Written By: Kyoko M
Life sucks and then you die. We’ve all heard it before. It’s one of those scary, cynical things that, as unpleasant as it is to face, holds some truth. Fiction typically serves as a distraction from life’s hard truths. The 2018 movie Destination Wedding, however, embraces it with gusto and ends up creating an unforgettable experience in the realm of nihilism, pessimism, and cynicism in the face of love.
Destination Wedding is written and directed by Mad Men producer Victor Levin starring Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder — their fourth film together. The film follows the utterly miserable, damaged Lindsay and Frank as they are forced to attend a destination wedding. Essentially, they bond over how utterly pretentious and ridiculous the wedding is. Against all odds, find solace in each other. However, the manner in which this happens is a delightful skewering of so many clever subjects that it’s quite possibly one of the best films of the year.
Destination Wedding is technically categorized as a romantic comedy, but it’s a smoke screen. Yes, it is “romantic” and a “comedy,” but the film could honestly be considered a parody of romantic comedies. If you’re a movie buff, you’ll already know that the romantic comedy industry pretty much died out in the early-to-mid 2010s. Some still get made, but the blockbuster romantic comedies like 27 Dresses or Two Weeks Notice are no longer a thing because Hollywood repeatedly beat the formulaic story into our heads so hard that everyone stopped going to these films. Independent or smaller studio filmmakers still make them, but the big budget rom-coms stopped coming as of the 2010’s thanks to the repetitive nature of every single movie. However, Destination Wedding is one of a handful of rom-coms that have managed to blow the dust off the genre and prove that they can still provide entertainment.
This year has actually produced a few excellent titles like Set It Up, Crazy Rich Asians, and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. The rom-com genre has been dormant long enough that some writers learned not to use the over-exhausted clichés and instead provide fresh content, and Destination Wedding is a great example of avoiding the stereotypical rom-com tedium.
While storytelling in general is based on a formula of a three-act structure, romantic comedies became so blatant in their repetition that it all but killed off the genre. Usually, they hate each other. Then, circumstances occur to bring them together and the sexual tension begins. They fall for each other, cue some element of betrayal. The jaded love birds mope around, and then there’s a dramatic climax of reconciliation.
Destination Wedding actually does follow that typical story arc, but it is done in a way that pokes fun at the number one reason rom-coms went the way of the dinosaurs and are now rare occurrences. Frank (Keanu Reeves) and Lindsay (Winona Ryder) have an argument so intense that their first scene together ends with Frank muttering, “f*ck her” to himself as he makes a wide berth around her. This first scene is a preview of what’s to come the rest of this film. It’s not about a cutesy relationship fueled with sexual tension, longing gazes, and wistful smiles. The film immediately establishes that these are two vitriolic, hate-fueled, miserable people with bad tempers thrown into a situation in which there is no escape. It’s very cleverly done. Your expectations are immediately averted, and you know what you are about to see is not something you’ll have seen often anywhere else.
Frank and Lindsay are going to a wedding Paso Robles, California. Frank is the groom’s brother, estranged to the umpteenth degree. Lindsay is the groom’s very ex-girlfriend, attending only to seem like a “big” person and with the fleeting desire for closure. They also find out they are stuck in adjoining rooms at the hotel. At the rehearsal dinner that evening, the two continue sniping at both each other as well as at every single thing about the ridiculous wedding.
The dinner rehearsal scene pulls the veil away. You realize what the film is actually about. It’s a full-on character study of the ways of middle-aged depression, anxiety, and psychological damage. Most rom-coms are about perky but cute, snarky twenty- or-thirty-somethings who are often just down on their luck. In vast contrast are Frank and Lindsay. Combined they have an entire teaspoon of sanity left. Life has all but railed them out of having sympathy and goodwill toward anyone. The genius thing about it all is that while we’re given small glimpses of how Frank and Lindsay turned out to be so deeply broken and cynical, it’s never given intense depth. It simply doesn’t matter. How Frank and Lindsay ended up as two of the most screwed up people in cinematic history is of no consequence. What matters is that they’re already there and are shocked to find kinship in their shared trauma and bleak outlook.
The brilliance in the filmmaking is that Frank and Lindsay are the only people speaking, even with a full cast. We see the bride and groom, their parents, and others, but the spotlight is on Frank and Lindsay’s hilarious repartee. It’s a rare form of filmmaking. It’s easy for the audience to get bored with only two leads, yet the sarcasm is enough to keep you engaged.
What’s more is that the film touches on your average subject matter for a romantic comedy. The story displays past relationships, parents, siblings, kids, jobs, and life in general. This film, however, does so in a way to illuminate why Frank and Lindsay are so deep in their misery. Frank discusses how he feels no need to try and draw sympathy for his traumatic background and that Lindsay shouldn’t either. Both of them are wealthy and don’t have any fear of losing essentials like food, clothing, shelter, and are in no danger of actual abuse. It pokes fun at the privileged in an incredibly effective way.
The cynicism and nihilism that the characters display is unapologetic. It’s also not treated like a handicap or a disease. Neither character makes excuses for themselves. To quote Frank, “I’m all f*cked up and I always will be.” They both know by now that most of the lies they’ve been fed by this country and by society in general have affected them to a point of no return. However, this is what makes them bond together almost immediately in their own little bubble of honestly hilarious hatred.
This is a rare film simply for treating misery in this fashion and through the lens of romance. For example, the film treats the “love scene” as the most non-romantic, painfully awkward moment. Yet, it’s weirdly endearing. It’s not treated like a hot-and-heavy love scene like it would be in a regular rom-com. Special points to Frank’s amazing line: “I’ll tell you right now, I haven’t felt pleasure since about 2006.” Without going into raw details, it exposes a very particular set of people. People with depression, anxiety, and an overall negative outlook on life as being touch-starved as well as having so little connection that the absence of pain starts to feel like pleasure after a long drought.
Rom-coms are typically the idolized versions of love, attraction, and sex, and Destination Wedding is the exact opposite. It’s the ugly underbelly of love, attraction, and sex. It dives into a pessimistic realism that Hollywood for the most part does not like to touch. It is unafraid to say that there are people who have no hope left and don’t believe in anything. And yet Frank and Lindsay do actually amuse each other and end up deciding to give their future a chance.
Destination Wedding delivers an effective message. Just because someone has all but completely given up on happiness doesn’t mean they don’t still offer a valid perspective. Perhaps, even, they aren’t beyond the point of finding enjoyment with another person. Often in fiction, the cynic is seen as someone to be “fixed” and Destination Wedding rejects the idea. It’s clear something is deeply wrong with both leads, but they are not “repaired” by falling for each other. They just stick together, are aware that they can experience pleasure through engagement with someone with a similar outlook. It doesn’t place blame on anyone for how they turned out that way. It doesn’t say that hope, love, or optimism are useless ways to live one’s life. It’s just an honest portrayal of a demographic of people who very rarely get the spotlight. As such, it’s a beautiful character study as well as just a damned entertaining film.