In Danish director Susanne Bier’s Oscar-nominated 2006 film After the Wedding, the antsy camerawork and editing suggested a link to the raw aesthetics of her countrymen’s Dogme 95 manifesto, while the pivotal scene of a large family gathering during which uncomfortable secrets come to light recalled the first and one of the best examples of that movement, Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration. Bart Freundlich’s American remake of the Bier film flips the gender of the main characters, yielding predictably strong performances from Julianne Moore and Michelle Williams but otherwise removing the teeth from a melodrama that grows increasingly preposterous as it crawls toward its weepy conclusion.
Is there an audience for this? Possibly, given that it mines similar territory — complicated relationships, parenthood, love, death — to the popular NBC drama This Is Us. It’s certainly an improvement on series creator Dan Fogelman’s wince-inducing feature from last year, Life Itself, which corralled more people smiling through tears than any audience should ever have to endure.
Freundlich’s pedestrian film boasts glossy visuals, with an almost ridiculously extravagant series of drone or crane shots gliding over the resplendent colors of India as well as the only slightly more subdued tones of New York City and its well-heeled, leafy suburbs. But the lush packaging only goes so far in disguising characters that feel inconsistent, poorly crafted scenes in which even heightened friction plays just a touch flat and emotional gut punches that too seldom land.
The writer-director has made six features, starting with 1997’s The Myth of Fingerprints, many of them starring his wife Moore, and this is perhaps among his more accomplished efforts. But its chief saving grace is the dependable class of its two female leads, and sensitive work from relative newcomer Abby Quinn.
Williams plays Isabel, an American transplant running an orphanage in India, first seen when Julio Macat’s airborne camera swoops in on her meditating in the lotus position, draped in a sari, with a bindi on her forehead. She’s basically set up as a saint, smiling beatifically while distributing meals from a food truck and lavishing extra tenderness on the most vulnerable of the kids in her care, eight-year-old Jai (Vir Pachisia), whom she has raised since he was found abandoned as an infant. Isabel has a chilly side though, which emerges when a wealthy potential donor insists that she fly to New York to secure the promised $2 million in funding. She wants to stay where she’s needed.
The philanthropist insisting on a face to face is Theresa (Moore), who built up a giant media corporation from nothing but is introduced shout-singing along in the car to Lady Gaga, so we know she’s fun and has deep feelings welling up inside. She’s a loving wife to sculptor Oscar (Billy Crudup) and a caring, attentive mother to their young twin boys (Tre Ryder, Azhy Robertson), as well as their much older sister Grace (Quinn). In one recurrent motif of sledgehammer symbolism, she gets sad about fallen trees and dislodged bird’s nests. But she’s also an exacting hard-ass at work, coolly commanding about getting what she wants, sometimes with less composure, as in a scene where she lashes out at her assistant (Susan Blackwell) with scorching force.
Isabel barely gets five minutes with Theresa at their first meeting before the New Yorker mutters a few approving but vague words like “impressive” and says she needs a day or two to think on it before signing over the cash. Having put Isabel up in a luxury hotel penthouse suite, she insists that she stay the weekend and attend Grace’s wedding to young company executive Jonathan (Alex Esola). Isabel does nothing to hide her displeasure, turning even more sour when she takes in the 1 percent privilege of the nuptials at Theresa’s fabulous waterfront estate, a crazy rich white people wedding with an Asian celebrant.
The first of the movie’s big reveals occurs when Isabel and Oscar are startled to encounter each another, their mutual discomfort an instant indication of their shared history. And when Isabel then takes a second look at Grace, it’s clear where the plot is headed. Even after awkward truths have surfaced and the renewed connection has caused great pain, Theresa declares her intention to go through with the funding, expanding its scope considerably but with more stringent terms. Isabel remains skeptical of her motives with good reason, which leads to another shattering bombshell that makes Theresa’s erratic behavior start to make sense.
It’s always a pleasure to watch nuanced actors like Williams and Moore, the latter especially good here when displaying her brittle edges. Williams remains a bit distant but she’s affecting nonetheless. There’s something mechanical about the movie, however, that stops it from being the honestly earned sobfest it should be, even with the lacquering of Mychael Danna’s insistent score. The constant cuts to Isabel thinking longingly of her existence back in India and her bond with little Jai just feel pat, an on-the-nose contrast to the maternal regrets elsewhere in her life. It seems reasonable to expect that swapping out the male protagonists of Bier’s film for two women whose agendas intersect in unexpected ways would have tapped into a richer vein.
Crudup can do very little with a thankless role, but Quinn is lovely, even if she’s stuck with some unfortunate dialogue and Grace’s relationship with Jonathan is unconvincing. She injects this simultaneously overstuffed and empty movie with some much-needed genuine feeling.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Production companies: Ingenious Media, Rock Island Films, Riverstone Pictures, in association with Margaritz Productions, FortySixty
Cast: Julianne Moore, Michelle Williams, Billy Crudup, Abby Quinn, Alex Esola, Susan Blackwell, Vir Pachisia, Anjula Bedi, Kaizad Gandhi
Director-screenwriter: Bart Freundlich, based on the film of the same name, written by Anders Thomas Jensen and directed by Susanne Bier
Producers: Harry Finkel, Bart Freundlich, Joel B. Michaels, Julianne Moore, Silvio Muraglia
Executive producers: Nik Bower, David Brown, William Byerley, Bill Koenigsberg, Chayah Masters, Deepak Nayar, Andrea Scarso, Peter Touche
Director of photography: Julio Macat
Production designer: Gracy Yun
Costume designer: Arjun Bhasin
Music: Mychael Danna
Editor: Joseph Krings
Casting: Douglas Aibel, Henry Russell Bergstein
Sales: Endeavor, Cornerstone Films