[Review Originally from Toronto International Film Festival last September. “The Wedding Guest” is being released this Friday.]
Director Michael Winterbottom (“24 Hour Party People,” “A Mighty Heart“) has had a career filled with ups and downs. His knack for jumping into different genres and has always been commendable, but it makes for a rather patchy filmography. Nevertheless, the 56-year-old filmmaker never cashes it in, always pushing himself with something new and, at times, interesting. Even when he fails, he does so admirably. Sadly, his latest endeavor, “The Wedding Guest,” is a lesser effort despite its intentions.
Winterbottom’s 27th feature film finds the prolific, world-traveling filmmaker journeying from Pakistan to India in a cross-country affair that feels both familiar and rote in its attempt to underline the unique tensions between the two countries. Despite the freshness of the setting, the film is, at its core, a conventional journey filled with a cliché-ridden love story that doesn’t do justice to the themes at hand.
Seen through the eyes of a mysterious British man (played by the always reliable Dev Patel), as Winterbottom’s handheld camera follows him on his pilgrimage from Britain to Pakistan, the viewer is never exactly sure what his agenda is.
It is eventually revealed that he has traveled to Pakistan for a wedding, but along the way, he buys a shotgun, asks a salesman for heavy duct tape and rents a car. Once at his destination, he sneaks into a guarded compound and abducts the young woman set to be married (played by Radhika Apte). At first, she resists, but when she realizes why she has been kidnapped, she stops fighting.
He wants to bring the bride-to-be to India, where the Indian man she loves is waiting for her— $10,000 cash awaits for him in exchange for the bride. Along their journey, they crash at hotels, take a train, eat at cheap restaurants and, eventually, fall in love. Things get complicated, and the clash between traditions starts to become meaningless in the face of a grave danger that lurks around them. Are they being followed?
“The Wedding Guest” starts off as a mystery, as not much is known about this man’s identity. We watch Patel, ever the solid actor, go through vendors, cabs, and crowded streets, slowly but surely inching his way toward the bride to be. It’s in these almost dialogue-free moments that Winterbottom’s gaze works best. His camera sucks us into a foreign world where black markets are part of the mainstream, and everybody is in for the cheap hustle.
It’s only once the mission is complete, and Apte’s character enters the picture, that the film becomes a more common affair. Gone is the dark ambiguity of the first half, replaced by road-trip conventions which lead us to a conventional and predictable conclusion.
Winterbottom has always been fascinated by unexplored worlds, and the photography in “The Wedding Guest” does give us a luscious look at a Pakistan and India both at odds with each other, but also eerily complimentary in their colorfully rich traditions. The crowded merchant streets are beautifully enhanced by Giles Nuttgens‘ (“Hell Or High Water“) expressive lenses, encompassing a whirlwind of vibrant hues and lights that absorb the viewer.
However, despite Winterbottom’s excellent direction, Nuttgens’ photography, and the decent acting from the two leads, the core nuts and bolts of the story fail. “The Wedding Guest” disappoints because its mundane screenplay (by Winterbottom) cannot be saved by its visuals and successfully-conceived aesthetics. [C]