Perhaps the most frustrating thing about The Wedding Ringer is just how hard it tries to not be the terrible comedy that its trailers and release date suggested. It really does. It starts with a decent hook: Doug (Josh Gad, Olaf from Frozen) isn’t so much a loser, per se, as he’s just a workaholic. He took over his dad’s investment firm, after travelling a lot as a kid, and just sort of found himself in a bind when it was time for him to get married to Gretchen (The Big Bang Theory’s Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting). After all, Doug has no friends, and his many strange idiosyncrasies hardly help. In case you missed the fact that Doug is a loser, and despite the film’s attempts to argue otherwise, The Wedding Ringer will helpfully remind you of this fact roughly every thirty seconds.
Enter Jimmy (Kevin Hart). Because Jimmy is played by Kevin Hart, he’s motor-mouthed, almost relentlessly so, and possesses endless willpower and hustle. He’s also the proprietor of The Best Man Inc., a company that “provides best man services to guys lacking in such areas.” Jimmy shows up to your wedding, insinuates himself as the life of the party, and for the right price will even write himself out of the picture shortly thereafter. But Doug doesn’t just need a best man, he needs an entire party of groomsmen, and so Jimmy goes for the “Golden Tux,” apparently a bit of industry folklore, and hires a band of misfits including Hurley from Lost, the one exceptionally animated gentleman from Dance Movie, and a balding Asian man with three testicles.
The script for The Wedding Ringer apparently floated around Hollywood for a number of years, starting around 2002 or so, which is peculiar given the existence of Hitch, a film with which The Wedding Ringer shares more than a little DNA. There’s the same mismatch between the smooth-operating black lead and his doughy white counterpart who needs lessons in “cool.” There are the regimented dating rules ostensibly designed to both offer joke opportunities and life lessons for the audience; more on that in a moment. And there’s the cloying sweetness with which both films slowly break down their lead’s rougher exterior. Eventually Jimmy must learn that his staunch policy against befriending any of his clients has led to a life of affluence (even though his office is located beneath a mini-golf course), but also loneliness. He will also be supplied with a potential romantic reward (the eternally underused Olivia Thirlby) for his efforts.
But alas, The Wedding Ringer almost wholly lacks that film’s relative charms, or really any of them at all. The film is a slapdash assemblage of gags and vignettes; a football sequence complete with an inexplicable Joe Namath cameo feels pulled from a different movie, and Hart and Gad’s ballroom dancing montage is ripped from a lot of different movies from the early to mid Aughts. Many founts of comedy have run dry with time, but apparently our most perennial offering, more than any plant or the arrival of the bison to the plain in springtime, is the utter hilarity that can only come from old white dudes singing novelty rap songs. There are also enough montages that, after a time, you’ll be left convinced that in the brave new world conferred by the arrival of 2015, there is no more filmmaking, only montage. There are montages of dancing, whimsical photo forgery, group assemblage, and at one point late in the game the film even synopsizes itself in brief, spending a solid minute of screen time recapping the entire movie up to that point.
Despite itself, the film almost ambles its way to watchability, out of the sheer willpower of Gad and Hart’s performances. Hart seems doomed to repeat this over and over again, this endless cycle of trying to muscle subpar (or worse) material to some standard of quality by unquestioning effort. Jimmy speeds through his dialogue, performs at Jewish funerals, takes time to slow down and have more than one Hart-to-heart made genuine because of Kevin Hart’s ability to infuse his Chris Tucker-style typecasting with genuine pathos a lot of the time. He’s a more vulnerable kind of comic lead, which makes for a nice pairing with Gad, whose dweeby charm the film mistakes for awkwardness. The film dances around empathizing with Doug, but never actually gets around to it, and it’s a note that would’ve made a lot of the proceedings more palatable.
That’s the deal with The Wedding Ringer, and don’t let a bit of meager praise fool you entirely. The film ultimately takes a turn for much less savory territory, and plants its flag there before starting construction on its summer home. For every engaging bit of interplay between Hart and Gad, there are four or five reminders that Doug needs to be a man or stop being a pussy or grow balls or enlarge his already existent balls or that he comes from Mars or whatever. Significant women are either unbearably shrill or kindly strippers, male bonding is the most important thing in the entire world, rape jokes are hilarious, and if a time traveler from 15-20 years ago were to arrive here today and want to catch a breezy Hollywood comedy, here’s one in which within five minutes a gruff father figure loudly refers to wedding planning as gay for yuks. New throwaway January comedy, same as the old January comedy. Only this one didn’t have to be so bad.