Why is The People We Hate at the Wedding in such denial about being a Kristen Bell romantic comedy? The premise makes perfect rom-com sense: Alice (Bell), coming off a year of personal turmoil and stuck in a hot-and-cold relationship with her boss (Jorma Taccone), reluctantly attends the wedding of her wealthy half-sister Eloise (Cynthia Addai-Robinson), where she meets Dennis (Dustin Milligan), a stranger who falls in love with her whole messy deal. Bell can be a winning anti-heroine, and her director is Claire Scanlon, of the widely loved Netflix rom-com Set It Up. Yet the movie insists that it is equally about Alice’s brother Paul (Ben Platt) and their mother Donna (Allison Janney), and much (though, at the same time, not all that much) attendant familial and relationship drama. In the opening credits, Bell isn’t even billed above the title, making it clear that Janney and Platt’s characters belong on equal if not greater footing. How? Why? Was the long-ago one-two punch of When in Rome and You Again really so noxious? (The answer is yes, but no one remembers them.)
It’s likely that the real reason behind Wedding positioning itself as a well-balanced triptych is its source material: It’s based on a novel that probably gives equal time to the shared family history of Alice, Paul, Eloise and Donna—covered here with some awkward opening narration and a single flashback scene. The audience is quickly informed that Donna met her first husband Henrique (Isaach De Bankolé) in England, had Eloise, then moved back to the U.S. when Henrique left her. Eloise stayed in England and grew up rich, while Donna remarried and had Alice and Paul. Their half-sibling visited the American side of the family regularly throughout childhood, but eventually drifted apart from her poorer siblings. Now Eloise has invited everyone to her London wedding, inspiring immediate grumbling phone calls between an aggrieved Paul and Alice.
Whenever The People We Hate at the Wedding cuts to Paul and his transparently awful boyfriend Dominic (Karan Soni), it becomes harder to believe that animosity toward his well-meaning sister registers as a major problem in his life. Paul spends most of the movie upset over the possibility of having a threesome; Donna, allegedly a lead character, spends most of the movie feeling secure and unbothered. At the same time, an airplane meet-cute between Alice and Dennis has enough genuinely tart banter, from Bob’s Burgers writers Wendy Molyneux and Lizzie Molyneux-Logelin, that the other plots and subplots look even worse.
It’s not especially fair to criticize the movie that could have been made, rather than the one that was actually made. But even on its chosen terms of a family dramedy, People feels lopsided; the story of Alice and Eloise—two estranged sisters from different fathers, cultures and economic situations—is a lot more compelling than the stories of a couple of siblings who are vaguely displeased with their pleasant mom, or an annoying guy whose longtime boyfriend is also quite annoying. Maybe the book digs deeper into those familial quirks that engender petty but durable resentments, rooting their bad behavior in truth. The screenplay, though, boils down an astonishing amount of its conflict to “I never knew…”/”I never told you…”—making the family seem more lazy than dysfunctional. The movie unveils the fact that Alice and Paul are more toxic than their “awful” sister like it’s a revelation; a smarter version would acknowledge this from the jump, tease out Eloise’s insufferable qualities, and have fun with the ensuing clash.
The People We Hate at the Wedding cordons off most of its fun in the Alice/Dennis relationship; Milligan going googly-eyed over Bell’s misbehavior has more potential than depth, but at least it’s enjoyable. Until, that is, the movie corners her further, into the lesson-learning that looms on its agenda from the start. As with Set It Up, Scanlon shows a certain crispness with her camera, probably honed by editing dozens of episodes of The Office and directing shows like Great News and Fresh Off the Boat. That wealth of experience explains the random cameos from performers like Randall Park and Lizzy Caplan. It doesn’t, however, explain why chunks of the movie’s comedy are farmed out to guest stars—or why no one noticed that the movie’s stealth romance works so much better than its sulky dramatics.
Director: Claire Scanlon
Writer: Wendy Molyneux and Lizzie Molyneux-Logelin
Starring: Kristen Bell, Ben Platt, Allison Janney, Cynthia Addai-Robinson, Dustin Milligan, Karan Soni
Release Date: November 18, 2022
Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.