Unholy matrimony

Just say “I don’t.”

Just say “I don’t.”

Rated 2.0

A glance at the poster for The Big Wedding and its all-star cast—Robert De Niro, Katherine Heigl, Diane Keaton, Amanda Seyfried, Topher Grace, Susan Sarandon, Robin Williams—prompts wistful memories of the heyday of Robert Altman, when stars would line up to be in his pictures, willing to risk being in one of his misses for the chance of being, with luck, in one of the bull’s-eyes.

Unfortunately, those memories are misleading. Altman is no longer with us, and none of his adventurous spirit survives in writer-director Justin Zackham. Instead of Altman’s freewheeling, let’s-go-down-this-road-and-see-where-it-takes-us approach, Zackham sticks rigidly with a formula. That doesn’t always work, and when the formula is as tattered and threadbare as this one, it almost never does.

The Big Wedding is based on a Franco-Swiss film titled Mon frère se marie (My Brother’s Getting Married), which never made it over to the United States. In Zackham’s Americanized version, Keaton and De Niro play Ellie and Don, a divorced couple who have remained on good terms, despite the fact that he cheated on her with her best friend Bebe (Sarandon) and is now living with Bebe in their (Don’s and Ellie’s) suburban Connecticut home.

How long ago was this storybook divorce? I don’t think Zackham ever says, but presumably it was long enough ago for Bebe to have a hand in raising Don and Ellie’s now-adult children: Lyla (Heigl), recently separated from her husband over her inability to have children; Jared (Grace), a 29-year-old doctor and virgin who’s saving himself for marriage (no, really!); and Alejandro (Ben Barnes), the Colombian-born adopted son and groom in the upcoming wedding.

As Alejandro and his bride-to-be Missy (Seyfried) sit in a prenup-counseling session with her priest (Williams), he suddenly remembers that his Colombian biological mother Madonna (Patricia Rae), who is coming to the wedding, doesn’t know that his adoptive parents are divorced; in all his letters home he never got around to telling her because of her strict Catholic upbringing.

Now, to cover for this nincompoop, Bebe has to move out of the house—which is awkward, since she’ll be catering the wedding—Ellie has to move in, and everybody has to pretend that they’re all the same happy family to which Mama Madonna surrendered Alejandro so he could have a better life in America. Also coming with her from Colombia is Alejandro’s sister Nuria (Ana Ayora). Evidently, Mama decided she didn’t deserve a better life in America. Anyhow, whatever the case, Nuria makes the most of her trip, immediately going for a skinny-dip in the lake behind the house and propositioning Jared, thus rattling his virgin resolve.

Does Zackham know this is 2013? That the pretend-we’re-married-because-so-and-so-doesn’t-know-we’re-divorced and don’t-tempt-me-I’m-saving-myself plots haven’t worked since Eisenhower was president? Does he even know that trying to pass off the English, 31-year-old Barnes as a 20-something Colombian is about like, well, like trying to pass Patricia Rae off as his mother. She looks like she had him when she was about 8.

Not to mention that there’s no physical resemblance, which raises the question of why Ben Barnes was cast at all. He’s not that big a star; in the poster among all those other names, his has a definite “who?” quality to it. Besides, if Missy’s parents (Christine Ebersole, David Rasche) are supposed to be such bigots as Zackham’s script makes them out, shouldn’t Alejandro have been played by someone who doesn’t simply look like an Anglo-Saxon with a good tan? Are young Hispanic actors really that hard to find?

The movie is dreary, predictable and unfunny from the first scene, when Ellie walks in on Don and Bebe having oral sex in their kitchen. This is moviemaking by the book, when the book is so out-of-date it should have “Gutenberg” stamped on the spine.

The Big Wedding has a great cast, but it’s a mystery what drew them to Zackham’s script when Zackham himself has no real track record. Maybe it sounded funnier in French.