Is Anna Kendrick America’s Sweetheart? Sub-question: If she isn’t, does America deserve a sweetheart at all? We may not have one; Hollywood studios have written off romantic comedies, traditionally a chief incubator of big-screen sweethearts, as, I guess, not profitable enough, despite their relatively low budgets and relatively high rate of financial success (how did producers not look at The Ugly Truth’s box office and think, OK, literally any of these could make money?). But Kendrick has the chops – the instant likability, the comic prowess, the willingness to look ridiculous and sound either sincere or snarky about it, depending on the scene – despite never having actually starred in a rom-com.
She’s come close: Last summer’s Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates is more of a Step Brothers knockoff than a vehicle for the Julia Robertses of today, but she is the romantic lead in it, as well as enormously winning and funny. The Last Five Years is all about a relationship, but it’s not especially comedic and, actually, not very romantic, either. Drinking Buddies is a pretty great rom-com, but Kendrick is in second position for most of it (Jake Johnson and Olivia Wilde are at the center). Kendrick is good in all of these movies, and they’re all more enjoyable than, say, The Proposal, so maybe it’s not a problem that she’s come into her own as a star at a time when this particular genre is on the wane. Kendrick has kept to her indie roots even following the enormous success of the Pitch Perfect series, remaining open to tiny budgets and/or costarring with Sam Rockwell. But this can make watching her in an indie rom-com substitute like this week’s Table 19 a frustrating experience. If you’re going to make a bad movie set at a wedding – and Table 19 is both of those things – why not at least go with enjoyably hokey, rather than self-consciously quirky?
As it turns out, doing Table 19 brings Kendrick back to her rootsiest of roots: It’s her second film for Jeffrey Blitz, who cast her in her second-ever feature, 2007’s Rocket Science. Rocket Science is one of those poor forgotten souls that emerged from the thin air of the Sundance Film Festival only to dissipate when reaching its sea-level theatrical release. It’s also not bad – perhaps a little studiously quirky and a little derivative of Rushmore, but heartfelt and strange, with a strong turn from Kendrick as the main character’s uneasy debate teammate and brief love interest. Blitz retreated to TV, directing episodes of The Office, Parks and Recreation, and Review. Now he’s back in features, with a grown up and famous Kendrick in tow, along with backup from Office’s Craig Robinson, Lisa Kudrow, June Squibb, Stephen Merchant, and Tony Revolori from The Grand Budapest Hotel. They play odd guests out at a wedding, stuck at the titular Table 19 because they don’t quite fit into the other wedding groups (family, close friends, attractive singles).
Eloise, Kendrick’s character, isn’t just a rando from the bottom of the guest list. She’s been exiled to the last table after a break-up with the bride’s brother (Wyatt Russell), and has attended the wedding contrary, it seems, to a lot of expectations that she might just stay out of it. On paper, it’s a good part. Kendrick’s persona is built on a lot of self-deprecation, more directly than the just-plain-folks vibes of Sandra Bullock or Julia Roberts early in their careers. It’s a very theater-kid combination of self-effacement (she titled her memoir/essay book Scrappy Little Nobody) and secret, if geeky, confidence (she published a memoir/essay book at all) – perfect for someone who makes the brave decision to attend this wedding anyway, but spends a lot of time regretting her heedlessness.
But the quirky humanity of Rocket Science does not turn up in a thorough search of Table 19. This is poorly-written quirk-as-genre, an insta-sitcom that wants to be an adult Breakfast Club. See, the losers and weirdoes of Table 19 form a familial bond and wind up supporting each other and all of their soul-searching life goals. All of this relating and oversharing sounds extremely, laboriously written, with the actors doing what they can to convince us otherwise. A few details resonate, like the way Eloise makes the distinction that she is the bride’s oldest friend, which is not the same as her best friend, and a few laughs materialize, mostly from Merchant as an oddball cousin who keeps offering extremely pause-heavy answers to simple questions. Mostly, though, Blitz fails to take advantage of his appealingly limited perspective. About 85 percent of the movie does indeed take place during a wedding reception, but even that relatively simple mis-en-scene feels bungled; for a wedding that should have around 150 guests, maybe more, a lot of shots look underpopulated and sound oddly quiet (the reception also seems to last from mid-afternoon until 10 or 11 at night, fudging the technical challenges of its time constraints).
In short: This is the rare movie that isn’t worth watching just to bask in Anna Kendrick’s delightful presence. I know; it’s confusing that such a movie could even exist. That Table 19 also isn’t quite a romantic comedy does speak well to the ways Kendrick has become a household name without fully losing the indie cred that comes with your first two movies being Camp and Rocket Science. As much fun as it would be to see her in a snappy rom-com, there’s also pleasure in regarding how she hasn’t quite done what a female star is “supposed” to do in her situation. Her big franchise is a series of musical comedies about a capella singing, not superheroes. She played a fairy-tale princess for Into the Woods, not an actual Disney-catalog remake. When she was paired with a much-older male movie star, it was for Up in the Air, not an awkward love connection. Even her actual love-interest parts have been in movies that give her a more active role (50/50), create genuine chemistry between her and her on-screen partner (End of Watch), or are too goddamn weird to count as The Girlfriend (The Accountant). For much of her career, Kendrick has managed to stay true to her sensibility while escaping indie-quirk hell. Table 19 feels like a momentary detour, and it’s a more predictable than whatever main road she’s on.