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Film Review: ‘Table 19’

Variety logo Variety 3/1/2017 Owen Gleiberman
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Table 19” is an under-imagined, overly-pleased-with-itself comedy about half a dozen “colorful characters” who meet while sharing a table at a wedding reception. The premise sounds like it has possibilities (Robert Altman, of course, set an entire movie at a wedding), but the strangers-at-a-table concept turns out to be a thin excuse to cobble together what might have been the pilot episode for a glibly forgettable TV series. This is the sort of movie in which the characters start off telling fibs and tossing off rim-shot jibes, but within 45 minutes they’ve become a makeshift “family” of eccentrics who’ve got each other’s backs.

The film was written by Jay and Mark Duplass, who’ve amassed a degree of cachet but have often worked — to me — in an uncomfortable zone where indie quirk shades off into sitcom crock. “Table 19” comes on like it’s peddling nuggets of human truth, but is there a way to apply the “fake news” label to scripted drama? Almost everything that happens in this movie rings cloyingly false. It wants to make you laugh and cry, but you may be too busy cringing.

In theory, it should be a redeeming feature that the movie stars Anna Kendrick, whose presence will certainly lend “Table 19” its one slender shot at commercial success. But it’s a little depressing to see an actress this authentically vivacious pouring herself into the kind of prefab setups that could drag down Meryl Streep or Emma Stone. Kendrick started off (back in 2009, in “Up in the Air”) as a major actress, but there’s a danger that she could become a more trivial version of herself: the irksome cuddlebug next door.

She plays Eloise, who was supposed to be the maid of honor at her oldest friend’s wedding, until she got dumped — by the best man, who’s the bride’s brother — with a text message. She feels obligated to show up anyway, and we understand her trepidation when we meet her ex, Teddy, a hostile, surfer-haired bro played by Wyatt Russell, the son of Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn, who looks so much like his father that it puts him at a disadvantage — you can’t help but be reminded of what a bad-boy charmer Kurt Russell is (that’s a lot of personality to act in the shadow of).

At the wedding, Eloise meets another dude, an Aussie named Huck (Thomas Cocquerel), who appears to be crashing the party, and who is too tall, dark, handsome, and sweet to be true. Kendrick, in her romantic tizzy, might almost be a refugee from “Girls” in search of a comic-dramatic vehicle as convincing as “Girls.” Then we learn the real reason that she’s so upset, at which point the stakes get higher and, somehow, lower.

The other characters are too one-note to have any stakes at all. Stephen Merchant, from all those inspired British TV comedies (“The Office,” “Extras”), gets to exploit his gangly height and cartoon leer to play Walter, a geek in Bernie Goetz glasses who’s trying to hide the fact that he’s in prison for stealing $125,000 from the bride’s father (he’s been given a pass to attend — but it still makes no sense that he’d be there). He pretends to be a successful businessman by saying, each time he’s asked what he does, “I’m a successful businessman,” a gag that gets more lame with each repetition. Lisa Kudrow and Craig Robinson are a long-married couple who manage a diner in Columbus, Ohio, and are on hand to represent Entrenched Marital Misery — we know, because once they lock horns they never say a single thing to each other that isn’t a programmed insult. Finally, June Squibb, from “Nebraska,” shows up as a sweet old lady who looks like Betsy Ross but keeps a bag of pot in her room, and Tony Revolori, from “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” is a kid who keeps thinking of new ways to strike out with the same girl.

The director, Jeffrey Blitz, made a splash 15 years ago with the documentary “Spellbound,” but his attempts to segue into fiction have been awkward, and I think if I could give him some advice it would be this: Stop overstating everything. In “Table 19,” we’re told that the bride and groom met at an ’80s karaoke night, so every song played by the wedding band has to be a made-for-karaoke ’80s chestnut (“Dance Hall Days,” “All Through the Night,” “I Melt with You”). Everything that transpires is robotically on the nose — that is, when the dialogue doesn’t sound like it came out of a therapeutic “Jerry Maguire” Cuisinart (ex to ex: “I can’t spend my whole life disappointing you the way I disappoint myself”). The way a movie like “Table 19” works, these people were thrown together at random, but they’ll now be chums for life. You’ll probably end up thinking that they deserve each other.

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