Warning: This review contains spoilers
The value of sensitive, balanced acting to enhance a mediocre movie has never been more evident than in After the Wedding, a ruminative though pointless remake of Susanne Bier’s 2006 Danish melodrama of the same name. Julianne Moore and Michelle Williams are splendid bookends in a well directed yet clumsily written sudser by Moore’s husband, Bart Freundlich.
A spiritually dedicated do-gooder named Isabel (Williams) is an American expatriate who devotes her life to running an orphanage in the slums of Calcutta. Badly in need of money for beds, food, medicine and school supplies, she is suddenly sparked by an offer of $2 million from a rich, philanthropic media mogul named Theresa Young (Moore), on the condition that she travel to New York in person to accept it.
AFTER THE WEDDING ★★
Reluctant and annoyed, but also desperate, Isabel gives in and flies to the city she hasn’t seen in 20 years. Set up in a lavish penthouse she finds embarrassing compared to the poverty of India, Isabel is anxious to grab the money and flee, but with the excuse of wanting to know her better, Theresa insists she postpone her return flight to India long enough to attend the luxurious Long Island wedding of her daughter Grace (Abby Quinn) while she makes up her mind about her financial donation. Compromising her ideals even longer than intended, Isabel relents.
In the insufferable weekend she endures, Isabel is sickened by the money wasted on the excesses of this frivolous wedding, from the lobsters to the ice sculptures, all of which remind her why she left America in the first place. Even worse, Theresa’s husband and the father of the bride turns out to be the artist Oscar Carlson (Billy Crudup), the old lover Isabel dumped decades ago. In a plot twist that seems contrived, the bride turns out to be the biological daughter Isabel thought Oscar had put up for adoption when she left him behind.
The movie progresses to dual narratives after the wedding—about the bride who was told her real mother was dead, and the trauma of two women forced to adjust to each other despite their differences: Isabel, who is spiritual, meditative and committed to a higher moral code to save the underprivileged, and Theresa, a rich entrepreneur, accomplished, materialistic and self-involved.
Impaled on the thorns of a domestic dilemma, Isabel suspects Theresa knew who she was before she invited her to New York, and feels a profound sense of betrayal. Theresa’s way to resolve the crisis is to offer Isabel a business proposition that guarantees financial security for the future of the orphanage, but when her true motivation is revealed and Grace turns to her long-lost mother for solace, Isabel’s decision changes the lives of everyone concerned. The film’s second snafu introduces tragedy and tears (get ready for a funeral!) and turns After the Wedding into a soap opera that is never quite convincing.
Susan Hayward would have known what to do with such gummy material and producer Ross Hunter could have made it emotionally entertaining. As a director, Bart Freundlich knows how to frame a scene and enhance visual beauty with a sharper edge, but his writing leaves gaps in the plot that raise more questions about logic than he satisfactorily answers. The ending is soft and unresolved, leaving the viewer asking: “What’s it all about, Alfie?”
Fortunately, the film is hugely enhanced by the valiant performances of everyone involved. Even the remarkable Crudup rises above the sentiment, even though his underwritten role gives him precious little to do as the man in the middle. Williams is warm, intelligent and contemplative, and Moore is crisp, tough, brittle, beautiful and believable despite a couple of histrionics that disrupt the quiet nature of the film as a whole. Both stars are as enchanting as ever in a movie that isn’t.