Forget the charming press tour in which ’90s icons Winona Ryder and Keanu Reeves fall all over each other in ship-inspiring fawning and playful banter. The black-hearted rom-com they’re promoting doesn’t play nearly as nice. Still, it’s deliciously entertaining.
Written and directed by Victor Levin, Destination Wedding is a caustic rom-com with wit that wounds amidst an unlikely love story. A posh destination wedding at a San Luis Obispo vineyard may sound like the perfect setting for two lonely souls to find love. But neither Lindsay (Ryder) nor Frank (Reeves) is here for that. She’s the heartbroken ex of the groom, still mooning over him and desperately seeking closure. He’s the cynical brother of the groom, who only came so he couldn’t be deemed “objectively” an asshole for not attending. Lindsay has been burned by love. Frank’s never felt it. Their shared disinterest sparks a reluctant romance as fate (or the groom’s overworked personal assistant) throws them together on planes, at the rehearsal dinners, and in adjoining hotel suites.
You might think it’d be no fun to watch two charming stars play deeply miserable people hellbent on snarking and pontificating about the pointlessness of love. You’d be wrong.
As Lindsay, Ryder offers a flurry of neurotic flare, talking rapid-fire to herself, fixating on minor irritations like a difficult bag of airplane peanuts, and intensely exhaling on houseplants to give them the kind of care and nourishment she not-so-secretly craves. As Frank, Reeves expresses world-weariness through a stiff delivery, a staunch gruffness, and spurts of a raucous hissing meant to clear his clogged sinuses. These are the kind of people you pray not to get stuck next to on a long flight, much less a weekend-long wedding. Yet, watching Reeves and Ryder sling each other with insults and spew shrewdly observed complaints is oddly enchanting.
Part of the magic is won from Levin’s writing. It has the bounce of Neil Simon’s banter and the delicate building of compatibility through conflict. Plus, the structure feels like that of a stage-play, following only Frank and Lindsay’s conversations in long, wordy scenes, and dedicatedly excluding any other character speaking to them. But its tone has a ruthless mean streak that feels like the evil twin of Richard Curtis rom-coms like Love Actually and Notting Hill.
Instead of charming chatter about ice cream and holidays, Levin’s lovers declare themselves “trite, trivial, tone-deaf narcissists,” argue viciously and constantly, even as they tumble into a sun-drenched tryst in an open field. But Ryder and Reeves are impeccable scene partners, who make this smart verbal sparring feel like a violent mating dance. They clash and insult, and protest that they’re not falling for each other. Yet there’s no denying this chemistry and their passion.
When the pair finally fall into pajamas and talk of the future, there’s a tender tension as this fragile moment feels like the verge of a miracle. Because being smart and hopeful in this world full of horrid things is a challenge. You see through the bullshit of polite conversation. You know that every relationship ends, if not in heartbreak then in death, or maybe both. “So why try?” taunts the mocking universe. This is the debate at the core of Destination Wedding, with Frank and Lindsay taking opposing sides in the final act. And through them, we see something that’s often lost in fluffier romantic-comedies: the brilliant and scary risk of opening yourself up to love. All of their jagged edges and emotional scars are laid bare. And then they are challenged to take a risk anyway, being smart enough to know just how bad things could turn out. And through this movie’s seeming cynicism, Levin suggests it’s brave to look into the face of all we know to be horrible, and hope anyway. Because it could be a disaster, but it could be wonderful.
Destination Wedding is a loquacious, cerebral, and defiantly biting romantic-comedy with more barbs than flirtations. But all that bitter makes the sweet sing. So give it a chance. You might just fall in love.
Destination Wedding opens in theaters August 31, and on digital and Demand September 7.