Whither the rom-com? One of Hollywood’s noblest, sturdiest genres has appeared to be going the way of the dodo in recent years, largely consigned to television as studios seem increasingly allergic to any project that can’t immediately spawn five sequels. A film like Jeffrey Blitz’s Table 19 should be a breath of fresh air at this point—pitched as a well-cast, pithy, slightly acidic ballad of love lost and reclaimed at a wedding. Unfortunately, it’s infuriatingly bad, a maddening attempt to cross a schlocky feel-good romance with a bitingly negative indie comedy.
The titular Table 19 is tucked in the back corner of a wedding reception, a spillover location for the random guests who inexplicably accepted an invite they probably should have ignored. It’s an odd-couple premise expanded to a bigger group—a motley crew of disaffected, embittered, and delusional types who, by the end of the movie, will surely be fast friends, like a matrimonial Breakfast Club. But where that movie found a perfect balance of sweet and sour, Table 19 doesn’t know whether it’s looking to depress or inspire, and so ends up failing in both regards.
Eloise (Anna Kendrick) is seemingly the most well-adjusted wedding guest, but the writer and director Jeffrey Blitz wants appearances to be deceiving. Table 19 starts out with Eloise wrestling over whether to RSVP, checking both the “yes” and “no” boxes on her invitation before setting the thing on fire in a fit of pique (and then instantly blowing the fire out). This is the first of many hammer blows Blitz delivers to the audience; we probably could have guessed at Eloise’s dilemma without her taking such drastic action. But Table 19 can’t do anything by half.
So the viewer quickly learns that the married couple at table 19, Jerry (Craig Robinson) and Bina (Lisa Kudrow), can’t stand each other because they use every line of dialogue to unnecessarily snipe about each other’s shortcomings. Awkward teen Renzo (Tony Revolori) is awkward because his mother calls him on the phone every five minutes to ask if he’s talked to any single girls yet. The bride’s childhood nanny Jo (June Squibb) pathetically tries to boast of her own importance to the family though clearly none of them have spoken to her in years. Distant cousin Walter (Stephen Merchant) is only in attendance after getting the weekend off from prison, a fact he disguises by clamming up and parroting the question back at everyone asking what line of business he’s in.
It’s all so thuddingly obvious, as is Eloise’s sad state of affairs—she dated, and was summarily dumped by, the bride’s brother Teddy (Wyatt Russell). But Blitz insists on keeping his characters as broad and unlikable as possible for the first half of the movie, as they size up each other’s worthlessness to the happy couple and confront the bleak reality of being at the losers’ table. Then, just as quickly, Blitz flips the script. The Table 19 crew become fast friends, and they begin to discover their hidden depths, as if the appetizer course consisted of empathy pills.
This more humane second half is somehow even more annoying than the bitter first. Blitz just can’t justify the turnaround as anything other than a need to wrap his story up in a timely manner. Kendrick is a perfectly appealing lead in search of a character: Eloise seems on the verge of a nervous breakdown at times, and a put-together type-A personality at others. It’s a hodge-podge that never makes sense. The rest of the ensemble seem similarly lost: Kudrow and Robinson (wonderful, subtle comic talents who are often wasted on film) have the most to do, but don’t get nearly enough time to thread the needle on their more complicated relationship arc.
Table 19’s many flaws are particularly unfortunate given Blitz’s obvious talent. His first film Spellbound (2002) was a tremendous documentary about the hotbox world of spelling bees, and his debut narrative film Rocket Science (2007) was a promising teen comedy (and featured a younger Kendrick). He’s worked wonders with awkward comedy in the realm of television, from The Office to Andy Daly’s brilliantly dark Comedy Central show Review. But the tone he’s struck for Table 19 is all off, and its pat conclusion feels particularly galling after so much of the movie spends its time trying to subvert rom-com conventions. Hollywood needs more of this genre right now, but Table 19 won’t do much to revitalize it.