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THE MOVIE MASOCHIST: It kind of looks like a movie

A highfalutin SAT word that's often pretty useful is "simulacrum." A simulacrum, just in case you don't know (think "simulate"), is a thing that's designed to imitate or even pass for another object.

A painting is a simulacrum of reality, a mannequin is a simulacrum of a person and reality TV is a simulacrum of entertainment.

The problem with simulacra is that although they may imitate things quite efficiently, there's an important essence that's always lacking. Anyone who has ever listened to a political speech knows this.

In mainstream Hollywood movies you sometimes encounter something so rote and uninteresting that you think it was assembled merely to imitate an actual film for the purpose of charging admission. It has scenes, actors and music, but everything is so patently fake that it's hard to imagine anyone treating it as an immersive experience. It looks like the real thing but feels as hollow as plastic.

Anyone who buys a ticket to "License to Wed" will see two-dimensional images that have sound and photographic representations of actors. Emotions are mimicked, pratfalls are taken and sappy music tells you that what you're seeing is meant to generate an emotional response. It looks and sounds like a movie, but that's it.

"License to Wed" is an expensive simulacrum because it stars Robin Williams, John Krasinski and Mandy Moore. Williams is a funny guy who thankfully seems to have left his maudlin "Patch Adams" days behind. Krasinski is one of the talented actors on NBC's "The Office." Moore is a famous singer-actress-whatever. They must have all read the wrong script, or accepted their roles on a dare.

The story is this: Two nice young people named Ben and Sadie (Krasinski and Moore) are in a committed relationship. Ben impulsively proposes to Sadie at a party for her parents' 30th wedding anniversary, and she accepts. Her only condition is the wedding must take place at St. Augustine's, a church for stuffy white people that has hosted her family's nuptials for generations. They also must get married in three weeks, because the church is booked solid for the next two years.

The church's pastor, Rev. Frank (Williams), demands the young couple complete a marriage course he designed, one that is meant to create sight gags and outrageous situations certain to embarrass anyone, especially young preppies. The most embarrassing ordeal for Ben is a trip to a department store with a pair of robotic babies who cry loudly and produce realistic-smelling excrement. Supposedly the exercise is meant to teach couple about the trials of parenthood, but it only creates a public personal hell for Ben, who finally smashes one of the robo-babies' heads on a store counter. This is the only winning moment in all of 90 minutes.

Because this is all intended to be zany comedy, Rev. Frank will do almost anything to test the young couple's resolve - he'll break into their apartment, wiretap their bedroom and stalk them in public to see how they cope with the carefully planned ordeal. He breaks several laws during the marriage test, not the least of which is surreptitiously recording them as he sits outside in a surveillance van like some FBI snoop.

Rev. Frank is also a casual sadist. When someone walks in late to one of his services, he has the choir sing to them about their tardiness as the whole congregation watches. He prods other couples into having loud, wounding arguments to test their commitment. He hits Ben in the face with a baseball, and then drags him through a fake faith-healing routine before acknowledging, with a grin, that what the injured man really needs is aspirin and some ice.

But since this is supposed to be light comedy, Rev. Frank proves to have a good heart after all, despite all the evidence shown that he's a borderline sociopath. He also has a hateful sidekick (Josh Flitter), a scowling kid protégé who shouts at everyone and carries himself with the sobriety of an undertaker. You can understand, though, why this kid is always at an adult's side, because any self-respecting bully would stuff the little beast into the nearest trash can after administering the mother of all wedgies.

It’s the mix of cruelty and sentiment that make “License to Wed” feel unreal, as if each day the filmmakers decided they were making a different movie. These bizarre tonal shifts make the film seem haphazardly assembled, which it clearly was.

The stress of the course causes Ben and Sadie to break up, but not for long, leading to a succession of scenes meant to imitate a happy ending. The final image is a three- or four-second shot of Rev. Frank looking at the couple in satisfaction before the credits abruptly appear. This is where "License to Wed" finally confirms its mechanical nature, because sappy Hollywood movies drag out the last shot for maximum emotional impact. Like a wind-up doll, "License" merely stops, proving there's no such thing as a perfect imitation.

Rated PG-13 for sexually themed humor and eerie artificiality.

*** 1/2 out of four stars. Very painful.

The rating system:

* - Lousy

** - Horrible

*** - Painful

**** - Traumatic

The Movie Masochist is an emotionally wounded cinephile who lives in the United States. He watches bad movies so you don’t have to. Discuss movies, argue with or simply flatter him at jfranklin@mcclatchy.com.

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