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LICENSE TO WED

Directed by Ken Kwapis

Written by Wayne Lloyd, Kim Barker, Tim Rasmussen and Vince Di Meglio

Starring Robin Williams, Mandy Moore and John Krasinski

Classification: 14A

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Forget about Saw, Hostel and all the other films in the new, notorious torture-porn genre. If you're looking for a really sick movie, check out License to Wed, a Meet the Parents-derived family comedy with its what-were-they-thinking premise, starring Robin Williams as an outlandish clergyman.

With four writers, apparently aiming only to be mildly outrageous, the movie starts with a bland set-up. Ben (John Krasinski of NBC's The Office) and Sadie (Mandy Moore) meet at Starbucks, fall in love and, a few months later, are ready to marry. Ben, who feels slighted by her rich family, decides to propose to her at her parents' 30th anniversary party and, after an awkward moment, is accepted.

The extended family includes pompous rich dad (Peter Strauss), mildly alcoholic mom (Roxanne Hart), spiteful granny (Grace Zabriskie), bitter recently divorced sister (Christine Taylor) and Sadie's perfect-childhood boyfriend, Carlisle (Eric Christian Olsen, shamelessly channelling Owen Wilson's part from Meet the Parents). The family, it turns out, are just the mildly toxic gateway to the harder stuff: Their favourite psychotic clergyman, Reverend Frank (Robin Williams), who insists on subjecting Ben and Sadie to his premarital course.

Williams likes to vary his roles between wise-cracking mensches ( Patch Adams) and homicidal stalkers ( One Hour Photo, Insomnia). Here, he has found a character somewhere in the middle: a wisecracking psycho.

During the initial marriage consultation, Reverend Frank makes jokes about the couple's sex life. Instead of reporting him to his bishop, Ben and Sadie stand about and laugh, just as if they had front-row tickets at a Robin Williams concert in Vegas.

It's useful to have someone onscreen signalling what's supposed to be comedy, because few of the groan-worthy one-liners, gross-outs and slapstick moments are actually funny. Soon, Frank's behaviour quickly turns belligerently invasive: He bugs Ben and Sadie's bedroom to make sure they're not engaging in premarital hanky-panky. He incites arguments between them, interrogates Sadie about their sexual intimacies and risks the couple's lives in a blindfolded driving test. He also orders them to care for two monstrous robot babies who wail, emit blue poop and drive Ben to near-homicidal rage. Offhand, I can't remember a creepier onscreen preacher since Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter.

Moore, apparently brainwashed by Reverend Frank's cult of sadism, has little to do but scrunch up her nose, pout and look cute. Krasinski (who is much better on TV's The Office) flutters and stammers in reaction to Williams's onslaught.

Eventually, in self-defence, Ben seeks advice from his henpecked married friend (DeRay Davis), and together they attempt to get some dirt on the minister. Because this is a putative family comedy, they ignore the script's most obvious lead: He's a middle-aged celibate clergyman who spends most of his time with an unrelated prepubescent boy (Josh Flitter, Emma Roberts's obnoxious sidekick in Nancy Drew), who serves as his tormentor-in-training. (What? The filmmakers didn't think Robin Williams could be annoying enough without a sidekick?)

There is a minor genre of uncomfortable stalker comedies about mental instability ( What About Bob?, The Cable Guy, Chuck & Buck), but License to Wed is, improbably, not intended to be that kind of movie. We are expected to understand that Reverend Frank has a benign agenda, helping Ben and Sadie understand, for their own good, that she's a control freak and he's a wuss before they tie the knot. Personally, I can think of a place where I wished they had tied it, extra tight.