Marriage is hell. Matrimony is rife with mistrust, misdeeds, and misconceptions. But you know what’s worse? Being single. We get it. More than coming-of-age superheroes or loveable assassins, bickering couples and their jealous, lonely friends are the most overused characters in cinema. Helena from the Wedding, the latest roundtable of suffering thirtysomething white characters “trying to figure it all out” only further saturates this tired landscape. Joseph Infantolino’s one-location morality play echoes the angst-ridden themes of The Big Chill while attempting to instill realism with the handheld aesthetics of Rachel Getting Married, and the result is an uncomfortable façade-crushing party that grows more inane as the characters get increasingly drunk.
Newlyweds Alex (Lee Tergesen) and Alice (Melanie Lynskey) throw a New Year’s Eve celebration at their family cabin deep in the woods, inviting a wide array of close friends that each harbor secret burdens. Recently separated Nick (Paul Fitzgerald) is looking for a youthful connection, power broker Lynn (Jessica Hecht) emasculates her emotionally beaten husband, Don (Dominic Fumusa), at every turn, and cocky lawyer Steven (Corey Stoll) might be cheating on his pregnant wife, Eve (Dagmara Dominczyk). They all arrive in stacked intervals, subtlety disrupting the calm confidence Alex and Alice momentarily feel in the opening moments. Helena (Gilian Jacobs), the wildcard surprise guest, doesn’t necessarily throw these characters into a dizzying panic as expected, but merely rocks the boat to keep things interesting. Helena especially flusters Alex, possibly because he tried to sleep with her during a previous wedding, or possibly because she represents the same dangerous youthful lust with which Nick is so enamored. We never really know, and her foreign perspective becomes linked with the audience as an outsider visibly shaken by the uncomfortable situations taking place.
As these characters discuss future plans (babies, divorce), recent artistic failures (dismissed plays, stalled ideas), and relationship worries (cheating husbands), Infantolino follows them closely with his roving camera, occasionally catching a reflective moment of hesitation or doubt. But his dialogue set pieces are rarely inventive, and reduce each character to the emotional words streaming out of their mouths. Many scenes begin with certain expectations in mind, as when Alex appears to be seducing Helena while his wife is away, but end up going nowhere. The fledgling parlor games characters use to pass the time are equally muted, whether it’s a boring and non-revelatory hike through the woods or an elongated game of backgammon. During the film’s best moment, when the characters dance to a love song in slow motion and Alex splits his gaze between Alice and Helena, Infantolino achieves a visual representation of his protagonist’s interior conflict. But the scene is interrupted by a drunken accident, and like most of Helena from the Wedding, gets forgotten under a sea of pointless banter.
When Alex defends Nick’s infidelity to his wife with the catchphrase, “There are two sides to every story,” it’s clear Infantolino isn’t interested in plowing new ground, and merely content with a letting these characters wallow in cliché. While Helena from the Wedding attempts to deconstruct complex situations of the heart by never giving easy explanations to these problems, withholding final judgment doesn’t necessary equate to valuable subtext. Helena from the Wedding‘s players are consumed by the one-dimensionality of their own lives, and sharing their company is like being trapped at a pity party you can’t escape. Helena, we feel for you.