Rearview Mirror: “Wedding Crashers”
Revisiting the rom-com—which is problematic for reasons you might not expect—fifteen years later.
Wedding Crashers, the hit 2005 comedy starring Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn as best-friend co-workers who make a hobby of crashing strangers’ weddings to hook up with women, didn’t strike me as particularly misogynist. Yes, the love interests, played by Rachel McAdams and Isla Fisher, are underdeveloped characters. And yes, there is an undercurrent of women-as-prizes-to-be-won rather than humans with agency below the protagonists’ schemes. But are the female characters devalued, degraded or otherwise presented as less than? Not really. John (Wilson) and Jeremy (Vaughn) don’t secretly hate women, they just like to party. Really, I had no issue with the gender stuff in Wedding Crashers. It’s almost everything else that’s the problem.
Before I get into that, though, I have to give an overview of the gender and plot stuff, because that is most of the movie. John and Jeremy are longtime BFFs who work together as divorce mediators in DC. They don’t believe in marriage, or relationships, but they do believe in love—or at least they pretend to when it helps their clients. Practiced wedding crashers, they pose as distant cousins of the bride or groom and rock the hell out of the receptions, entertaining kids with magic tricks, dancing with old ladies, giving beautiful toasts, and going home with pretty female attendees. Yes, it’s winning sex through lies, but I got the feeling during the opening montage (set to the Isley Brothers’ “Shout,” a song I’ve associated with bouncing boobies ever since I saw this movie in theaters fifteen years ago) that the women had a pretty nice time. Who doesn’t want to go home with the most charming guy at the wedding? And who cares if he isn’t exactly who he said he was? Not to be a bro, but it’s just post-wedding sex. They’re not opening a joint bank account here.
By the end of “wedding season,” John is tired of the game and maybe sort of, kind of thinking about settling down, but Jeremy pulls him out of quasi-retirement for the biggest nuptials of the year: the daughter of Treasury Secretary Cleary (Christopher Walken). They pose as venture capitalist brothers to seduce the sisters of the bride. Jeremy has beach sex with Gloria (Fisher) while John develops feelings for Claire (McAdams), who unfortunately has an alpha-male boyfriend, Sack (Bradley Cooper). John wants to keep pursuing Claire, so he and Jeremy go with the Cleary family to their country estate and bada bing, we’ve got a rom-com.
At this point, John is a little bit of an asshole for going after a girl with a boyfriend, but Sack is the bigger asshole, so we’re allowed to root for John. Jeremy is a little bit of an asshole for lying to get Gloria into bed (or into sand, as the case may be), but Gloria’s crazy, so we’re allowed to laugh at it. Romantic comedies almost always have an element of deception somewhere in there: “You were using me to win a bet!” “You’re disguised as your own twin brother!” “Hey, waitaminute, who is this guy Ernest everyone keeps mentioning?”
It’s also at this point that things get…problematic. The Cleary family employs a butler, the only Black character in the whole movie, who exists just to tell the white characters where the other white characters are, so, trope number one. The youngest Cleary is Todd, a mentally unstable artist who is also gay and, thanks to his repressed upbringing (I guess), a predatory freak. The wife of Secretary Cleary, played by Jane Seymour, is an aggressive cougar who exposes herself to John on his first night at the house. The grandmother is homophobic toward her own grandson and, weirdly, former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt; “rug muncher” gets thrown around at the dinner table. Some of this gets called out as uncool, some of it doesn’t. All of it is played for laughs and all of it comes across as brutally hack today.
None of it, though, is as full-body-cringe-inducing as the rape. Gloria rapes Jeremy. She sneaks into his bedroom, ties him to the bedposts, stuffs a sock in his mouth, places duct tape over his lips, and climbs on top of him. The next time we see him, he is still tied up, though un-gagged, and Todd has crawled into his bed to…be gay at him for a couple minutes. How do I know for sure that Gloria got with Jeremy, without getting consent, in between the scenes? Because Jeremy says so the next morning. He literally uses the word rape to describe his night to John. Which is what is so frustrating about all the problematic elements of this movie. It’s like, the filmmakers aren’t so dense that they are in the “women can’t assault men” camp. They get that the incident is wrong, and that Jeremy is traumatized (“I felt like Jodie Foster in The Accused”). He even mentions going back to DC and unpacking it with his therapist. But while the filmmakers acknowledge all of this, they still present the whole encounter like a goof, which actually makes it worse. You know better! So do better!
I suppose the “joke” is that teeny tiny Isla Fisher is overpowering big Vince Vaughn. I suppose the “idea” is that after years of working overtime to get women into bed, Jeremy is being put in his place by a woman who out-crazies him. And I suppose this is supposed to be a love story. A couple days later, Gloria and Jeremy are happy together. A year later, they are married. I find it so bizarre I can’t even square it with the rest of the movie’s point of view on women; I’m forced to put it in its own category. And that category is “yikes.”
Wedding Crashers hasn’t aged well, though I have to admit that its most significant and long-lasting contribution to American culture—the phrase “stage five clinger”—still applies to a certain kind of person. And Will Ferrell screaming “Ma! The meatloaf! Fuck!” will probably never not make me laugh. So, there’s that. But even after looking through everything that doesn’t work, I’m still hesitant to throw the proverbial baby out with the homophobic bath water. If you cut the cougar, the brother, the butler and the assault, all of which the movie doesn’t even need, there’s a lighthearted, totally decent and anodyne ninety minute rom-com buried in this two-hour (longer, if you watch the unrated edition) movie. Look, I’ll prove it to you:
“If you cut the cougar, the brother, the butler and the assault, all of which the movie doesn’t even need, there’s a lighthearted, totally decent and anodyne ninety minute rom-com buried in this two-hour movie.“
At a wedding reception, the pretty, dark-haired sister of the bride is on the verge of screwing up her toast to the happy couple when she is rescued by the surprisingly heartfelt sentiments of a man she just met. This man doesn’t even know the bride and groom, but he’s been to a thousand weddings before and knows how to work the dance floor and the open bar, and how to chat up a bridesmaid. The man and the woman get to know each other and start to fall in love, but the man has a secret and when it comes out, the woman gets mad and they separate. Though the man tries, repeatedly, to contact the woman, he can’t, and sinks into a pit of depression, where he eventually confronts mortality and learns a lesson about what’s really important, which he then explains to the woman in a long speech. Then they kiss.
That’s what Wedding Crashers would be if it were just about John and Claire. That’s also the plot of Palm Springs, which premiered on Hulu over the weekend.
Throughout the movie, John and Jeremy invoke the “rules” of crashing weddings, like “Don’t sulk in the corner because it draws attention,” and “Always have an up-to-date family tree.” I’ll take this opportunity to propose a rule of writing comedies: Don’t add a bunch of unnecessary stereotypes and rape and stuff. Otherwise you’ll ruin what’s supposed to be a good time. FL