The earnest, mid-budget studio comedy gets another gentle jolt back to life this week with HBO Max’s sleek remake of Father of the Bride, a mostly charming throwback to a time of big music, big speeches and big kitchens. It’s a story told twice before, once in 1950 by Vincente Minnelli with help from Spencer Tracy and then decades later with Nancy Meyers ushering Steve Martin, but it’s a dynamic we’ve seen far more times than that, the over-protective father struggling to let his beloved daughter go, especially when she’s heading all the way up the aisle.
It’s such a familiar set-up that our minds instantly go to sitcom territory – dad with wagging finger, daughter with hands on hips – and so to its credit, Mexican director Gary Alazraki’s straight-to-streaming redo manages to feel bigger than that, not just because it looks like a splashy theatrical release but because in dragging the oft-told story into the 2020s, he finds a way to make it feel specific and culturally expansive. Together with screenwriter Matt Lopez, he’s shifted the traditionally Wasp-y tale into more diverse, and dramatically interesting, territory with a Cuban-American family at its centre. El Padre de la Novia as it’s also known centres on Billy (Andy Garcia), an exile who worked his way up from nothing to become a successful architect in Miami with his devoted wife Ingrid (an extremely rare acting role for Gloria Estefan) at his side. But decades in, their marriage has soured and when their daughter Sofia (Morbius star Adria Arjona) comes home from law school, they decide to reveal their divorce to the family. Before they can, they’re surprised by some even bigger news, Sofia is getting married and intends to do so in just four weeks.
Even if one hadn’t seen either of the two prior versions, where the story then goes – from falling out to making up to monologuing about falling out and then making up – will offer few surprises. But the pleasure of a film such as this, and the films it competently recalls, is less in what’s being told and more in how it’s being told and Alazraki, with his biggest film to date, proves to be a dab hand at crafting the kind of high-gloss studio picture we don’t see that much any more. The much-buzzed about return of romcoms has, for me, offered very little joy and has been mostly done on a tight budget with very little artistry. But Alazraki recognises that the wrapping is just as important as what’s inside and he brings a Nancy Meyers-adjacent level of opulence with an evocative jazzy score, an extravagant use of Miami locations and the requisite amount of food and house porn (a faux one-take sequence of last-minute wedding prep is one of the most delightful things I’ve seen all year).
What the recent romcom renaissance has tried to correct is the mostly white and almost entirely straight nature of many of the films that many of us grew up with, allowing a wider spectrum of characters to finally get their running through the airport moment. Retelling Father of the Bride with an almost exclusively Latino cast works so well because Lopez’s script relies on a specificity that gives the film its own, distinctive character, touching on intra-conflicts within the community, and basing the father’s actions on what he’s experienced as a Cuban exile in the US, which gives an added texture to how he handles ideas of money and tradition. His character represents the old world and his future son-in-law the new, with the latter played by Mexican singer-actor Diego Boneta, choosing soft-spoken liberalism over a more traditional form of hyper-masculinity (he’s, gulp, not really into sports). But rather than falling into regressive boomer v millennial, alpha v beta stereotypes (such as in 2019’s loathsome Shaft sequel), Lopez’s surprisingly deft script shows that it’s the elder who needs to grow and learn and that the younger man’s progressivism is something that can help him out of the rut he’s stuck in.
It’s then even more disappointing that the other daughter, played by the ever-magnetic Isabela Merced, is cursed with an embarrassingly coy, Hays Code-era gay storyline that’s so vague it might as well not exist. It reeks of how-is-this-still-happening studio cowardice which is strange given that the film is skipping a theatrical release so one would assume the territory is less delicate. There are also some confused missteps in how the film handles wealth, particularly in the inconsistency of what the daughter does and doesn’t want at her wedding, urging for something small and earthy while then hiring an ostentatious wedding planner via Instagram. It’s all purely to pay credit to Martin Short’s character in the 1991 film and allows for a rather jarring turn from the otherwise hilarious Chloe Fineman from SNL. Garcia doesn’t have the comic chops of Steve Martin and so the film wisely dials down on the more pronounced comedy, a wise choice given the casting but a few more laughs wouldn’t have gone amiss. While the script could also have afforded Estefan a bit more to do, she has a a warm, easy chemistry with Garcia, the pair taking the material more seriously than it often deserves.
There’s nothing particularly remarkable about Father of the Bride 2022 (was there ever really going to be?) but it’s a far better, and smoother, film than one would expect from the outset, a streaming premiere made with such confidence that it surely deserved a big-screen run.