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MOVIE REVIEWS : A Lovable, Romantic, Funny 'Four Weddings' : Deft writing with a light touch and an adept cast bring the humor of ritual situations to the screen.

March 09, 1994|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

"Why am I always at weddings," wonders the boyish Charles, "and never get married?" "Four Weddings and a Funeral," a cheerful and witty bit of business that belies its no-nonsense title, not only answers Charles' question, it offers the kind of sly pleasure only British comedy seems to provide.

Deftly written by Richard Curtis (who wanted some revenge after attending 65 weddings in 11 years) and directed by the versatile Mike Newell (responsible for everything from "Dance With a Stranger" to "Enchanted April"), "Four Weddings" is as good as its word, breezily following a small circle of friends through every one of the events the title promises.

Three couples make up the core group, but none of them are particularly in an altar frame of mind. Fiona and Tom (Kristin Scott Thomas and James Fleet) are brother and sister, Gareth and Matthew (the ebullient Simon Callow and John Hannah) are gay, and Charles (Hugh Grant) and Scarlett (Charlotte Coleman) are good friends more than passion's playmates.

Though we occasionally catch a glimpse of these folks outside the weekend wedding whirl, it is the playful conceit of "Four Weddings" to tell us almost nothing about the group that doesn't come to light at one of those social events. So while we learn that the endearingly oafish Tom is "the seventh-richest man in England, more or less," we never see the rest of the comfortably well-off characters' lives or even find out how anyone earns a living.

First among equals is the boyish Charles, a man of considerable if chaotic charm who is invariably late to these weddings, even when he is the best man and has to apologize by promising, "I'll be killing myself after the service if it's any consolation."

As played by Hugh Grant (best known for "Maurice," but now in "Sirens" and Roman Polanski's forthcoming "Bitter Moon"), Charles is suave but scattered, using his considerable wit to compensate for his lack of focus. A handsome pixie with something of the look and verve of a youthful British Kennedy, Grant gives a sunnily self-confident performance that anchors the film in the good spirits it never loses.

At the film's first wedding, Charles catches a glimpse of Carrie (Andie MacDowell), an American who used to work for Vogue. Actually, wearing an enormous black hat, she is difficult to miss, but the tart Fiona warns him "she went out with very glamorous people. She's quite out of your league."

But Charles, though a sturdy bachelor "in bewildered awe" of married people, is clearly smitten, and Carrie, temperamentally bolder than he, is interested as well. But it is the gift of screenwriter Richard Curtis to find endlessly clever ways to alternately bring these two together and then push them apart as they try to sort out what they want out of romantic love and how much commitment they can handle.

Curtis, who wrote the script for the little-seen but seriously funny "The Tall Guy" starring Emma Thompson and Jeff Goldblum, is concerned not just with romance. He and polished director Newell are fascinated as well by the humor to be found in ritual situations, by the crazy way people act in public emotional moments.

So "Four Weddings" is rife with matrimonial madness, everything from a grotesque version of "Stand by Your Man" to the nightmare of being seated at a table filled with old girlfriends to a classic bit involving a newly minted priest (the dead-on Rowan Atkinson) who can't seem to get the words of the ceremony out of his mouth.

As Atkinson proves, when you are doing delicate farce it helps to have actors who can pull this kind of business off, and, with the exception of MacDowell, who could do with a bit more animation, the cast here is peerless.

Not only do Grant, Scott Thomas, Callow and company handle the sprightly dialogue with aplomb, they are also adept at the doubletakes and befuddled looks that make "Four Weddings" both amusing and irresistible all the way through the not-to-be-missed final credits.

So when screenwriter Curtis notes in the press material that perhaps "in the passing of time I'll write a screenplay called 'Four Funerals and a Wedding,' " one can only hope that it turns out as well as this tasty, sophisticated romp, a romantic comedy that wears its skill lightly and garnishes its humor with style.

*

'Four Weddings and a Funeral'

Hugh Grant: Charles

Andie MacDowell: Carrie

James Fleet: Tom

Simon Callow: Gareth

John Hannah: Matthew

Kristin Scott Thomas: Fiona

David Bower: David

Charlotte Coleman Scarlett

Polygram Filmed Entertainment and Channel Four Films present a Working Title production, released by Grammercy Pictures. Director Mike Newell. Producer Duncan Kenworthy. Executive producers Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner. Screenplay Richard Curtis. Cinematographer Michael Coulter. Editor Jon Gregory. Costumes Lindy Hemming. Music Richard Rodney Bennett. Production design Maggie Gray. Set decorator Anna Pinnock. Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes.

MPAA rating: R for "language, and some sexuality." Times guidelines: comic, lighthearted sexual situations. * In limited release in the Los Angeles area.

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