“Two clichés make us laugh,” Umberto Eco once wrote, but “a hundred clichés move us.” Most romantic comedies fall somewhere in between: In them we find a handful of clichés, but never an inordinate number—just enough so that, in exemplary cases, we may laugh and be moved at once. Perhaps the banality of The Decoy Bride, a new British rom com set on the fictional Scottish island of Hegg, doesn’t quite “reach Homeric depths,” as Eco claimed of Casablanca, but its familiarity does yield a degree of comfort, and like most genre exercises comfort is precisely the desired effect. Its motions are utterly predictable, but as with a jazz standard, anticipating the outcome—knowing the words—is central to its shopworn appeal.
Modest aspirations, of course, don’t exactly elevate The Decoy Bride above its self-evident mediocrity, but I would argue that they help cast its minor accomplishments in relief—even if these accomplishments retain little value once the credits roll and the film inevitably recedes from memory. Its paint-by-numbers premise—a glamorous movie star retreats to a remote island to privately wed an acclaimed novelist, who pretends to marry our hapless, jilted protagonist in order to deceive the paparazzi—is clearly formulaic by design, and nothing in the narrative action which follows provides any opportunity for shock or surprise. The film, much to its credit, recognizes how resolutely derivative it is, and it deigns to relish rather than efface that quality. The result is a trifle, but a fairly amusing one.
The Decoy Bride’s readily identifiable faults—most egregiously its narrow emotional range and reliance on cliché—are for the most part limitations of the genre’s framework, and if that doesn’t exonerate the film it at least situates its problems within a cinematic tradition. Its superficiality, too, is a consequence of this sort of reiteration, but because the outline is predetermined there’s room for those involved to doodle in the margins, which can be amusing to watch. As Jonathan Rosenbaum has written of earnest genre work, “as long as there’s no apparent threat that anything ’serious’ is being attempted, a filmmaker is free to do anything at all,” and here that principle applies to the cast as well; the preeminently talented Kelly MacDonald clearly has a lot of fun with what is essentially an exaggerated rom-com archetype, and along with the rest of the cast she brings levity to a project greatly benefited by it. The gags, many of which have been tailored to the Scottish surroundings, are often surprisingly funny, and if the screenplay is trite in conception it at least makes effective use of comic timing.
Part of the pleasure afforded by generic predictability, I suppose, is the temporary sense of control it offers an audience over something that resembles real life, and few genres generate this feeling as effectively as the modern rom com. The Decoy Bride is an entirely unexceptional example of this process functioning as intended; that it’s so average makes it, in generic terms, something of a success. If you’re comfortable reducing your desire for sustained thought and formal rigor to a minimum, as the film’s target demographic most certainly will be, you’ll find a film that’s unpretentious and, in its own way, modestly rewarding, something to enjoy but not savor. It’s hardly a great film, but I think it’s perfectly reasonable to appreciate The Decoy Bride as the amusing, perfunctory genre exercise it intends to be.