luke discovers that he is dealing with a malevolent psychic parasite that has been seizing hosts for centuries.
Hearing Cassie calling to him through his subconscious, Luke dismantles the bricks of the dollhouse and, through his force of will, reaches her on the rooftop of her building. Picking up a broomstick, he recreates the childhood swordfights he used to have with Daniel so that Cassie can get to safety. Moreover, realising that he can only protect her by sacrificing himself, Luke throws himself and Daniel off the roof and Cassie kneels beside his broken body on the pavement below. As the picture cuts to darkness, Daniel reverts to the parasite's hideous aspect and plunges downwards in a search for a new victim.
The theme of this week is clearly `sons of the famous', as following Jack Quad's turn in Plus One, we get two scions for the price of one in this slick, but superficial chiller. Not only is Patrick Schwarzeneggar a chip off the Austrian Oak, but Miles Robbins can also claim Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon as his parents. As with Master Quaid, however, the pair have a long way to go to emerge from such imposing shadows, even though Schwarzeneggar, Jr. does present swaggering flashes of the Arnie menace seen in James Cameron's The Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). By contrast, Robbins proves genially vulnerable, although he mugs his way through the scene in which Luke/Daniel threatens Cassie, as though he had spent too much time watching John Travolta and Nicolas Cage acting on stalks in John Woo's Face/Off (1997).
The leads are not always helped by Mortimer and DeLeeuw's dialogue, but they manage to generate a homoerotic undercurrent that adds frisson to the possession aspect of a plot that makes somewhat exploitative use of mental health and often feels more like an aggregation of set-pieces than a sequential narrative. This isn't a major setback, however, as Mortimer seems more preoccupied with manipulating the viewer viscerally than psychologically. Hence, the emphasis placed on the visuals, with Kaet McAnneny's production design being particularly effective in making use of spiral motifs and in contrasting the interiors of Claire and Luke's home and the dollhouse. Lyle Vincent's lithe, colour saturated camerawork and Brett W. Bachman's jittery editing are also effective. although Chris Clark's score feels as self-conscious as the body horror make-up effects and the design of the parasite.
LE GRAND VOYAGE.
It's pretty unusual for a film that's only 15 years old to be restored and reissued into cinemas. But that is the case with Ismaël Ferroukhi's Le Grand Voyage (2004), which made history by becoming the first feature to contain footage filmed inside Mecca, after the French-Moroccan director had been arrested by the Saudi authorities. In addition to being nominated for a BAFTA, this still pertinent road movie inspired by the exploits of Ferroukhi's own father also won the prize for best first feature at the Venice Film Festival. It took four years to raise the funding and, subsequently, the self-taught 57 year-old has only managed to make two more features, Free Men (2011) and Mica (2019), Perhaps this re-release will remind potential backers of Ferroukhi's cinematic talent and socio-political acuity.
When the son who was supposed to be driving him to Mecca to perform the hadj is arrested for being drunk, a father (Mohamed Majd) ropes younger child Réda (Nicolas Cazale) into taking the wheel of a battered blue car with an orange passenger door. The father is unconcerned by the fact that Réda has some important exams coming up and announces that the journey will be conducted on his terms when he grabs the wheel to ensure that Réda stops for a rest outside Milan. Indeed, while his son sleeps, the old man steals his mobile phone and dumps it in a litter bin.
Réda doesn't notice it's missing until they stop for supper after missing their turn to Belgrade. He realises there's no point in protesting, as they are 200 miles on from the service station and drives on in silence while his father informs him that the phone was an unnecessary distraction. When they stop to ask an old woman (Ghina Ognianova) for directions, she gets into the backseat, only to slip out when they approach the customs barrier. Much to Réda's surprise, she appears on the other side of the barrier and clambers back into the vehicle before pointing forward with a grim determination that impresses the father, who orders Réda to take her wherever she wants to go. As she gives Réda the creeps, however, they agree to get her a room at a roadside inn and press on to their hotel room in Belgrade.
Amused by a garrulous local who gives them detailed directions in a language they don't understand, they cross the mountains into Bulgaria, where the father tells Réda that he decided to go to Mecca by car rather than plane, as a good Muslim should always try to overcome difficulties en route. They face one soon afterwards, as the old man has to be rushed to hospital in Sofia after they become snowed in while parking in a lay-by. However, he refuses to stay in bed and sneaks back to the car without waiting to be discharged.
They are stopped at the Turkish border and have to rely on the help of Mustapha (Jacky Nercessian), a wily wheeler-dealer who insists on coming along to make his own pilgrimage. He shows them around the Blue Mosque in Istanbul and takes Réda for a beer in a nearby bar after checking them into a hotel. But he steals their money in the night and they report him to the police before heading on towards Syria, where they have a row when the father gives some money to a begging woman when Réda is stressed out from surviving on egg sandwiches. Grabbing his bag, he tells his father to make his own way to Mecca and stalks off over a hill. However, he realises he has nowhere else to go and just needs time to cool down. So, he falls back into line after the old man catches up with him and promises to sell the car in Damascus so they can fly home.
Feeling guilty about his son having no meat, the father trades his camera for a sheep with some nomadic shepherds. But the animal's bleating drives Réda mad and the old man offers to slaughter the sheep, only for it to escape and run off across the scrubland. Dozing off on a dune, Réda dreams that he sinks into the sand, as his father herds a flock of sheep past him and he wakes with a start.
They drive on in silence, with Réda feeling a fool. Approaching Mecca, they stop at a café and, while his father is praying. Réda finds the cash that Mustapha was supposed to have stolen in a rolled-up sock under the passenger seat. He fibs that the French consulate had made good the stolen sum and goes to a bar to let his hair down. When he brings a girl back to the shared hotel room, however, his father is disgusted with him (especially as he has found the photograph of Réda's French girlfriend, Lisa) and he strides off on foot before his son questions whether his faith encourages forgiveness.
They plough on and find themselves part of a convoy passing through the desert. The old man informs their travelleing companions that they have been driving for 3000 miles through many countries and that he is grateful to his son for enabling him to fulfil his obligation. He also admits to have learned a good deal on the journey. Réda is pleased to have been able to help and they exchange fond smiles as they reach the outskirts of the holy city. However, as Réda has no faith, he doesn't join in any of the prayers and catches up with some sleep in the car when they find a parking space near some of the father's friends from home. He is touched when he wakes to find that his father has propped up his dropped photo of Lisa, as a sign of his acceptance of the relationship,
When the day comes for his father to go to the Kaaba, he dresses in a traditional white robe and Réda watches him leave in a chanting procession. However, he becomes concerned when he fails to return with the rest of his party and he takes a bus into the city centre the next morning to look for him. Pilgrims throng through the streets and Réda gets into a panic when the crowd proves too thick to push through. He is picked up by the police and taken to a room filled with corpses covered with white sheets. On identifying his father, Réda curls up beside him and sobs. Having performed the ceremonial ablutions, he sells the car and gives some of the cash to a woman begging in the street. As he heads to the airport, he puts his head of the taxi window to feel the wind on his face.
Exploring themes that would recur in Annemarie Jacir's Wajib (2017), this is a poignant study of father-son relationships that is played with great finesse by Mohamed Majd and Nicolas Cazalé, as they manage to find common ground by seeing past the personality traits and the religious and culture clash issues that divide them. Ferroukhi withholds any background information on the father, who isn't even given a name. But he's scarcely more forthcoming about the rebellious Réda, who has abandoned his faith and started dating a non-Muslim classmate. Such sketchiness allows the pair (who respectively address each other in Arabic and French) to surprise each other with their reaction to the various events that happen on the road, as they realise they are very much alike, even though they scarcely know each other.
Directing with steady detachment and gentle wit, Ferroukhi deftly demonstrates how Réda and his father gradually trade places as the outsider, as they head further east from a mutually baffling encounter with the old woman whom neither of them can understand. It seems a bit far-fetched, however, for none of the pilgrims to mention that something has happened to the father, especially as they have seen them together and in the parking area. But the scene in the mortuary is so affecting that one can excuse a little contrivance and the rising intensity of Fowzi Guerdjou's otherwise melodious score.
As old as the performing arts themselves, the romantic comedy is a reassuring constant in a dizzying world of change. The odd screwball complication has been tossed in to freshen the formula over the decades, but audiences would be disappointed unless the path to true love running between the initial `meet cute' and the `happy ever after' was not strewn with a clutch of obstacles that have to be overcome by the mismatched couple that they knew were made for each other all along. Judging by Plus One, writer-directors Jeff Chan and Andrew Rhymer know the rules of the sub-genre and are reluctant to stray from them. Yet, while this is a textbook example of the form, it's perhaps a touch too conventional to take cinemas by storm this Valentine's Day.
Californian start-up executive Ben King (Jack Quaid) is rehearsing his best man speech in his hotel room. College pal Alice Mori (Maya Erskine) thinks his sleepover references are weird and urges him to stick with cornball jokes if he wants to make a good impression on longtime dream girl, Jess (Brianne Howey). Taking Alice's advice, Ben goes down a storm, but he fails to see Jess's engagement ring and winds up back in the room caring for Alice, who has drunk too much in a failed bid to cope with a recent break-up from Nate (Tim Chiou).
Before heading to their next May wedding, Ben discovers on a golf course that his father, Chuck (Ed Begley, Jr.), has become engaged to Regina (Perrey Reeves), who is half his age and has two young sons. He also feels uncomfortable when Alice follows up trying to be his wingman in a coach back to the hotel from the reception by asking if they can cuddle in the bed they are sharing. But, as they have nine more weddings to endure over the course of the summer, they agree to be each other's plus one to make life easier.
While Ben relaxes in the motel pool at the next wedding, Alice schemes to pair him off with Maggie (Scarlett Bermingham) and they hook up after a lively drinking game at the reception. Over a diner breakfast next day, Alice despairs because Ben has set his heart on Miss Right, so he gets his own back by teasing her about moping around over Nate and she protests that she isn't interested in one-night stands because she needs to get to know someone before she can open up to them.
Having spent their time at the next reception making moves on the dance floor to check out the potential partners the other has spotted, Ben and Alice find themselves sharing a table at the next do with Chuck and Regina. They insist that Alice comes to their wedding, but Ben is unsettled when his father asks him to be his best man and he confides to Alice that he fears Chuck is trying to play happy families after messing up first time.
They join a group of drunken revellers in jumping fully clothed into a swimming pool, but are surprised to find themselves alone as they tread water and chat. Embarrassed by a sudden surge of sentiment as they hug, they discover they have missed the shuttle bus back to the hotel and wind up having sex in a cemetery, where they are discovered in a state of undress the next morning by a groundskeeper. After an awkward drive home, they maintain a discreet silence until they meet up for the next wedding in Hawaii. However, Ben's gay friends, Brett (Brandon Kyle Goodman) and Nick (Max Jenkins), guess immediately that something has happened and they hurry back to their room for more sex. Indeed, they have such a good time at the service that they stay an extra few days.
The next event sees Alice make a best woman speech for her sister, Lily (Victoria Park), while Ben gets the seal of approval from their parents, Angela (Rosalind Chow) and Mitchell (Tom Yi). But he refuses to have sex in Alice's childhood room and is spooked by a text she ignores from Nate. Moreover, he is very aware of being the odd one out at the reception, even though Alice is proud of the way he has mucked in to help with the preparations.
His insecurity hits a new level when Alice forgets the gift for Nick and Brett's August wedding and they bicker their way through the pre-nuptials party. When she confronts him, Ben admits that he is having doubts because he can see her settling into the relationship and he isn't sure he's ready for a commitment. She fights back the tears when he doesn't reciprocate her declaration of love and reminds him that he has a track record of breaking up with eminently suitable partners for the most specious of reasons. When he tries to apologise for hurting her, Alice loses her patience and storms off into the night.
Suddenly alone, Ben goes to three weddings as a plus none and makes such a fool of himself trying to chat up women that buddy Matt (Beck Bennett) takes him to one side and urges him to get a grip. He tells Ben that he's behaving like a weirdo sampling all the flavours in an ice cream parlour and admonishes him for messing up with Alice. Realising the mistake he's made, Ben turns up at the next event hoping to make amends, only to discover that Alice has come with Nate. Swallowing his pride, he tries to tell her how he feels, but Nate keeps hovering.
Driving home, Ben gets a call from Chuck, who has dropped acid with his pals at his golf club bachelor party. He regrets hurting Ben by breaking up with his mother and skewing his views on love, but he wishes he could accept Regina and his right to find happiness. On arriving home, Ben finds Alice waiting outside his house and, while she reminds him that he doesn't deserve a second chance, she kisses him and the film ends with her being part of the family after criticising his best man speech at Chuck's wedding.
It's fitting that Jack Quaid is the son of Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan because this genial romcom has a pronounced When Harry Met Sally... (1989) vibe. That said, it could also be retitled Ten Weddings and an Inevitable Conclusion. But, such is the screwball chemistry between Quaid and Maya Erskine that it's possible to forget the more formulaic aspects of Chan and Rhymer's scenario (such as starting each vignette with a snippet from a toast speech and a scene-setting flashback) and start rooting for the leads to find a way. Indeed, their reunion comes as something of a relief, as the segment in which a solo Quaid has to face up to the fact that he's a ginormous shlemiel drags under the weight of its fortune cookie philosophising and ladled on schmaltz.
Forever pursued by Guy Godfree's fleet camera, Erskine and Quaid are further helped by the depth of characterisation that makes Alice and Ben so credible as both friends and lovers. They also benefit from the fact that they are the picture, as, despite some deft performances, the minor figures are just that. What makes this such a boom shakalaka pleasure, however, is that their rapport is rooted in the precision of Quaid and Erskine's comic timing, whether they are trading quips or engaging in deft bits of physical business. This is a decent calling card for both stars, but it sounds like someone in the UK needs to purchase Erskine's schooldays sitcom, PEN15 (2019) and soon.