For this critic, there are few things more stimulating to unpack than a movie that has all the elements to succeed and balks. After the Wedding, a well-equipped redo of the 2006 Danish melodrama from director Susanne Bier, is one such curious dud. It places two outstanding actors, Michelle Williams and Julianne Moore, in sparring roles previously occupied by men: Mads Mikkelsen and Rolf Lassgård, respectively. Billy Crudup plays the sweetheart at the point of their triangle, a woman (Sidse Babett Knudsen) in the original. Moore’s real-life husband, filmmaker Bart Freundlich, carefully directs and adapts the twist-filled story originally cowritten by Bier and Anders Thomas Jensen. But while Bier and Jensen’s jagged little film was a popular and critical coup, netting an Oscar nomination in 2007 (for Best Foreign Language Film), the smooth and glossy remake falls flat.
Without divulging any twists, here is the basic setup. Isabel (Williams) is an American aid worker at an orphanage in Kolkata who travels to New York at the behest of a media mogul, Theresa (Moore), who is selling her company and dangling a $2 million donation. During their first meeting at Theresa’s capacious Manhattan office, Theresa brings up the wedding of her daughter, Grace (Abby Quinn), at the family home in Long Island the following day and invites Isabel to attend. Isabel’s arrival at the estate shared by Theresa and her sculptor husband, Oscar (Crudup), triggers a cascade of dramatic events. Regrettably, the film’s underwire of tension, taut and throbbing in the first act, begins to loosen in the second and goes completely slack in the final third.
Like most interesting failures, there is no one reason but many small ones that add up to the end-credits feeling of “So?” The first is that the connections between characters feel weak when they should be overpowering. By comparison, the 1998 weepie Stepmom, costarring Susan Sarandon and Julia Roberts, contains several parallels to After the Wedding and, while more sentimental, is also more convincing. Sarandon and Moore’s characters are the cherished power moms: feared by some, respected by all. Meanwhile, Williams and Roberts’s characters (who even share a name, Isabel) are the free-spirited, kind of bohemian interlopers into affluent family units. This dynamic works better in Stepmom, though, due in large part to two memorable scenes. In the first, Sarandon’s character and her kids diffuse a difficult situation by singing and dancing to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” while wearing pajamas and using household objects as microphones. In the second, the power mom tearfully shares with Isabel—her “other woman” in multiple senses of the term—what it truly means to be a mother, and more specifically, how to mother her own children when she’s not around.
Theresa gets shades of these moments with her three kids and with her Isabel, but none possess nearly as much detail or rich, evocative backstory to fill in and round out these characters’ relationships. Instead of teaching Isabel—or learning from her— Theresa just tells her, this is what you’re going to do. Theresa’s plan doesn’t change much, and Theresa doesn’t change much either. The film culminates with the creation of a new family unit, but the resolution feels unearned. Attempts at bonding are strained and stay awkward, especially between Grace and Isabel; personal histories remain muddy, especially the one between Isabel and Oscar; and there are no singing-into-the-hairbrush moments, save some playfulness between Theresa and her eight-year-old twin boys. The viewer meets Theresa scream-singing to “The Edge of Glory” in her car alone, but what does she like to sing or even do with 20-year-old Grace? What are their mutual likes and dislikes? We are told they are close, but why, precisely? With two exceptions—Isabel and Jai (Vir Pachisia), an orphan she has grown attached to in Kolkata, and Oscar and Grace, whose bond is specific and separate from the others—all of these people feel like strangers to each other.
This patina of actors playing house might have cracked with more danger and pathos, or a thrum of anxiety that mounted with each surprising turn, but no. For the most part, the characters’ reactions are muted, and the fallout of each betrayal or disagreement seems mild. A welcome prick of electricity between Oscar and Isabel during their first scene together is duller in their next, and practically dead in subsequent interactions. One mordant exchange between Theresa and Isabel late in the narrative hints at what the film could have achieved with more nerve. Unfortunately, the deficit of palpable drama boils down to the fact that the plot was in motion before Isabel arrived, and given the circumstances, continues to its tidiest possible conclusion.
But the movie’s biggest issue blooms from its core: it doesn’t seem to know what kind of movie it wants to be. Did its makers envision a worldly, sweeping, somewhat political drama? This tracks through cinematographer Julio Macat’s gliding drone shots over the Indian countryside, the inclusion of a brown-skinned housekeeper in Theresa’s opulent kitchen, and the first sit-down between Theresa and Isabel, where the latter brings up the problem of child sex slavery and Theresa’s assistant interrupts to report a “lobster shortage” in the wedding risotto. But the movie mostly takes place in the whitewashed and upper-crust enclaves of New York, either at Theresa’s luxurious manse or the trendy boutique hotel where she stations Isabel. The Kolkata-set portions that bookend the film are shimmery and sanitized, warm-toned to contrast with NYC’s cooler palette. The maid gets one line and no further mention. Theresa never questions why she’d rather throw money at the third world than hear about its discomfiting particulars. If anything, Theresa resembles a Nancy Meyers matriarch in a Nancy Meyers kitchen—chic, a little neurotic, and mainly concerned with her own family and legacy—and remains so.
Was the film supposed to be a dark, intimate indie with cutting observations to spare, more akin to Closer than Stepmom? A handful of prickly confrontations suggest that this route was approached, but ultimately, Freundlich holds back. His version of After the Wedding sands the edges of its prototype; trades urgent, handheld camerawork for distance and Steadicam; and turns a pungent story into something more palatable, bordering on bland. His take looks and feels lighter for that, and also less alive. v