Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Father of the Bride -- cost of a wedding, cost of a marriage

Director: Charles Shyer, 1991. (PG) 

The camera pans across a landscape of scattered confetti, dirty cake plates, discarded champagne flutes and empty chairs. A tuxedo-clad man, George Banks (Steve Martin) is sitting alone, tiredly massaging his feet. Looking into the camera, he gives this introduction: "I used to think a wedding was a simple affair. Boy and girl meet, they fall in love, he buys a ring, she buys a dress, they say I do. I was wrong. That's getting married. A wedding is an entirely different proposition. I know. I've just been through one." The movie starts, thus, at the end, with the wedding over. But with this prolog the difference between a wedding and a marriage is identified and the two themes of the film subtly emerge: the cost of a wedding and the cost of marriage (at least from the father’s perspective).

George is a well-to-do middle-class businessman living in California, owning a successful athletic shoe company. Married to Nina (Diane Keaton), they have two children, young Matty (Kieran Culkin) and 22 year-old Annie (Kimberly Williams). They are epitome of the settled American family. So when Annie comes home from a semester in Rome and breaks the news that she is getting married to Bryan MacKenzie (George Newbern), George’s idyllic world is disrupted, and the movie plays off this.

Father of the Bride is a remake of a 1950 Spencer Tracy film of the same name. Having not seen the original, I cannot compare the two, but this version is funny, sentimental and often touching. It is more than it seems. The concept screams cliche, but the actors deliver on their comic lines. Steve Martin seems natural in the role of the father, talking to the camera and giving spot-on voice-overs of his thoughts. He makes the film successful. His character offers genuine responses that seem totally realistic.

The film touches on the journey of life and how there are key moments along the way that are the memorable signposts we look back on. A number of early scenes show this, but three stand out. The first relates to the moment when Annie breaks the good news to her family. It is over the first family dinner after she returns. She is radiant with excitement and Nina is overjoyed. George, on the other hand, is stunned, shocked even. He finds reasons why Annie cannot marry. To himself he says, “This was the moment I’d been dreading for the past six months. Well, actually for the past 22 years.”

As a father of a 22 year-old daughter myself, with two other younger girls, I totally relate to this thought. When I first saw this film, over a decade ago, I thought it cute. Now, seeing it again in a different family context, it got me all choked up. That could be me reacting to my daughter’s revelations. George looks over at Annie and sees not an adult woman ready to become a wife, but a 5 year-old girl speaking. He still sees her as his little girl. Our daughters will always be our little girls; but they do grow up. And fathers must accept this as part of life and life’s journey . . . for us and them.

The next key scene occurs moments later, when Bryan arrives. Meeting the fiancé is the second signpost. It heralds permanency. Privately, George has speculated that he might be a middle-aged loser, but Bryan unwittingly addresses this as he presents himself to his future in-laws. Speaking from the heart, he gushes:
I just wanna say that I'm an upstanding citizen. I've never been engaged before. I've never really been in love before. And I think Annie's the greatest person I've ever met. And I can't wait to marry her and one day have children, and grand children. And I'm going to do my best to be supportive of her dreams. She's a very gifted architect. I'm just thrilled that I met her. I love your daughter. The feelings I have for her are never gonna change. I'm here to stay.
To Nina, it is the sweetest, most sincere speech she has ever heard. To George, it is a well-rehearsed suck-up. Of course, this is mostly because George just doesn’t want it to be happening. Life is changing for him, but he is not ready for this. Bryan is inadvertently pointing out that George is getting older and might soon be entering the grand-parenting stage of life. Fathers don’t always want to hear this, especially if their internal self-portrait comes from their younger days.

The third significant sign-post is meeting the in-laws. Here I am referring to George meeting his future son-in-law’s parents. When he and Nina go visit they discover that George’s folks are rich and live in a mansion. Given the opportunity to peek into an open check-book, George succumbs to temptation and gets himself into hot water . . . or at least cold water. The awkwardness of the initial meeting is evident from both sides, each wanting to make a good first impression, even though they don’t have to be best friends. In-laws form an integral part of an adult child’s life. Having good relationships, even workable relationships, will form a solid foundation for the future marriage.

The cost of a marriage from a father’s perspective, then, is the loss of a daughter. George comes to a final realization of this as he is about to give Annie away at the altar:
Who presents this woman? This woman? But she's not a woman. She's just a kid. And she's leaving us. I realized at that moment that I was never going to come home again and see Annie at the top of the stairs. Never going to see her again at our breakfast table in her nightgown and socks. I suddenly realized what was happening. Annie was all grown up and was leaving us, and something inside began to hurt.
Everything worthwhile in this life has a cost. (Even salvation, the most important thing in this earthly life, has a cost, though it is received freely – it cost Jesus his life: 2 Cor. 4:10.) But in a strong and healthy family this cost or loss is offset by the gain of a son-in-law and the beautiful relationship that emerges in the new union. Bryan exemplifies this. He completes Annie, as George finally understands. Babies grow up into children, who mature into adults, who usually marry. This is the way of life. It has been from the beginning: “a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24).

In the middle of the film, once George has come to accept that a wedding is on the cards, Nina decides to hire a wedding coordinator. And what a coordinator he is: Franck Eggelhoffer (pronounced “Fronk”). Martin Short plays Franck as an unidentifiable European with an unrecognizable accent. But what George cannot discern, Nina and Annie clearly understand. This is symptomatic of the wedding and marriage. And as Franck replaces George in the decision making, George realizes that the wedding is going to cost him a bundle: $250 a head, and that is 20 years ago!

Here is the second theme: the cost of a wedding. The film has a lot of fun with this aspect, but in reality weddings are expensive. Of course, losing dollars is nothing compared to losing a daughter. Yet, fathers tend to control the purse-strings and often hold tight budgets. George does. The humor comes from his attempts at reigning in the expenses while Nina and Annie just want to make a memorable wedding. George’s budget cuts backfire on him though and he ends up acting as traffic controller at the wedding, thereby missing several key moments of the ceremony and celebration.

Obviously, cost is an issue in a wedding. That is why budgets are made. But cost must not curtail memories. George ended up spending a bomb and still missed out on several key memories from the reception. He was too stressed out about cost. Most importantly, weddings are about transition and memories. They are a symbolic cutting of the ties from the parents create a new family. We surround ourselves with family and friends to celebrate but also to remember. Those of us that are married can look back warmly on our wedding day as the starting point of the new chapter of our life’s journey.

Jesus once told his disciples to count the cost before embarking on a project (Lk. 14:28), and this is true for weddings as well as. But rather than looking at what we lose (money or daughters), it is better to look at what we gain: memories and sons. Let’s hope we can learn from George when our time as “father of the bride” comes around!

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

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