It's no secret that there is big money to be made in the wedding business. Depending on the source, it's a thriving $50-billion- to $75-billion-a-year industry -- enough that if everyone agreed to take a year off, we could personally bail out the auto industry. All of which makes weddings and the cortege they spawn ripe for satire, farce and completely irreverent handling by Hollywood.
Now here comes "Bride Wars," all dressed in white and hoping to cash in on that obsession. In director Gary Winick's new film, the idea of romance and love is completely sidelined by the brides' burning desire to have the perfect wedding. (By perfect, I mean statistically better than anyone else's, particularly your best friend's.) Envy rather than happily-ever-after is the endgame, which would be fine if the farce, like a five-tiered lemon wedding cake, was tart, sweet and would melt in your mouth rather than simply trigger a gag reflex.
The idea of a revenge comedy isn't necessarily a bad one, "Bride Wars" simply fails at it despite having the formidable duo of Kate Hudson and Anne Hathaway, who in their own distinctive ways usually command the screen.
Hudson's money shot is the smile; for Hathaway, just coming off an emotionally textured performance as a recovering addict in "Rachel Getting Married," it's the eyes. But Winick, who last brought us the lovely and gentle "Charlotte's Web" in 2006, has squandered his assets in what turns into a misanthropic take on love and marriage.
Director Danny DeVito did a far more credible job with the genre in 1989's "The War of the Roses," which took the battles of Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner's divorcing couple to lethal but comically biting extremes. Even 2005's "Wedding Crashers," with Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn as bottom feeders who troll these bloated productions, managed to have more of a heart. "Bride Wars" keeps searching for a heart but never quite finds it, and the movie loses its way as a result.
The story begins when Hathaway's Emma and Hudson's Liv glimpse a perfect princess version when they're just 6 during a visit to the Plaza Hotel. In a testament to the staying power of an image imprinted on the brain at an early age (a parental warning if there ever was one), the girls spend endless childhood hours planning and playing "wedding." Theirs too will be at the Plaza.
Flash forward 20 years and these best friends are still having wedding fantasies. It's a wonder that Hudson's Liv managed to get a law degree along the way. The schism between them begins when Emma, a schoolteacher who must find her inner Bridezilla (I guess all the other paths to self-esteem and awareness were closed that day) gets engaged first.
The big twist, the event that threatens to rip a 20-year friendship into shreds, is a scheduling problem. Horror of horrors, the wedding planner -- played by Candice Bergen, looking as if she's wandered onto the wrong set -- has inadvertently booked both of their weddings on the same day and at the same time (technically an assistant made the mistake, but I think the buck stops with Bergen on this one).
And so it begins, with the filmmakers pulling out every cliche and possibly creating a few new ones of girl-on-girl fights. There is the bridal shower clash, with humiliation exacted on both sides. Then sabotage at the tanning booth, at the dance studio, at the hair salon, in those mystery deliveries of weight-inducing cookies, chocolates and flavored butter -- yes, butter. You think it might end when Emma crashes Liv's bachelorette party (no one should ever ask Hathaway to do a stripper routine on a rope, it's just wrong). But no, there is more.
Extreme physical comedy of the slapstick sort is never easy, even for masters like Jim Carrey or the Three Stooges. For women it's tougher still (Lucille Ball, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Debra Messing are among the handful who manage to pull it off without looking foolish), and neither Hathaway nor Hudson are up to it. When the pratfalls fail -- a particularly cringe-worthy full-body tackle in tulle comes to mind here -- it's painful for the audience and demeaning for the actors.
The "Bride Wars" guys -- Emma's and Liv's fiances and brother, respectively played by Chris Pratt, Steve Howey and Bryan Greenberg -- are completely incidental to this story, little more than walk-ons.
I hesitate even to mention that Kristen Johnston, she of the late, great undercover-aliens TV comedy "3rd Rock From the Sun," does a funny turn as Emma's last-minute bridesmaid recruit, her voice a low purr that claws into her narcissism, drawing blood every time. Although she's one of the best things in the film, I don't want to encourage her to come back if there's a sequel, a suggestion I'd drop off in the box for the rest of the cast too.
First written by Greg DePaul and then buffed up by Casey Wilson and June Diane Raphael, who all share screenplay credit, the film is clearly grounded in a modern reality of a sort. According to the latest stats, the average cost of a wedding is around $20,000. But in this case, reality bites.
For Hudson and particularly Hathaway, both fine actresses, you hope they will really think twice before committing to another "Bride Wars" by any name. Because at the end of the day, disastrous weddings are costly for everyone involved.
MPAA rating: PG for suggestive content, language and some rude behavior
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Playing: In wide release