"Kiss the Bride" is one of those films that does a lot of straddling. On the one hand, it's an independent film, and yet the shots, editing, and production values are more like what we're used to seeing in commercial films. It also begins like an Italian version of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," but veers off into Dysfunctional Familyland instead, before coming back to the wedding at the end. The bride, who must have felt like the teen in "Sixteen Candles" whose family forgot her birthday, is as ambivalent toward her sisters as the other three are toward each other. I know how they feel. I found myself just as ambivalent about the film. There were enough ordinary moments to make me fidget, but also enough engaging ones to make the film worth watching.
It's easy to see where audiences and critics got the "Greek Wedding" comparison. Just as Nia Vardalos wrote, directed, and starred in that surprise hit, first-time feature director Vanessa Parise also penned the screenplay to "Kiss the Bride" and plays one of the sisters. And there is a wedding. But that's where the similarities end. "Greek Wedding" was a homage to Vardalos' ethnic family, with the plot turning on their acceptance of the non-Greek man her character falls for, big-time. In "Kiss the Bride," the singing patriarch of the Family (which we'll capitalize, since Papa Santo Sposato is played by none other than "Godfather" alum Burt Young) already likes the lad his daughter is marrying. In fact, the kid works at the family business. And Irena Sposato (Talia Shire, another "Godfather" alum) seems to have a "relatively" good relationship with everyone—her four daughters, her soon-to-be son-in-law, and the bevy of old Italian relatives who populate her kitchen. So what's the problem?
And that's a big pun-intended. More than "Greek Wedding," Parise's script bears a striking resemblance to the "Sisters" soap-opera drama that was popular during the early '90s—only instead of their father's funeral, the girls return to the family home for their sister's wedding. All of the sisters on that TV show represented types and had male/female names, as do these. Niki, the oldest (Brooke Langton), left home to pursue an acting dream inspired by "La Dolce Vita" and the art-house films she watched as a young girl with her father. But she ends up the property of a manager-boyfriend (Johnny Whitworth) who's into the money thing and gets her a role on a Babewatch-style bikini cop show that no one in their small town of Waverly, Rhode Island can stomach. Then there's Chrissy (Parise), the family rebel who runs away to run a high-powered Wall Street company, and Toni, the youngest, (Monet Mazur), who's into the look-at-me thing. She's a musician who uses her lesbian lover (Alyssa Milano) to shock the family and get the attention she thinks the others have grabbed. And there's Danni (Amanda Detmer), the "normal" one who stayed in Waverly. As in "Sisters," there are times when the adults have visual "Ally McBeal"-style flashbacks of their childhoods.
The problem with an ensemble film is that the characters have to be distinctive enough for audiences to keep them all straight, and the sisters blur a bit in the early going. "Kiss the Bride" sags in a cumbersome first act under into weight of having to introduce all the characters and the jovial, singing Italian family they left behind on that narrow Rhode Island peninsula. Sometimes, it feels a bit crowded, and location shots of the seaside are a welcome breath of fresh air. Would that there were more moments like that, or more comic relief. "Happy Gilmore" fans will find it fun to watch Happy's granny (Frances Bay) handle the grandma chores in this one, too. Here, she does so with great grace and sensitivity, playing a character who's entered into an early stage of Alzheimer's and gets easily confused. But her facial expressions are right-on, and she shines in comic moments. When Toni returns with her lover, Amy (Milano), and kisses her in front of the group, grandma whispers to those at the table next to her, "Who's the small boy?" When Amy gives her a hug, grandma lifts her sleeve and notices the feminine wrist and gives her daughter a shocked but knowing look. She's even funnier out in the rows of family garden exchanging the Italian salute with another old-timer.
If truth be told, the older character actors were far more fun to watch than the young stars. At some point, the audience sees a clip of the cop show that Toni's in, and while the superficiality is meant to give us more laughs and signal the depth to which her dream has sunk, it also reminds viewers that the first half of this film plays out in exaggerated, soap-opera fashion. Once we get past the introductions and the plot picks up with the sisters being their bitchy selves (and all of the ramifications that their actions bring), things get a bit more interesting. So does the writing. Parise hits her stride by the third act, when the unhappiness lurking beneath the veneer of all their lives begins to wear through. It's just too bad that it took that long. I discovered later, in an interview with her, that she was aware of the difficulty of introducing so many characters, and learned quite a bit about what it takes to make an Indie film.
This light drama—or heavy comedy, if you prefer—is rated R for brief bong use and nudity (a skinny-dipping scene that, with a female director, features mostly male buttocks and females in thongs).
For a low-budget independent film, the stock is amazingly fine-grain and the production values quite good. Presented in color and widescreen (1.85:1 ratio), "Kiss the Bride" offers a sharp picture with good color separation and contrasts.
"Kiss the Bride" features a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack by Parise's brother, Jeremy, who wrote many of the songs as well. It's an engaging alternative rock score that has a nice resonance with the 5.1 English surround (English, French and Spanish subtitles). That's also apparent when Toni sings and plays her acoustic guitar.
The extras are scant. There's no commentary, which is unusual given the way this little Indie film has gone the commercial route in other areas. Instead, there are brief interviews (slickly edited so the subjects keep morphing while the sound continues without a hitch) featuring Parise, co-producer Jordan Gertner, Burt Young, Talia Shire, Amanda Detmer, Brooke Langton, and Johnny Whitworth. The clips only run around five minutes apiece, but Young's is particularly funny—and unintentionally so. He talks about why he signed on with this Indie film, and how much fun it is to film on the cheap, working 18-hour days. "I love goin' fast. I don't like downtime," he says, adding more than once how much he loves women and enjoyed being surrounded by "five beautiful women." A trailer for the film is also included, but that's it.
"Kiss the Bride" is a mixed bouquet of dandelions and roses. Parise's script covers familiar ground and the performances are as uneven as the writing . . . or maybe because of it. Once Parise gets past the cluttered first act, this film begins to come to life, and so does the entire ensemble. In the end, the payoff is enough to make you forgive and forget the film's flaws.