Michael Winterbottom’s latest, The Wedding Guest, has all the elements of a classic film noir — a shady man kidnapping a woman for cash, a long road trip, seedy hotel rooms in squalid cities, slow-burning heat between the two leads — but absolutely none of the style. The constantly changing backdrop of Pakistani and Indian locations represents the only real point of interest here, as the director’s original screenplay feels like a rough draft and the characters’ attitudes are almost constantly sour. Commercial prospects are nil.
Winterbottom loves shooting all over the world but, lately, his only journeys worth taking have been his food-eating trips with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. Those guys give good dialogue, which is more you can say for the dully monotonous duo at the center of this flat abduction tale.
A road trip through Pakistan and India that goes nowhere.
A solitary figure who projects the aura of a hit man, Jay (Dev Patel) heads from the U.K. to Pakistan, where he buys a couple of guns (no problem), makes a road trip and kidnaps a young Muslim woman, Samira (Radhika Apte), who willingly goes with him because she’s about to be forced into an unwanted arranged marriage. Along the way, Jay shoots to death the armed guard posted at the house. He feels no remorse.
Given that most Westerners would never think of taking a road trip that involves crossing the Pakistani-Indian border in remote areas, there is passing interest in observing these unique locations, as well in the squalor of New Delhi and the relaxed charm of a remote beach resort, where the couple finally has the romantic encounter we’ve been waiting for all along.
Unfortunately, it’s a mild, passionless thing. The fact that Samira is actually glad to have been abducted since it has saved her from a loveless marriage is an agreeable twist, but it isn’t followed up emotionally; we hear almost nothing about it and we don’t learn what the ramifications might be, even though the case of her disappearance remains a news story Samira and Jay follow in newspapers while they’re on the run.
Along with the screenplay’s one-quarter-baked nature — it must have been clear at the outset that the drama was far from fully developed in the script — the big problem is Patel’s character. Is this the first time he’s killed someone? He seems to feel nothing afterwards. He does seem to know his way around weapons, so what’s his background? We have no idea what he thinks or feels about anything, so he remains both a cypher and bore throughout.
More would have been welcome from Samira as well. Unexpectedly liberated from the straitjacket of her intended marriage, she’s now a free woman, but what might she do with this unexpected freedom? Again, Winterbottom has allowed his dramatic garden to go drastically unwatered.
The only memorable aspect of the film, then, is the range of locations — the massive crowds, depressingly similar and squalid commercial districts, bare-bones hotels, dusty roads, aging trains, hints of danger everywhere.
Winterbottom has extensively documented his wanderlust throughout his career, but providing such skeletal stories just doesn’t cut it. His adventurous attitude reminds of the late Anthony Bourdain, but he doesn’t deliver the meals.
Production companies: Revolution Films, Riverstone Pictures
Cast: Dev Patel, Radhika Apte, Jim Sarbh
Director-screenwriter: Michael Winterbottom
Producers: Melissa Parmenter, Michael Winterbottom, Deepak Nayar, Nik Bower, Dev Patel
Executive producers: Andrea Scarso, Peter Touche, Norman Merry
Director of photography: Giles Nuttgens
Production designer: Ravi Srivastava
Costume designer: Natalie Ward
Editor: Marc Richardson
Music: Harry Escott
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentation)