As I've expressed in previous reviews, I am a sucker for a bottle story. Sure, I love a well-made action sequence as much as anybody, but I can also be completely satisfied with an entire movie about a bunch of people stuck together with nothing else to do but talk through all of their insane issues. As an extension of this, I should have been a fish in a barrel as a critic viewing writer/director Jeffrey Blitz's Table 19 -- which not only sports a wedding-themed version of what I've described, but also has a cast stacked with impressive, likable talent. Despite all of that, however, I left the theater feeling what can really only be described as "whelmed."
Co-written by Jay and Mark Duplass (who have regularly proved to be capable of much better), the ensemble comedy centers on the random individuals who find themselves seated around the titular piece of furniture during the reception of a wedding of a young couple. Seated furthest away from the action, they are the people who either have an extremely limited connection to the betrothed, or who would have been better off not attending. There's Eloise (Anna Kendrick), the emotionally fragile young woman who was going to be the Maid of Honor before being dumped by the bride's brother (Wyatt Russell); Walter (Stephen Merchant), a relation of the husband's father recently released from prison; Jo (June Squibb), the bride's former nanny who was basically invited out of spite; Renzo (Tony Revolori), a young, socially inept teen who is essentially there to test his social skills; and Bina and Jerry (Lisa Kudrow, Craig Robinson), a disgruntled married couple who merely have business connections with the father of the bride.
After a period of getting to know each other, it takes very little time for them to piece together that there are the total rejects of the reception, and as Eloise puts it, the people who could leave in the middle of the event and not be noticed. It's not that simple, however, as various bouts of personal crisis wind up leaving a trail of chaos at the wedding -- leading the randoms at Table 19 to team up and try and get each other through their own crap before the night is through.
In these kinds of narratives, character is really everything, just because conflicts and problems don't mean anything if you don't care about the individuals trying to solve them. In this game, Table 19 is hit and miss thanks to what can best be called imbalanced material brought to life by solid performances. Anna Kendrick's Eloise is unquestionably the script's largest focus, given the most significant hurdles within the wedding context -- and while her story is modestly compelling (despite an unfortunate lack of chemistry with Wyatt Russell) it leaves every other narrative flimsy.
The notes mentioned within each character description above is pretty much the only one that each one sings by the time the film is done, and it's really only kept compelling by the individuals bringing each character to life. There isn't much to Walter beyond his desire to keep his criminal history a secret, but it does lead to some classic awkward comedy at which the Stephen Merchant is an expert. Craig Robinson's Jerry and Lisa Kudrow's Bina have a strong back-and-forth -- aided by a running gag related to Bina being dressed exactly like the waitstaff -- despite the fact that their contentious marriage is nothing we haven't seen before.
With so many different characters to deal with within the film's 87 minute runtime, Table 19 could be described as tight, but the more appropriate adjective would be rigid. Odd as it may be as a criticism, the film is never not about what it's about, and as a result never gives itself any breathing time. It's a film that could take a lesson from Reservoir Dogs or Clerks. and recognize that not every conversation needs to be about big gestures and life changes. In that, it lacks the naturalness of the Duplass' past work, and feels overwritten.
Table 19 is never boring, and it has a handful of laugh out loud moments compelled by its talented ensemble, but it really just doesn't amount to much. It's disappointing because you expect more from the talented people involved, but also don't feel completely shirked of a good time. It actually isn't far off from the experience of being at a mediocre wedding: you probably won't remember most of it, but at least you had some cake.