It would be interesting, if it were at all possible, to do a study to determine which era of romantic comedy had the best talkers. The odds-on favorite would probably be the screwball comedies of the ’30s and ’40s. But there would have to be some consideration for the ’90s, and all its frankness and media-savvy cynicism that now comes off as soul-cleansingly naïve (“I just don’t understand why things just can’t go back to normal at the end of the half hour like on The Brady Bunch or something,” lamented one Leilana Pierce in Reality Bites).
Destination Wedding feels like an incredibly ’90s romantic comedy, and not just because its leads’ impeccably aged faces are like a time warp in and of themselves. With its low-budget, low-personnel premise (its leads are the only speaking characters, the wedding of the title takes place mostly offscreen) it feels like something that might debut at a more innocent Sundance — an extended meet-cute for fans of Reservoir Dogs. Writer-director Victor Levin’s TV background accounts for a lot of that (he has credits in Mad About You and Dream On, and more recently, Mad Men). His characters talk like TV characters, as if their speech is the hand-crank battery keeping the whole thing running.
The two motormouths in question are Lindsey (Winona Ryder) and Frank (Keanu Reeves), two Southern Californians who meet en route to the central coast for the wedding in question. After immediately rubbing each other the wrong way, they soon learn that they have more in common than their destination: Lindsey had her heart broken by the groom, and Frank is his half-brother. Lindsey’s still neurotically nursing her wounds six years later; Frank seems to be a born misanthrope, eager to persuade Lindsey that love is a lie. Naturally, the two become attached at the hip over the course of the weekend, in more than just a figurative sense.
Levin’s dialogue is relentless. Every line and retort is a punch line, and every punch line more or less amounts to Lindsey and Frank telling each other how much they stink. There are moments of rest in between repetitions of this joke; at one point, Lindsey remarks that she’s “forgotten how to dream” when Frank asks, mockingly, if her pathetic single status is the life she dreamed of as a child. That screeches the dialogue to a halt. Later, alone in her room at night, Lindsey lies on her bed and stares at the ceiling, puzzling over her feelings for Frank in a kind of muttered, half-intelligible monologue. It is truly the first time in Ryder’s creeping, long-overdue comeback that I have truly sat up and said, “She’s back, baby!” There was all the kooky coquettishness, the brainy charm that made her a star to begin with, not simply reproduced, but smartly transposed to this particular character’s neuroses.
Perhaps it’s telling that Reeves is absent from that scene. Frank, as the film goes on, reveals himself to be not just a bitter middle-aged loner, but a both cultural and literal incel, probably with a rich online life (he refers to Lindsey’s job prosecuting companies for cultural insensitivity as the “PC police”). It’s hard to tell how much the script actually thinks his garage-sale nihilism is onto something, and how much he’s as worthy of mockery as the wedding guests he sneers at. Reeves is pretty great at making Frank as unlikable as he claims to be, down to a weird throat-clearing tic that suggests someone who doesn’t spend much time in public. (He says he works for J.D. Power, but is murky on the details.) But by the time he’s in bed with Lindsey, trying to tell her she’s beautiful by appraising her body fat ratio and ankle circumference (“You have curves, but not in a vulgar way”), it starts to feel less like a film about two misanthropes who hate everything but each other, and more like a film about a decent, neurotic woman who gets gaslit into believing that nobody but the cretinous half-brother of her ex will ever find her attractive. Come to think of it, Destination Wedding sounds much better as the title of a horror movie.