It is not easy to love “People We Hate at the Wedding” — a broad comedy about a dysfunctional family gathering for one member’s nuptials. The characters and their situations are mostly cringeworthy. The awkwardness is meant to be funny, but the film’s comedy largely falls flat.
A narrator (Adam Godley) provides the clan’s backstory. The American Donna (Allison Janney) married the French Henrique (Isaach de Bankolé) and had Eloise (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) in England. However, when Henrique cheated on her, Donna left him and returned to the States, where she met Bill (Andy Daly) and had Alice (Kristen Bell) and Paul (out gay Ben Platt). Now Eloise is getting married to Ollie (John Macmillan) and has asked her estranged family to attend the wedding.
The reunion is important to Eloise, who feels shut out of the family. She and Alice have an unresolved issue but there are other tensions. Paul has not been very nice to his mother since Bill died and she threw out all of her late husband’s stuff.
“People We Hate at the Wedding” wants these high-strung characters to be endearing and gives them embarrassing comic moments to show them and their foibles, but much of the humor is uninspired. Donna tries to wrestle herself out a dress in a fitting room and — in an unfunny bit of physical comedy — clocks the dressing room attendant (Evelyn Mok) who is trying to help her. When Paul clumsily spills wine all over his pants, his boyfriend Dominic (out gay Karan Soni) pretends not to know him. Meanwhile, Alice gets caught trying to leave her panties for her married-with-new-baby boss, Jonathan (Jorma Taccone), in a scene that is more strained than amusing.
As they travel to England, romantic complications ensue for Donna, Paul, and Alice, but these conflicts are mostly frustrating. Donna rekindles her relationship with Henrique, but she doesn’t want the kids to know. Dominic arranges for him and Paul to stay with Alcott (Julian Ovenden), as a passive-aggressive way of initiating a threesome. And Alice meets a charming and handsome guy, Dennis (Dustin Milligan from “Schitt’s Creek”), but is so distracted by Jonathan’s potential arrival that she treats this stranger poorly after sleeping with him.
“People We Hate at the Wedding” continues to spiral out of control. There is bad behavior at a family dinner where Eloise tries to bring the family together but ends up causing a scene. Paul makes a big deal out of Donna not fully recognizing Dominic as his boyfriend which creates an unpleasant and uncomfortable moment. A “hen do” for Eloise the next day involves five women drinking in a tiny boat until a fight between the bride and her sister lands everyone in the river. But little to none of it is funny. A sequence involving Paul, Dominic and Alcott trying to have a threesome is as forced as Paul drunkenly recounting what transpired to Ollie’s parents at the rehearsal dinner. But Ollie’s mom (Sandra James-Young) does generate a laugh with her response to Paul’s wild recitation.
The film wants to embrace the messiness of its characters but what they say or do is more inappropriate than outrageous. “People We Hate at the Wedding” is best when the characters reveal why they behave the way they do. When Eloise explains to Paul why Donna threw out Bill’s stuff, it makes sense. His mother did not explain her reasoning to him as a way of protecting him from an ugly truth about his father. Likewise, when Alice and Eloise have a heart to heart about why Eloise could not visit Alice during a time of need, it was because Eloise did not know the whole story, and Alice wasn’t aware of something Eloise was grappling with at the time.
Unfortunately, these few touching moments about the importance of family connecting are buried under slap-sticky humor. A farcical incident that occurs at the rehearsal dinner lands Alice, Paul, and Donna in jail. And there is a juvenile running gag about a character’s last name being “Bottoms.” These episodes lessen a film that may start out silly but scores points when it gets sentimental and serious. Instead, “People We Hate at the Wedding” always settles for the cheap joke, rather than the smart one.
The performances are also uneven. Allison Janney may be overplaying her scenes where she feels the effects of CBD gummies, but she does give a terrific speech to Henrique and is very moving when she is caring for her adult children. In support, Ben Platt tries way too hard in his scenes, especially when he is having a spat with Dominic and crying in public. Platt can deliver a few droll lines, but he feels miscast here. Kristen Bell also goes large as Alice, but she makes her reckless behavior, such as her plan to eat her way through a table full of room service, appealing. Alas, Cynthia Addai-Robinson is slightly underused as Eloise, but she provides real moments of grace in this otherwise uncouth comedy.
In support, Dustin Milligan steals his every scene as Dennis, and is terrific in a scene where he sizes up Alice. And Isaach de Bankolé, still the coolest man in movies, makes his cad Henrique charming, even when Paul pisses on his shoes.
“People We Hate at the Wedding” has a few good moments, but by and large, this frantic comedy is unmemorable.
“People We Hate at the Wedding” | Directed by Claire Scanlon | Available November 18 on Prime Video.