June 5, 2007

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License to Wed (PG-13)
Robin Williams riffs and be-bops all over a marriage training course in License to Wed, a painfully ordinary romantic comedy.

Sadie (Mandy Moore) and Ben (John Krasinski) are ever so much in love. They had an adorable meeting (at Starbucks, naturally), they are happily cohabitating and, at Sadie’s parents’ (Peter Strauss, Roxanne Hart) 30th anniversary, Ben proposes and Sadie dizzily accepts. I’ll marry you tomorrow, wherever, in a potato sack, she says.

This turns out not to be so true.

Sadie has harbored a lifelong dream of getting married in the church for which her grandfather built the doors. Personally, I don’t think familial doors are enough to subject yourself to a clearly unbalanced reverend but Sadie is the biggest fan of Reverend Frank (Williams), who has been her reverend since she was little and is also part of her fantasy wedding juggernaut.

Reverend Frank is happy to marry them but, naturally, he has a few stipulations. First, he has one date for the wedding in three weeks or they’ll have to wait two years. Second, in order to have his blessing for the wedding, they have to participate in his pre-marriage counseling course.

The course starts with standard learning-to-fight-fair blather but quickly turns into a means of passive-aggressively torturing Ben (robot babies for parenting lessons, a listening device in the couple’s apartment so Rev. Frank knows when to cut in on the couple to prevent them from having sex) and driving a wedge between Ben and Sadie. Frank — with the help of his little intern (Josh Flitter) — goads Ben into insulting Sadie’s family and generally acting like a spazz as Sadie gets more wedding-crazed and distant. As with all romantic comedies about weddings, the bride-to-be eventually calls off the wedding and the formerly betrothed are left to sulk in opposite corners, wondering if their precious relationship can be saved.

What’s wrong with License to Wed? Go see Knocked Up — all the things that make that movie work (humor, genuine emotion, chemistry between the leads) are missing here. License to Wed is the opposite of Knocked Up. Both stories focus on a young couple about to take a big step in their lives, learning how to mature and put the newly created family’s needs above their own. Both movies show the couple chafing at these new roles, screwing things up and trying to make things wrong. But Knocked Up’s story is full of messy and awkward moments — real, in other words. The genuineness of the trajectory of that movie’s lead characters’ relationship gives sweetness to the profanity and puts heart under all the scenes of strife.

In License to Wed, the story feels like it came in a sealed plastic package: Yuppie Relationship Comedy Chips, flavor — mild. Like cool ranch on a Dorito, everything feels like a chemical approximation of the real thing — humoroxide, romancezyne, in-law jokes red no. 5. Nobody talks like this, nobody sulks by taking their entire extended family to Jamaica. Do religious officials performing pre-marital counseling regularly bug the couple’s apartment? In Knocked Up, Katherine Heigl’s character contemplates leaving Seth Rogen’s character because he’s a directionless pothead. In License to Wed, Sadie considers leaving Ben because he stops playing along with the insane obstacle course that Reverend Frank sets up for the couple. Which one approximates real-life situations? Which one do you think will be screechier?

License to Wed steals liberally from other movies — Sadie gets a seemingly perfect male friend, a la Meet the Parents; Rev. Frank’s lil’ minister sidekick is a cross between Donkey from Shrek and Mini Me from the Austin Powers movies — and uses all the clichés of the genre without adding any new twists. Krasinski, best known for The Office, is good at the comic reaction and the quiet seethe. But this movie puts him in the middle of Williams’ hammy whirlwind of voices and puns, a position that forces everybody to be broader than they should be. There are moments of humor between Krasinski and his clueless best friend Joel (DeRay Davis), Joel and his wife (Mindy Kaling, one of Krasinski’s Office mates), and even, very occasionally, Krasinski and Williams. There are almost no sparks of humor or chemistry or anything that would indicate romance between Krasinski and Moore.

And it’s just all so very not funny. Even Williams doesn’t seem to have the energy to turn the zany up to full power. The jokes are like mild waves that you can see coming from miles out and are flat long before they reach the shore. D+

Rated PG-13 for sexual humor and language. Directed by Ken Kwapis and written by Kim Barker, Tim Rasmussen, Vince Di Meglio and Wayne Lloyd, License to Wed is an hour and 40 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Warner Bros. Pictures.