Within a quick couple of years, Kevin Hart has become one of those elite comedians whose own very funny schtick often transcends the otherwise bad (or even good) material around him. He’s an intense presence, but he often floats above his movies. So it’s interesting to see him so dedicated in The Wedding Ringer, a mostly disposable, occasionally quite funny bromance distinguished at times by its earnestness. Hart plays Jimmy Callahan, a professional who, for a price, will come to the aid of mostly friendless, soon-to-be-wed men and pretend to be their lifelong buddy and best man for a weekend. He swoops in, gives soulful wedding speeches, charms everyone (including a bridesmaid or two), and then he’s off — though, for an additional fee, he’ll keep sending cards on your birthday and, if necessary, speak at your funeral, too.
It’s an imaginative idea, one full of satirical possibilities — just typing that above description made me think of all the intriguing directions The Wedding Ringer could have gone in. But Jeremy Garelick’s occasionally very funny film sticks to the high-concept logline: It’s I Love You, Man meets Wedding Crashers. Josh Gad plays Doug, a schlubby, well-to-do lawyer who’s due to be married to lovely but potentially Bridezilla-ish Gretchen (Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting). He not only needs a best man, he actually needs friends in general. Hart as Jimmy talks fast and has an answer for everything — he rattles off different best-man package options like “Basic Single Ring Wing Man” and “The Bronze Bow Tie” like they were familiar menu items — but what Doug is asking for is mythical, nearly impossible — “The Golden Tux,” a best man and an entire set of groomsmen. So Doug and Jimmy set about auditioning a bunch of Jimmy’s go-to guys to be Doug’s set of bros, and they’re a predictably odd bunch, in it for both the money and for the potential of hooking up with bridesmaids. (“I want seven vaginas in my face!” one of them demands.)
Anyway, there’s some chuckle-worthy stuff here, some of it having to do with the Hangover/Bridesmaids-style hedonism of Jimmy (now named Bic Mitchum) and Doug’s pre-wedding antics. There’s a funny, way-too-intense, Wedding Crashers–style pickup-football game involving Doug’s wedding party, Gretchen’s domineering father, and a bunch of NFL veterans, including Joe Namath and John Riggins. There’s also a solid slapstick bit about accidentally setting Cloris Leachman on fire (if you’ve seen the trailers, you’ve basically seen the entire gag), which could have easily come from a Farrelly Brothers comedy. In other words, just about everything in The Wedding Ringer feels like something you’ve seen in another movie before. (Including, of course, the bad stuff; can we just set a moratorium on gay-wedding-planner jokes?)
But unlike the freewheeling, see-what-sticks style of most comedies today, The Wedding Ringer veers between broad, foulmouthed schtick and deeply earnest philosophizing. There’s a lot of discussion of why Doug doesn’t have any friends, which in turn prompts Jimmy to do some soul-seeking on his own. He looks down on his customers because he sees them as losers who need a professional transaction in order to have, or pretend to have, any friends. But then again, isn’t he in basically the same situation, a guy who gets paid to pretend to have a life? In any other movie, all this sincerity would be treated as a halfhearted contrivance, a weak stab at an emotional through-line to keep the plot moving along. Apparently, the script for The Wedding Ringer has been kicking around for more than a decade, and it was originally intended to be a vehicle for Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson; you can see how, in their hands, it might have had that easygoing, we-kind-of-care-but-not-really quality. But “easygoing” is not in Hart’s repertoire. He has a more extreme, energetic persona. And this time, he commits to the heart of this jarring, occasionally funny, and surprisingly sentimental film.