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film review

Table 19’s premise suggests an elaborate revenge fantasy from the put-upon wedding guests’ point of view.Jace Downs

To some, marriage is a word. To others, a sentence. You could say the same about weddings. Attending them is fraught enough even without being relegated to the dark ballroom corner table where nobody knows anyone but the bride and/or groom. And the denizens relegated to this particular wedding's worst seating assignment, the titular Table 19, have travelled all the way to a rustic island resort on Lake Michigan for the privilege.

Table 19's premise suggests an elaborate revenge fantasy from the put-upon guests' point of view, or a commentary on the bridal industrial complex by way of broad comedy (27 Dresses, Made of Honor, The Wedding Date, Bridesmaids, etc.). But the film is directed by Jeffrey Blitz from a story by brothers Jay and Mark Duplass, and absent the genre's typical gross-out moments and ritual humiliations. Instead, the focus is on naturalism, melancholy comedy with a bit of subdued slapstick (hint: A tiered cake is the Chekhov's gun in any wedding movie) and a few recurring sight gags.

Essentially, it's a movie that dares to ask: What if The Breakfast Club took place at a wedding reception? While the story follows the life cycle of the wedding from polite small talk to rambling toasts and first dances through to the bedraggled bitter end, it's also structured like that familiar 1985 detention comedy. It has a similarly isolating premise, eighties-pop soundtrack and even the passing of a joint as precursor to bonding over exchanged confidences before running through halls to escape detection.

The movie is bookended by the delivery of stiff linen-wove envelopes, first when we meet each guest and much later, after they've gone their separate ways at the end of the day. Who are they, in the most convenient definitions? An odd couple, a geek, a tomboy, a nanny and a criminal. There's girl-crazy Renzo (Tony Revolori, the precocious lobby boy of The Grand Budapest Hotel). Next to him is disgraced cousin Walter (Stephen Merchant, an empathetic balance of pathetic and poignant) banished to seating Siberia because of an epic screw-up; the indomitable June Squibb is Jo, the retired former nanny of the bride; and the Kepps (Lisa Kudrow and Craig Robinson) are a bickering odd couple who play off one another well, with Robinson's easygoing needling stabbed by Kudrow's jaw-clenching, simmering rage. The motley crew is rounded out by petulant Eloise (Anna Kendrick), who has been demoted from maid of honour.

Initially, the rules of wedding civility play out with icebreakers around the clusters of stemware. But Eloise is still bitter from breakup-by-text with the dubious best man Teddy (Wyatt Russell, who's spot-on as the hapless dude), however, and misery loves company. After an entertaining rundown of the seating-plan hierarchy, Eloise shares the cruel insider truth that they're the unwanted randoms invited out of pity only in the hope they'd politely decline. "The table that could disappear in the middle of the wedding," Eloise says, "and no one would even notice."

Now united by a common enemy – their hosts – that's exactly what they do.

But once they leave the ballroom, Table 19 meanders like a drunken best man's speech. The observant nanny figures out what's going on with Eloise (who by then has met an intriguing new guy) and unfortunately, it's her romantic turmoil and travails that become the centrepiece of the rest of the movie. The band of outsiders go in search of Eloise's mysterious stranger and the twists that follow overshadow the humorous and heartfelt banter between them, which was always more interesting than any obligatory romantic plot and even unpredictable contrivances.

Attending nuptials usually means confronting love, always the elephant in strapless Vera Wang in the room. Walter the wan and hollow-eyed ex-con, for example, is yearning for social reacceptance and any human connection at all. Where Table 19 has its own charms is in the casting of the outcasts, their individual relationships to happily ever after, and how each deals with the hopes and disappointments they all bring to the table.

If the indie wedding planner in Blitz meant to skip the genre's usual trappings, the movie ends up standing at the traditional romantic comedy altar anyway. RSVP: Decline with regret.

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