The Movies of ’94: Watching ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ for the First Time

In the year 1994, the movies were great. Greater than usual. Blockbuster or indie, rom-com or action thriller, there was something indelible about so many of them. Throughout 2014, Grantland will look back at some of the most memorable, beloved, and baffling releases of that magical time around their 20th anniversaries. Today: Molly Lambert takes on Hugh Grant’s Four Weddings and a Funeral, released March 11, 1994.

How did I miss 1994’s biggest rom-com sensation, Four Weddings and a Funeral? I don’t know, I was 10. I had other shit to do. How did I miss it for another 20 years? It wasn’t so much a specific aversion as much as that nobody ever sat me down and said, “You have to watch this movie.” Plus, I’ve seen and enjoyed other Richard Curtis movies like Notting Hill and Bridget Jones’s Diary, so I had already absorbed a lot of Four Weddings’ defining traits by osmosis. What did I take away from my virgin viewing of one of the biggest rom-coms ever made and one of the few to ever be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards? I was a little underwhelmed, but how can your expectations not be high when a movie is as beloved as this one?

The Biggest British Movie Ever Made

Danny Boyle once remarked “The British film industry is best described as occasional,” which is very funny and exceedingly British, in that wry and slightly self-deprecating way. If you like your heroes wry and self-deprecating, you probably love Hugh Grant in Four Weddings and a Funeral! And Hugh Grant in a lot of other things from the ’90s, when he was hailed as the second coming of Cary Grant and generally embraced into the bosom of America. Four Weddings and a Funeral introduced Grant to America as a movie star, and launched veteran comedy writer Richard Curtis into a long career as the British don of rom-coms. Curtis had written for U.K. TV classics like the Black Adder series, with longtime collaborator Rowan Atkinson, and Spitting Image, the terrifying British puppet satire show best known to Americans through the Genesis video for “Land of Confusion.” Curtis’s first romantic comedy screenplay effort was 1989’s The Tall Guy, which starred Jeff Goldblum and Emma Thompson and didn’t exactly set the American moviegoing public on fire the way Four Weddings and a Funeral would. In 1994, buoyed by good reviews and word of mouth, Four Weddings made $245.7 million worldwide. It became the highest-grossing British film in history, although that title now belongs to Skyfall.

Hugh Grant’s Floppy Hair 

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Every so often, America falls in love with a posh, sexually repressed British man. You’d be shocked how many women on the Internet salivate over the likes of, say, Benedict Cumberbatch. I was too young during Hugh Grant’s reign to really register it, but I was definitely very into the skinny, pale, and foppish boys of Britpop, and Beatlemania was fueled by the average American girl’s thirst for a British boyfriend. And it lives on — look no further than Simon Cowell’s genius marketing of Brit boy band One Direction to U.S. tweens. The fantasy of British men as more sensitive, intellectual, and romantic than their brute American counterparts is a pervasive one. Certainly it contributes to the persistent Jane Austen fixation among Americans. Genuine sexual repression usually has its downfalls, and while the pairing of an aggressive woman with a more submissive man might seem natural, in reality a lot of passive men run and hide when confronted with any kind of aggression at all. But you can trace the roots of the egalitarian, gender-role flipped couple back to Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and Percy Shelley, the 19th-century British literary super-couple. He wrote lyric poetry and sonnets while she wrote feminist screeds and invented science fiction with the writing of Frankenstein.

Grant may not have invented this fantasy, but he certainly personified it for about a year until 1995, when he was caught getting a blowjob in his car from a hooker named Divine Brown. So much for that whole stammering passive impotence bit, I suppose! Grant had never claimed to have a particularly close kinship with the role of Four Weddings’ ditheringly lovable Charles, but you can’t blame him for cashing in on the whole knight in shining British armor thing while it lasted. Having played a lot of proper gentlemen with lordships in his time on U.K. TV, the incident that could have ruined his career ended up giving it another wind. Once the public realized Grant himself was a bit of a cad, he was freed up to play one onscreen more often, achieving perfect cad oneness with the sexy but evil boss in another Richard Curtis joint, Bridget Jones’s Diary. The uptight, stammering, repressed but charming romantic role was filled by Colin Firth.

The Andie MacDowell Issue

Four Weddings and a Funeral revolves around a romance between Grant as Charles and a lovely American woman named Carrie, played by Andie MacDowell. The problem is that MacDowell is not a very good actor, a model who never quite managed the leap to actor that a few people, like Charlize Theron and Cameron Diaz, have been able to successfully make. MacDowell always seems wooden, which you’d think her Southern accent would help out with more. She’s the worst part of some otherwise great movies: Sex, Lies, and VideotapeGroundhog DayShort Cuts. She’s not awful or distractingly bad, but I wouldn’t call her good. She and Grant don’t generate a lot of fizz, although their chemistry is implied in the dialogue and action. Marisa Tomei turned down the movie to care for an ailing relative, but has said it’s one big movie she regrets not having done. Swapping Tomei in for MacDowell would solve 99 percent of the problems I had with this movie, although who knows what would have happened had the original choice for the lead, Alan Rickman, also said yes. Melanie Griffith and fellow model turned not-so-great actress Brooke Shields turned down Carrie as well, making MacDowell seem like the most sensible choice other than Tomei.

The Duckie Paradox

Spoilers for a 20-year-old movie herein: 4W&aF falls into what I have termed “The Duckie Paradox,” not once but twice. This paradox is of course named for Phil “Duckie” Dale (Jon Cryer), the hapless best friend of lead character Andie (Molly Ringwald) in John Hughes’s classic teen rom-com Pretty in Pink. Duckie spends the whole movie trying to demonstrate his secret love for Andie, which is not secret to anyone who has seen him around her ever, only to get ditched in the end for pretty boy prep Blane. Duckie has a million reasons why he is better for Andie than Blane, not the least of which is that the guy is named “Blane,” but none of them matter. The viewer knows the truth: Andie’s just not physically attracted to Duckie, and will only ever like him as a friend. Duckie, to his credit, doesn’t throw a “nice guy” fit and is fairly resigned to his fate as unwitting third wheel. Complicating the ending is the fact that it was a reshoot of Hughes’s original ending, which had Andie and Duckie getting together at the prom. Audiences wanted her with Blane instead, maybe the one time in history I agree with a cut made based on the response to test screenings. Doubly complicating things is that Duckie was originally going to be played by Robert Downey Jr., who could have possibly made Duckie seem like the superior choice. Cryer is great in the role; Duckie’s denial that his crush views him as a brother is very believable.

I’ve always defended Andie’s choice to pick Blane over Duckie on the basis that women are rarely encouraged in fiction to make the more superficial choice, so Pretty in Pink subverts the culturally embedded idea that women care more about personality in mates than looks. Then again, it’s not so much that Duckie has a better personality than Blane as that he has more in common with Andie: They like the same music, they wear the same sneakers, and they come from the same lower socioeconomic class in contrast to Blane’s yuppie echelon. Maybe I just wanted to watch a ginger hipster Mary Sue (or Molly Sue) get to make out with the prom king instead of her own nerdy male equivalent. I certainly also enjoyed the blank hot slate that is Jake Ryan in Sixteen Candles and preferred Emilio Estevez’s prep to Judd Nelson’s burner in The Breakfast Club. All I knew for sure is that I didn’t want Molly Ringwald to have to make out with Anthony Michael Hall, the way unattractive nerds always got to make out with hot girls in male-POV ’80s sex comedies like Porky’sCaddyshack, and Revenge of the Nerds. 

That said, I am no longer a teenager, and I have gained a lot of empathy for Duckie in my adult life. In Four Weddings, Charles rejects a posh girl version of himself named Fiona (Kristin Scott Thomas) as well as his shy ex-girlfriend Henrietta (Anna Chancellor), the second one at the altar no less. He rejects them both in favor of American near-stranger Carrie, somebody he barely even knows but idolizes and is clearly the most physically attracted to. This is not necessarily painted as the wise or obvious choice, and to the movie’s everlasting credit neither is marriage in general, but there is definitely a conflating of impulsiveness with romance that reappears throughout the Curtis films and throughout romantic comedies and straight romances in general. The impulsive choice might not be the smart choice, but the heart and groin sometimes conspire against the brain. And so the Duckie paradox plays out in movies like Say Anything, where school shooter fashion pioneer Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack) picks introverted babe Diane Court (Ione Skye) while his female BFF Corey Flood (Lili Taylor) is not even really presented as a potential option. Test audiences also hated the original ending of My Best Friend’s Wedding, which had Julia Roberts breaking up her best friend Dermot Mulroney’s nuptials with Cameron Diaz and ending up with him. The movie ultimately opted to have her end up with her posh British gay friend Rupert Everett. So maybe mark that as twice that I’ve agreed with test audiences.

The paradoxical part of “The Duckie Paradox” is that it is is perhaps a more realistic representation of how real life generally plays out than the alternative, wherein your best friend has been right for you all along and you just couldn’t see it. It’s debatable but possible that “The Duckie Paradox” falls under the general header of “’70s downer endings,” with no particular person or thing in particular dooming the hapless best friend other than the generally harsh realm of reality. It’s more of a ’80s posi-downer ending, fusing a downer ending to the more traditional “Hollywood ending” wherein everyone gets what they want. In Four Weddings, Charles getting what he wants means that two other members of the clique we are supposedly invested in are going to be miserable, and it’s difficult to overlook the callousness of leaving someone at the altar for another woman in front of all their friends and family. Are you really supposed to root for Charles and Carrie to stay together forever after that? We know they do, because we see them together in the future, unmarried with child. But it wouldn’t hurt more rom-coms to show grand gestures leading to temporary reconciliations that fall apart pretty fast. Quite possibly I’m just being way too cynical about all this, and should have given in to the movie’s many quaint pleasures instead of enforcing my own taste on it. I have no desire to stomp on your love of this movie. I’m just calibrating my own preferences.

Love Is All Around

The theme song of Four Weddings is “Love Is All Around” by the Troggs, performed for the movie by Wet Wet Wet. Having seen Love Actually, which turns it into “Christmas All Around,” I belatedly got that it was a Curtis in-joke about how the British public had gotten completely exhausted with the popularity of “Love Is All Around” in 1994 after the movie blew up. Although …

Hell Is A Wedding Band Playing “Crocodile Rock”

Fairly self-explanatory. It should also be said that for an easily distracted person it’s hard enough to sit through one church service wedding, let alone four. AND a funeral. Nobody plays “Crocodile Rock” at the funeral even though it contains the lyric, “but the years went by and the rock just died, Suzie went and left us for some foreign guy.” I’ve always wanted to strangle that song and I guess I never will.

Four Days and a Stephen King Novella TV Movie Adaptation

It took me four days to watch this movie, which seems like a very long slog for something that had been universally described with words like “frothy” and “delightful” (holding strong after 20 years at 95 percent positive on Rotten Tomatoes). This movie is very much a meringue, a bit chalky and airy but light enough and tasted fine, but I could not for the life of me sit through the whole thing in one go. Maybe it was because I was alternating it with the 1995 TV movie version of Stephen King’s The Langoliers, and finding myself infinitely more interested in the hat. After all, I had no idea what was going on or going to go on in the plot of The Langoliers, and it was obvious from the get-go how Four Weddings and a Funeral was going to end. The only twist was the order of operations (see below).

Pulp Weddings and a Funeral

4W&aF takes place across five time periods. It’s like True Detective, sort of! However, the titular events are not concurrent or cross-cut; they happen in chronological order. The title puts the funeral at the end, but it’s actually the penultimate ceremony. For complete accuracy’s sake the movie should really be called Three Weddings, a Funeral, and Then Another Wedding. I suppose it doesn’t quite roll off the tongue, but if you’re going to have a longish title, commit! Grant’s résumé of movies with long descriptive titles continued into 1995 with The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain.

Liz Hurley’s Safety-Pin Versace Dress

When Elizabeth Hurley was dating Grant and went as his date to the premiere of Four Weddings, she decided to wear an attention-getting Versace dress involving safety pins and a lot of cleavage. The dress made her an instant tabloid star overnight. She knew exactly what she was doing.

Kissing in the Rain

Surely people must have kissed in the rain in movies before this one, but Four Weddings made the climactic rain kiss de rigueur for every big romance movie that has appeared since. Taylor Swift also has about a billion songs that invoke kissing in the rain, so maybe she is a big Richard Curtis fan? Is kissing in the rain romantic? Sure. But you know what’s not romantic? Having set ideas about what will be romantic based off rom-coms. Real romance ought to be spontaneous.

Filed Under: 1994, Movies, film, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Hugh Grant, Andie MacDowell

Photo on 2014-01-10 at 12.58 #3

Molly Lambert is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ mollylambert