MOVIE REVIEW : Alan Alda’s Talents Spread Too Thin in ‘Betsy’s Wedding’


As “Betsy’s Wedding” (citywide) opens, father of the bride Alan Alda is wrestling with a Bengal tiger, prowling in his dreams.

It’s not his subconscious feelings about the wedding; he doesn’t yet know there’s going to be one. It’s not that his business may be going belly-up; that awful possibility won’t surface until the next morning. So what is it? Alda the filmmaker, wrestling with the problems of being writer/director/star all at once? If so, score one for the tiger.

In mounting “Betsy’s Wedding,” a threadbare concoction about family values, the trauma of weddings and the seductiveness of dirty money, Alda has spread himself too thin. Playing Long Island builder Eddie Hopper, Alda has constructed his picture like an absent-minded architect with a grand design. He has lavished care on one room but forgot to give it windows; roughed-in a gazebo, then abandoned it, and skimped on the underpinnings everywhere. Shorted in the essentials this way, not even a cast of pros--Madeline Kahn, Joe Pesci, Molly Ringwald, Catherine O’Hara, Ally Sheedy--can do much.


Post-Bengal tiger, the story picks up as the developer for whom Eddie Hopper works runs out of money, leaving Eddie with only the skeleton of the handsome house he’s building. No problem. Eddie will finish the house on spec himself, then sell it. But to pay his workmen, he goes for cash to his wife’s sister’s husband, Oscar the slumlord (Pesci). Oscar, in turn, goes to Georgie (Burt Young), a man who could bankroll Donald Trump--today.

Big problem. The “Sesame Street” set could spot Oscar and his manicured young nephew, Stevie Dee (Anthony LaPaglia), for the Mafiosi they are. Eddie doesn’t seem to grasp the fact that his new crew’s inflated payroll may be part of a money-laundering operation of Georgie’s, or to see the strings attached until they’re around his neck.

If making this arrangement is supposed to be a moral dilemma for an otherwise upright, foursquare fella, it doesn’t play that way. Maddeningly, neither the deal nor its unmaking are anything but McGuffins in this misfiring comedy.

Next comes Betsy’s bombshell. His free-spirited daughter (Molly Ringwald) ) wants to marry Jake (Dylan Walsh), a puppyish dweeb who works in his father’s investment-banking firm. Betsy’s an aspiring designer: From a quick look at her own clothes, Jean Paul Gaultier can still sleep nights.

Betsy’s older sister, Connie (Ally Sheedy), the least believable policewoman in movies, doesn’t date much; something about the job scares men off. Still, Betsy’s engagement is a strain for her. It’s nothing compared to the strain on the audience, as both parents go into planning overdrive and the engagement nearly comes apart in the process. The script has one or two zingers, but it also has the consistency of custard and about the surprise.

From time to time, and with monumental miscalculation, director Alda makes figures from Eddie’s daydreams real: a basketball team, Betsy as a child and Eddie’s father, long dead but with plenty left to say. ( Joey Bishop plays this Italian pop.)

“Betsy’s Wedding” strays from expectation only when the hilariously solicitous Stevie Dee falls for policewoman Connie. Newcomer LaPaglia has the face of a silent-film clown: huge, yearning eyes and a tiny caricature of a mouth. His Stevie Dee is no great comic invention. It’s 100% pure, freeze-dried Robert DeNiro, without whom there’d be no characterization at all. What’s funny is Stevie Dee’s soulful persistence and the fact that it works at all on Connie, who’d actually far prefer a little action. But in Stevie’s good girl/bad girl world, she’s stuck with adulation.

The cast is fine; Alda’s casts invariably are, but this collection has only stick figures to play. To hope for real people, funny and flawed, real talk--not slick nattering--and a jot of seriousness at the bottom of a multicharactered comedy is to realize how much Woody Allen has raised our expectations over the years.

Wasted here are the inimitable Madeline Kahn as Eddie’s realistic wife Lola; basso-voiced Julie Bovasso as his Italian mother and the shimmering Ringwald, who--clothes aside--has so much more to offer than her vacant young fiance that you give the marriage a swift six months. Alda himself seems curiously absent from his own character, as though keeping one eye on the production depleted his energy or his invention as an actor. Finally, are we supposed to be cheered by the romantic choices of these two bright women? Ringwald with a deeply conservative rich kid, whose decision that he just loves her kookiness will last about 10 minutes? The bright Sheedy with an unprincipled Mafia princeling whose idea of ancient history is when the Dodgers were in Brooklyn? These are success stories for the ‘90s? Oh boy.