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We usually look back on a famous filmmaker's early films to find overlooked gems, or perhaps just to celebrate their early struggles. Brian De Palma has had a checkered career to say the least, but back in the middle seventies he was in the running as one of the most promising film school prodigies, right beside Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg and Lucas.
Although it enjoys a favorable reputation The Wedding Party is neither a howling success nor a very good picture. A knockabout comedy built around the nutty preparations for an upscale Long Island wedding, it mostly falls flat on its face due to a thin script and a fatal overdose of unfunny improvisations. The curiosity angle will be the picture's main draw, as a very young Robert De Niro (billed as Robert Denero) and Jill Clayburgh feature in the cast. Disc producer Troma splashes their names shamelessly across the box illustration.
This independent effort could almost be a class project for some very wealthy film students, as Brian De Palma shares billing for most creative positions with two partners. The critics were unusually kind to The Wedding Party; Savant's best theory is that the troubled little picture got positive notices because the reviewers wanted to encourage fresh blood in American moviemaking.
The Wedding Party is a free-form screwball comedy that tries to make up in spirited improvisation what it lacks in anything resembling a real script. Scene after scene grinds on while the camera records various characters making up the details as they go along. A lot of screen time is spent waiting for comedy payoffs that don't materialize. A sloppy 'experimental' music score fails to set any kind of mood and eventually becomes headache-inducing.
The acting is all over the place, as if the three cooks in the filmmaking kitchen just threw their favorite actor friends together and told them to be funny. Top billing goes to Valda Setterfield as the stuffy mother of the bride; she plays as if she were doing a guest spot on Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. The various bridesmaids affect squeaky voices and otherwise try on "funny" characteristics without making an impact. Judy Thomas plays a mousy bookworm who tries to lure the groom-to-be to her bedroom before the ceremony, but the lack of direction and general pointlessness work against her.
Jill Clayburgh comes off amiably as the sweet-hearted bride, but the loose ensemble style doesn't allow her the opportunity to put any depth into the character. We spend a lot more time with the indecisive groom, Charles Pfluger, who is much less interesting.
Robert De Niro looks like a teenager still covered in baby fat - the box-top photo doesn't capture this - and stays mostly in three-shot improvised long takes with Pfluger and William Finley. The three of them manage a few good moments among a lot of uninspired hi-jinks. Some sources say that The Wedding Party was released two years after it was finished, which would account for De Niro's adolescent appearance. His fans will want to check out his fresh-from-the-egg performance.
The actor who comes off best is William Finley, a talented De Palma pal who had been acting for him in short subjects since at least 1962. Finley remained as a fixture in De Palma's films through the seventies, finally getting his starring role in 1975 as The Phantom of the Paradise. He is ignored on Troma's box cover, which instead over-bills another De Palma favorite, Jennifer Salt (Hi Mom!). After a brief introduction, she's almost invisible in the movie.
If De Palma was responsible for most of the direction, then he's to blame for the film's completely uninspired 'comedy' touches. The picture begins with a seemingly endless long-shot of people running around a car in sped-up motion like Keystone Kops. A lot of the footage seems like padding - walks in the woods, a long scene in a little boat. Only occasionally is there even a hint of creative thinking going on, as when the boys walk in a zig-zag pattern through a grove of trees while the camera switches back and forth between both sides. Francis Coppola admittedly had a bigger budget but his earlier You're A Big Boy Now bursts with Richard Lester-like visual invention in almost every shot; The Wedding Party grinds on like a chore everyone couldn't wait to finish. A potentially charming sequence starts to form as the wedding party assembles to walk to the church. But it's too little, too late.
Troma's DVD of The Wedding Party is a fairly sloppy affair. The transfer is drab and the encoding not the best, so there isn't enough detail in the wide shots for us to read nuances into many facial expressions. The okay sound is on the murky side. Many more primitive audio jobs have been miraculously improved on DVD so we're not at all impressed.
Troma applies the same garish hype to promote this notable "film culture" title as it uses on its trashy horror-camp output. The box is covered with desperate text that pushes the later credits, awards and favorable reviews of the featured players. De Niro is headlined as if he had an important role. Far worse is the institutional hype. Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz feature their own names prominently on the crowded, messy cover and stick the Troma logo in our faces four times.
On the disc it's even worse. Pushing "play" starts us off with a DVCam home movie of an annoying "Troma Wedding Party." The extras are also a mess. The so-called trailer is a cobbled-together video promo, and an irrelevant scene from Madigan's Millions with a young Dustin Hoffman is added as a cross-promotional bonus. Several other 'extras' look like film school homework projects from Herz or Kaufman's children, and have nothing whatsoever to do with The Wedding Party. Big ads appear for Troma merchandise. It's all very unpleasant and makes us appreciate the way outfits like Something Weird present marginal films with a good-hearted respect for their customers.
It doesn't look as though Savant will be getting a screener, but MGM's disc of Brian De Palma's Hi Mom! shows the young director in much better form. Robert De Niro and Jennifer Salt's free-form improvisations make a much better impression there.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Wedding Party rates:
Video: Good -
Supplements: Just promos and irrelevant padding
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 7, 2004