Every movie should have Keanu Reeves growling loudly at a mountain lion. Think about it. Darth Vader telling Luke he's his father; Keanu Reeves growling loudly at a mountain lion. Jenny tearfully vowing to Oliver that "love means never having to say you're sorry;" Keanu Reeves growling loudly at a mountain lion. Charles Foster Kane whispering "Rosebud;" Keanu Reeves growling loudly at a mountain lion. It improves everything!
The mountain lion encounter in question occurs in Destination Wedding, the latest romantic comedy release in a summer that has seen a major resurgence of the genre. But unlike To All The Boys I've Loved Before or Set It Up, this movie deals not with young love, but with adults, wizened by their years and set in their ways. Perhaps even too much so.
Frank (Reeves) and Lindsay (Winona Ryder), possibly the two most unpleasant, miserable people in existence, have ducked out of the reception of the destination wedding near San Luis Obispo that they are both reluctantly attending. And can you blame them? They're both extra, solo guests, the people you lump together mainly because you don't know where to stick them.
Frank, a corporate executive and the groom's half-brother, is a misanthrope who has given up on happiness, and instead spends his free time pondering the human condition as an impartial observer. Lindsay, a meticulous lawyer who represents plaintiffs suing major corporations for harassment and discrimination, is his worst nightmare, "the politically correct police." But she's no ray of sunshine either. As the groom's former fiancée who sued him for damages after he broke off their engagement six years before, she's here for closure and a perverse need for self-flagellation.
The two protagonists first meet on line at the airport in Los Angeles. He tries to cut in front of her; she calls him out. It goes pretty much as you expect from there. The two end up sitting next to each other on the plane, sleeping in adjoining bedrooms, and are seated at the same table at the wedding.
So, what do you do when you're stuck for three days with a person you hate only slightly less than everyone else? You talk (well, more like verbally spar), and commiserate. The groom sucks; the bride sucks; the wedding sucks; he sucks; she sucks; the mini-bar...is okay. (Honestly, I get it. Destination weddings are presumptuous!) With all that gloom and doom isolating them from the rest of the party, Lindsay and Frank have nowhere to turn but each other.
Written and directed by Victor Levin, the film has a distinctly Nancy Meyers vibe to it, with long, panning shots of beautiful vineyards, a quaint boutique hotel, and lots of fancy wine. But what saves this from being a knock-off is that the characters are so distinctly un-Meyers. They don't fit into this gorgeous setting. It's like sticking two vampires on a tropical beach. Reeves, who starred in 2003's Something's Gotta Give, has graduated from the part of sexy side-piece to gruff leading man. He gets to be Jack Nicholson, a confirmed bachelor who watches bad TV in his boxers and clears his throat to ward off tinnitus. And Ryder, once the doe-eyed ingenue, is finally allowed to lean into the kind of quirkiness that made her an instant meme at the SAG Awards in 2017.
But that's the draw. Ryder and Reeves, who have starred together twice before, in 1992’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula and 2006’s A Scanner Darkly, are Hollywood weirdos, and watching them interact is a delight. They're so clearly enjoying snipping at each other with the most creative of insults that it's impossible not to want to be in on the joke. The recent revelation that the two may actually have accidentally gotten married back in 1992 just adds to their chemistry. Ryder is a gifted actress, and Reeves, who has mostly been coasting on roles where he doesn't have to say more than 15 lines at a time, manages to turn his signature woodenness into comedy. And together? It's a powerful force to contend with.
The two spend the hour and 26-minute run-time talking almost exclusively to each other, trading barbs and moaning about everyone around them. In fact, their verbal courtship is far more romantic and satisfying to watch than the eventual physical consummation. This isn't a movie where the audience waits breathlessly for a passionate kiss, although the aftermath of them cozying up with a bottle of wine and chocolate to watch a poor man's equivalent of ER is as sweet as it gets. Or, rather as sweet as they get. Their version of pillow talk is banter about the unappealing thickness of Lindsay's flannel pyjamas. ("Superman couldn't see through those pyjamas.")
In any other situation, that kind of sustained dislike for everything and everyone would feel exhausting. But in this case, it's strangely appealing. The unabashed cynicism of the characters feels extreme, but also cathartic in the same way Seinfeld was. These are abysmal curmudgeons saying the stuff you wish you could. What redeems them is the underlying pain one can sense underneath that rough facade. They've both been hurt by loved ones, and it's caused them to retreat inwards.
Too many rom-coms rely on the idea that if only these two horrible individuals could find each other, they would suddenly be happy, magically transforming into the kind of people who enjoy pretending to celebrate the union of two beings they feel nothing but animosity towards. The fact that Frank and Lindsay are accepting of each other's intimacy and commitment issues is a fresh twist on an old trope. Neither wants the other to change; they crave emotional release, but only with each other. They're not going to walk out into the sunset hand in hand. If it does in fact work out (and I won't spoil it for you), their courtship would probably continue much like it started: Growling at a dangerous predatory cat who is blocking their way.