The fraught emotional conflicts and shocking revelations of After the Wedding barely mask the film’s complacent need to reaffirm the social values that its setup is ostensibly critiquing. The confrontation the film stages between the lifestyle and ethics of the righteously humble Isabel (Michelle Williams), who runs an orphanage in rural India, and that of Theresa (Julianne Moore), an upper-crust New York advertising executive, ends up being—like most everything else in the film—little more than ornamentation. The feeble dialectic between the characters’ worlds serves merely as a backdrop to the contrived family drama that arises between them, as After the Wedding diverts us away from its hint of a social message using a series of tired twists and turns that don’t signify much of anything.
In the film’s opening scene, the camera sweeps in from above an orphanage in the Indian countryside to reveal Isabel sitting meditatively on the dirt ground, a bindi adorning her forehead. The bindi isn’t a reflection of Isabel’s adoption of local beliefs—she ditches it upon her eventual return to New York—but rather writer-director Bart Freundlich’s patronizing shorthand for Isabel having renounced her first-world privilege to live amid the unwashed masses. Jai (Vir Pachisia), the one child at the orphanage who Isabel shows genuine affection for, is also little more than a visual symbol of the woman’s down-to-earth virtue. Defined solely by his blandly sweet, broadly innocent demeanor, he’s the universal orphan of the sentimental imagination, his sole function to serve as a token of Isabel’s charitability.
A media company in the United States wants to fund Isabel’s orphanage to the tune of $2 million, on the condition that she meet personally with Theresa, the company’s founder and CEO, in Manhattan. Reluctantly, Isabel leaves Jai behind and returns to the States after an implied absence of some years. She uncomfortably accepts the lavish hotel room, driver, and meals provided by the company, realizing that the money spent transporting and housing her could buy hundreds of beds for the orphanage. By the time she meets with Theresa, she’s grown undiplomatically truculent, presenting her plan for the funds in a curt, resentful tone. Apparently unphased by her guest’s rudeness, Theresa invites Isabel to her daughter Grace’s (Abby Quinn) wedding, where Isabel makes a shocking discovery about the identity of Theresa’s husband, Oscar (Billy Crudup), a celebrated artist.
Through Isabel’s discomfort, After the Wedding pats itself on the back for acknowledging wealth as a moral stain, only to then equivocate. Although it visibly irks Isabel, Theresa’s extravagant lifestyle is ultimately presented as a legitimate and admirable accomplishment. Detaching the audience from Isabel’s perspective, the film takes us into Theresa’s home life: her loving relationship with Oscar, her support of Grace, and the comfort provided by her success, which characters delivering toasts at the wedding assure us is due purely to her entrepreneurial spirit and unflagging work ethic. The film plays into the worst tendencies of the liberal imagination, allowing viewers to envision a word in which excessive first-world wealth is unrelated to—and will even be the primary solution to—third-world poverty.
With the equivalence of each woman’s life choices established, After the Wedding finally—spoilers ahead—gets to the meat of its story, which is to say that, after an elongated series of close-ups on Williams looking like she’s just bit into a lemon at the wedding, the film reveals that Grace is actually Isabel’s biological daughter. Syrupy strings overload the soundtrack as each character in turn learns of how Oscar absconded with his daughter after he and Isabel had decided to give her up for adoption. Debate over the ethics of his decision to keep Grace after Isabel had effectively disappeared is interrupted by further revelations, each and every one as oddly paced and superficially developed as the last.
Grace, for one, is unhappy after about a week—and one scene—of marriage, her discontent stemming from an argument between her and her new husband (Alex Esola) over honeymoon destinations (Costa Rica versus India). The scene would be funny if the film didn’t so consistently and earnestly view such privileged crises as worthy of our attention. In a parade of tear-streaked scenes that are readymade for acting reels but which hardly stick together as meaningful drama, Isabel, Theresa, Oscar, and Grace navigate their new family status. To say the actors aren’t well served by the film’s story and style would be an understatement. Moore, in particular, gives a raw performance that’s undercut by the film’s sentimental montages of dewy flowers and an overworked, hammy metaphor involving a fallen bird’s nest.
By the end, After the Wedding has so thoroughly relegated its initial theme—of poverty being inextricably linked to privilege—to the back of our minds that we’re surprised when Jai shows up again in Isabel’s dreams. Like her abandoned Bindi, Jai and the poverty he bears the burden of representing are just convenient, even attractive, images for the film, propping up a frivolous, superficial story about white families and their first-world problems.