Sunday, August 23, 2009

Four Weddings and a Funeral -- "true love" without commitment

Director: Mike Newell, 1994.

Newell has directed a lot of movies, including most recently Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Love in the Time of Cholera. But perhaps his most successful film, in terms of critical reception and awards nominations, was this romantic comedy. Nominated for Best Picture Oscar, it won the British equivalent (BAFTA) Shot in Britain, it is a splendid comedy, with spot-on British manners and characters, right down to the awful hats worn by women at British weddings.

The film revolves around a group of 30-something long-time friends who are constantly attending weddings of mutual friends. Though they are all single, with each wedding another of these friends gets paired off, leading to another wedding. With four weddings, and a funeral thrown in, this forms the backdrop and context for the whole of the film. We hardly see any of the characters outside of these ceremonies. We wonder, even, what they do for a living, apart from these weddings.

In many ways, this is a lot like my life before I came to the States. I hung with a number of friends, who one by one found a partner, leading to engagement and marriage. Eventually, the numbers dwindled and the prospects dimmed, until the open range of the American West offered promise of hope. (Of course, I found hope in Jesus and marriage with Sharon.)

Charles (Hugh Grant) is the center of this group of friends. He is the archetypical bachelor. With a string of girlfriends in his past, he is afraid of commitment. His habit of being late to every wedding is perhaps a subconscious avoidance of the institution of marriage. In one wedding from hell, Charles finds himself at a table surrounded by girlfriends past. One of them tells him, "You're turning into a kind of serial monogamist. One girlfriend after another, yet you never really let anyone near you."

It is relatively easy to begin a relationship. Everything is new. There is much to discover in the person of the opposite sex sitting opposite at the restaurant table. But sustaining a relationship is another matter. It requires commitment and intimacy. It demands that we open ourselves up, letting the other person see who we really are. It means being open and honest, warts and all. This is fundamental to relationship. It is crucial to marriage. Charles is not ready for this.

Yet, when he sees Carrie (Andie MacDowell) at the first wedding he is smitten. It is love at first sight (even though she is American, of all things!). But this is a love that will not come easily. Indeed, it is a love that cannot be. Circumstances conspire to prevent this "perfect couple." And as with all good rom-coms, the rest of the film works to bring them together.

Hugh Grant is at his wimpy, eyelash fluttering, self-deprecating, annoyingly apologetic, cannot-finish-his-sentence best: "Ehm, look. Sorry, sorry. I just, ehm, well, this is a very stupid question and... , particularly in view of our recent shopping excursion, but I just wondered, by any chance, ehm, eh, . . . , but-but I-I just wondered. . . " It is a wonder he gets anywhere with women, but the British accent works and he has that subtle boyish charm. Andie MacDowell, on the other hand, looks sweet but acts like Pinochio.

Four Weddings has some very funny scenes. Rowan Atkinson (of Mr. Bean fame) has a small part as a student vicar at one wedding who performs his first marriage at another. He is riotous, as he tries so hard to get it right but makes a fool of himself and the happy couple. Another scene of the best-man's speech, given typically after the wedding dinner at British weddings, is so English down to the awkward humor and sarcastic put-downs of the groom. The only more biting wedding speech in cinematic history came from Kym (Anne Hathaway) in Rachel Getting Married, and there it was not said in mock humor.

If Charles is the hub of the group, Gareth (Simon Callow) is its conscience. Exuberant, dressed in outrageously bright wasitcoats, he gives balance and perspective to the group and even to the film. He is the one who declares at one wedding, "A toast before we go into battle. True love. In whatever shape or form it may come. May we all in our dotage be proud to say, 'I was adored once too.' " It is through Gareth that the key questions of the film come: is there a miss (or mister) right waiting for us? Can we find true love in this life? And what is the value of marriage?

One of the downsides of the film is its open advocation of promiscuity and sex before marriage. One unneccessary scene, which is as awkward for the viewer as for Charles, has Carrie reviewing all former sexual encounters. When it gets into double digits we realize that she missed the message on abstinence. Even Charles' lack of commitment preys on sex without accountability.

This issue notwithstanding, the film's questions deserve reflection. Is there true love awaiting each of us (or "Twue wuv" as Peter Cook said it in another famous wedding in The Princess Bride). Certainly, marriage is not something that should be entered as an ice-breaker or conversation starter (or even keeper). Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus telling husbands to love their wives "just as Christ loved the church" (Eph. 5:25). How did Jesus love the church? Sacrificially, unconditionally, and completely. His was a true love. So, unlike Tom, another of Charles' friends, who thought love was immaterial for marriage, the Bible places marriage on the solid rock foundation of love.

Is there a true love waiting out there for each one of us, as it was for Charles in the form of Carrie? Not necessarily. Some of us are fortunate indeed to find a soul-mate for a marriage partner. Yet, Paul tells another church that not everyone will marry (1 Cor. 7:37). Some will be better off not marrying, and some will remain single. Presumably, there was no true love waiting for them. Some of us may find ourselves in that position. Some of my friends are long-time single people, and they live lives that are full and complete without a marriage partner. Singleness is not an inferior way of life.

Then if we do find Miss Right, can we choose to avoid marriage? Must we enter in what seems like an archaic tradition? To put it differently, what is the point or purpose of marriage? Marriage is a God-initiated and God-sanctioned institution (Matt. 19:6), so there must be some point and purpose. For one thing, it implies a commitment that is not transitory. When God made Adam and Eve back in the Garden, he said that a man would leave his parents and be united to his wife (Gen. 2:24). Some versions use the word cleave. Such cleaving is a sticking together in a way that should not be undone. Indeed, in some wedding ceremonies, the clergyman declares, "What God has joined together let no man tear asunder." This is a super-glue bonding. Charles was not ready for this.

Another purpose is for forming a family. The husband and wife are a new unit. In all societies, a newly married couple are different from their unmarried selves. Over time, a married couple will become more and more alike. And in forming a family, this may involve children. Children are intended to be created and raised in a nuclear unit comprised of a married couple (Gen. 1:28). That was God's original intention and it remains so. Nothing has changed, despite the redefining forces seeking to change what marriage means.

Perhaps the greater purpose of marriage is to illustrate in the flesh the connection between Christ and his church (back to Ephesians 5). As we love our spouses and remain faithful to them, we are portraying how Jesus loves his people. Through good times and bad, our commitment is to that person we took vowed to love. Avoiding marriage is a cheap way to experience relationship without the costly commitment that pays dividends over the long haul.

Is marriage worth it? Charles didn't think so. I disagree with him and the subtle message of this film. It is of utmost value. As I approach a silver wedding anniversary in the not too distant future, I can reflect on the enormity of blessings that have come to me from my wife and my children. I hope you can too.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

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