Michael Winterbottom’s international thriller “The Wedding Guest” flips the script on British star Dev Patel’s nice guy star persona.
We’re not used to seeing him with a gun in his hand or stuffing a woman into a trunk while coldly executing a kidnapping for hire. But as Jay, his good looks and friendly demeanor serve his cover well while infiltrating a small Pakistani city posing as a wedding guest to kidnap the bride.
When Jay frees his bounty, Samira (Radikha Apte), from the trunk, we discover she’s in on the plot, escaping an arranged marriage to be with a lover she met in the UK (Jim Sarbh). They plan to run off with some diamonds, as many young lovers do. If it all sounds like a heart-pounding suspense ride, unfortunately, it’s not. Twists and turns abound, but they’re all smoke and mirrors and ultimately don’t add up to anything.
Winterbottom and cinematographer Giles Nuttgens shoot the film with the kind of neon-streaked, cover-of-night, lean, efficient muscularity that communicates to the audience what the film might be about – a shady underworld of arms and identification dealers, murder, double-crosses, betrayal and illegal international maneuvering. So it’s a surprise when it turns out that’s not the case at all.
Jay and Samira grow close as they discover their mutual connection – her lover, his employer – isn’t all he’s cracked up to be. They set out from Pakistan to Delhi to Jaipur to Goa, and halfway through the film, you realize this international crime thriller is actually a romantic road trip movie, which isn’t a relief – it’s deflating. All the air is let out, not exactly something you want from a suspense film, which is what we were ostensibly promised.
Patel’s inherent decency bleeds through, and despite his ruthlessness and cold efficiency, we never, ever believe he’ll do something outside of his moral code. Samira, however, is a mystery. She seems a bit too posh to be this scrappy, and she sits at the intersection of old-world customs and modern globalization. Watching her transform from a quaking young woman in customary dress into a gum-chewing, scrunchie-wearing Western woman illustrates how easily codes can be switched, how cultures can shift.
Apte’s layered performance keeps Samira unpredictable. There’s more to her than meets the eye, but every time we suspect her, nothing pans out. It’s a constant denial of our expectations.
Perhaps that is Winterbottom’s intent – to kidnap us thrill-seekers onto a romantic beach vacation and urge us to chill out (as he did with his funny foodie travelogues “The Trip” and “The Trip to Spain”). But one can’t deny the wobbly script, especially in the third act. You start to realize perhaps it’s not ruthlessly efficient and spare, but that there’s just not much there.
(At the Glenwood Arts and Tivoli.)
‘The Wedding Guest’
Rated R for language, some violence and brief nudity.