Reviewed by Lesley Coffin
In today’s film market, we are overloaded with the number of theatrical films released every week. On average, a single week’s schedule can include more than 20 films. A majority will not the audience during their theatrical run, but are still obligated to release their films in limited release because of the label of being released on VOD services or television, rather than theatrically. But the reality of today is, every film is made on different scales, for different audiences, and consumed in different manners. And for some films, the intimacy of someone watching a film in the privacy of their own home wouldn’t only be a preferable way to spend their time and money, but benefit the film.
Table 19, the new film from Jeffrey Blitz (whose features include the documentary Spellbound and indie Rocket Science, and television work includes the US version of The Office and Review) is a prime example of a film best when it embraces low-key comedy of manners, intimacy among characters and small-scale storytelling; a film stretched for a broad theatrical run, mass appeal, and ultimately diluted example of a moderate, safe film. It’s not to suggest Table 19 is a bad film or even an insignificant one. There’s plenty of charm on screen, but the ultimate sense that it aspires to be nothing but a “nice” film hurts what could have been a far more interesting, emotionally engaging film.
But what does work in the film is the strong cast Blitz has assembled. Anna Kendrick does an exceptional job as Eloise, a woman who weeks before her best friend’s marriage breaks up with her brother and moved from a table of honor with the wedding party to the misfit table in the back. While Eloise could have easily felt like little more than the manic-pixie, twee character some young women play, Kendrick breaths life into the character to make her feel like a fully realized person and embraces playing the characters serious flaws. Likewise, Stephen Merchant, the odd cousin of the bride, is a stand out in his ability to be weird, compelling, and ultimately sympathetic person without fundamentally who he is, but rather playing various shades of the character. Lisa Kudrow and Craig Robinson are given the most dramatic beats to play, as an unhappily married couple. Although June Squib is initially a bit one dimensional as the petty, busybody former nanny, by the second half she rounds out the part. Only Tony Revolori of The Grand Budapest Hotel is truly out of place here as a teenager who attended the wedding of strangers without his parents. Having simply increased the character’s age to be a bit older (even college aged would have felt more logical) would have helped the character feel like less of a sketch character…and some of the uncomfortable interactions would have at least felt more plausible within the logic of this film.
But as an ensemble they gel remarkably well, finding a quick chemistry that makes up for a slightly underwritten script to flesh out all but Kendrick’s Elouise. All the actors work hard to add layers and backstory to their characters, something bigger studio comedies rarely encourage from comedic actors, as the recent Office Christmas Party and Fist Fight being prime examples. And the romantic comedy of Eloise’s relationship with the brother of the bride (Wyatt Russell, the stand out in Everybody Wants Some) starts out sluggish but is ultimately convincing thanks to their interplay and a noted improvement in the writing in the second half of the film.
But the movie is uneven, dominated at the top half with awkward, cringe-inducing moments such as Kendrick’s overreacting to the invitation or Merchant’s inability to talk honestly with anyone at the wedding. The movie initially aims for big, often outlandish behaviors which simply don’t work in a film where the aim, reached in the second half, is to reflect a subtle and more realistic version of comedic human interaction. By the time Blitz offers his most inventive piece of visual cinema, a floating camera racing to each camera, his primary interest in getting big laughs have diminished and he settles into a quieter, gentler film about misfits deserving of sympathy denied them in the first third of the film.
The film greatly improves after this jump from wacky to sincere comedy; the characters quirks decrease and show far more of their frailties as they interact at the table…and even more so when they leave the table. Once the characters are away from the crowds and find more intimate spaces, their humanity comes to life…as if the obligation to be a wacky wedding comedy put a strain on a far better story about loners finding human connection. The problem is we spent so much time at the wedding, we are robbed of the time with these emerging relationships, and the film feels particularly rushed when they begin to pair up. More time alone with our core group (and more time in general for a movie less than 90 minutes) would have elevated the movie significantly.
But it also would have been a very different film. Table 19 has been presented to audiences as a broad, feel-good comedy. While this quieter, intimate dramedy by being superior tot he wacky comedy promised in marketing, it can feel like a failure for audiences who actively want a big, laugh-out-loud comedy. Table 19 is often funny but is more likely to make an audience smile than laugh, and a theatrical comedy that doesn’t get laughs can be hard to watch in a crowded theater. But Table 19‘s lighthearted chuckles make it an ideal piece of comfort cinema at home.
Lesley Coffin: Is editor and founder of Movies, Film, Cinema. A writer with a masters degree from NYU’s Gallatin School in biographical studies and star theory. She wrote the biography on Lew Ayres (Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector) and Hitchcock’s Casting (Hitchcock’s Stars). Lesley currently freelances as a critic and interviewer for a number of sites, including regular contributions to The Interrobang, Pink Pen, and Young Folks, and previously wrote for The Mary Sue and Filmoria. (Twitter handle @filmbiographer, website)