There’s a particular type of dramedy that pops up around the holidays about the particular ways our families drive us crazy. “The Family Stone,” “This Christmas,” or more recently “Happiest Season” – they all explore complex family and relationship dynamics that all of us can more or less relate to. These movies might have their issues, but they all to some extent get at what makes family dynamics so volatile and irresistible to watch unfold – a big family reunites for a holiday or event, old wounds open, misunderstandings occur, and some sort of catharsis is found.
“The People We Hate at the Wedding,” director Claire Scanlon’s new film, tries to tap into those familiar complexities, but never scratches past the surface or leans into the hints of sardonic humor that peek their way through cloudy sentimentality. There’s a strange tonal mix to the film, and it never finds the right level for its snark or earnestness, or rides the right joke or emotional arc to its logical conclusion.
The film centers around Alice (Kristen Bell) and Paul (Ben Platt), two siblings struggling to make ends meet in their personal, professional, and romantic lives. When they receive an invitation to attend their estranged, rich half-sister Eloise’s (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) wedding in England, they reluctantly decide to join their mother Donna (Allison Janey) for the trip. Once on the other side of the pond, envy and insecurity rise to the surface for a nasty reunion.
In any family drama, there are numerous archetypes – the daffy mother, the type A sister, the sort-of-a-mess little brother, you name it. While there are times where these archetypes can feel stereotypical on the page, a good actor can find the heart of the character and build from there, lending a specificity that the audience can relate to. But while Bell, Platt, Addai-Robinson and Janey are all talented performers, even they can’t save “The People We Hate at the Wedding” from the dismal characters at its center. The archetypes we’ve come to expect from this type of family drama are not stereotypical, but essentially non-existent – vague to the point of bewilderment, and unbelievably unlikeable in their banality.
Some of Alice and Paul’s contempt for Eloise comes from actual perceived slights, but it mostly stems from their own insecurities related to Eloise’s wealth that they then project onto her. From Eloise’s perspective, she’s never really felt like a true part of the family – after Donna broke up with her cheating scoundrel of a father Henrique (Isaach de Bankolé), Eloise lived with him in London while Donna moved back to the U.S. There are intricate relationships at play here, and a better script could have given these performers more restraint and underlying pain to work with. But when the two parties come together, none of the interactions feel particularly interesting, or discreetly passive aggressive in the way family drama can be before everything bursts into flames.
Instead, we’re subject to unfettered cruelty. Besides Eloise, no one is trying to keep their emotions in check or save face. Alice gets continuously more and more drunk, throwing up in bushes and constantly poking fun. Paul says whatever comes to mind, sneering at his half-sister and berating his mother any chance he gets. For the most part, Alice and Paul are just plain nasty, which doesn’t say anything particularly insightful about their personal issues or the conflict at play. Most of the other characters don’t fare any better. Even Eloise, who is the kindest of the bunch, drops a devastating truth on Paul in the middle of a rehearsal dinner, a truth she knows will hurt him and cause him to lash out. The squabbles that arise from this meeting of the family are tirelessly spiteful.
That meanness didn’t have to go to waste. There are moments in “The People We Hate at the Wedding” that could have made for a deliciously snide dark comedy, but the film never quite lets those humorous scenes breathe, preferring to jump right back into earnestness. Every time there’s a scene that offers a modicum of bite – such as a bachelorette party that involves Bell making sex jokes in a hot tub boat on the Thames while wearing an American flag bikini – it’s undercut moments later by a somber conversation about feelings that isn’t specific enough to raise any real feeling from the audience. This moment is underscored by generically weepy music while the characters discuss their issues with each other in vague platitudes. And then it’s back to cruelty – lather, rinse, repeat.