The comic bit that kicks off "Table 19" finds a young woman named Eloise (Anna Kendrick) agonizing over her oldest friend's wedding invitation. She checks "no" on the RSVP card. Then she scratches it out and marks "yes" instead. Then she sets fire to the damn thing. Then she mails it in anyway, burnt edges and all.
Amusing as it may sound on paper — or on charred, cream-colored card stock — you can already sense that Kendrick, one of the smartest actresses around, is playing well beneath her abilities. The movie is choking on fumes before it's even had the chance to begin.
Eloise was once supposed to be the wedding's maid of honor until she was rudely dumped via text message by her boyfriend, Teddy (Wyatt Russell), who happens to be the brother of the bride and the best man. In the end, she attends anyway and winds up seated at table 19, which she knows is the worst table at the reception, reserved for those guests who were invited out of politeness but should have known better than to show up.
Well before movie's end, at least a few in the audience may empathize in more ways than one. A high-concept comedy of slick, strained quirkiness, "Table 19" puts a grating matrimonial spin on "The Breakfast Club," stranding Eloise and her five table mates in an all-too-familiar vision of dinner-party hell.
The other guests at table 19 include Jo (June Squibb), the bride's former nanny, and Bina (Lisa Kudrow) and Jerry (Craig Robinson), a couple whose marital strain starts to show after barely a few drinks. There's also Renzo (Tony Revolori, "The Grand Budapest Hotel"), an amateur teenage pickup artist, and Walter (Stephen Merchant), a distant cousin of the bride who doesn't want anyone to know he just got out of prison for a white-collar crime.
Not terribly interested in making conversation with anyone, his wife included, Jerry has brought along a mystery novel to kill time (consider doing the same). And writer-director Jeffrey Blitz has accordingly structured "Table 19" like a detective story, giving most of the major characters some kind of painful secret, and dovetailing the movie's numerous farcical shenanigans with sly revelations and shifts in perspective.
Eloise, trying to make Teddy jealous, impulsively kisses a dashing fellow named Huck (Thomas Cocquerel), initiating a romantic triangle that doesn't play out quite as expected. Bina's red jacket becomes a running gag and an unusually malleable plot point. The obligatory let's-all-smoke-pot-together scene foreshadows something more ominous on the horizon. Not everyone is as wonderful, or as terrible, as they might initially seem — a humanist notion that would be easier to warm to if the movie supporting it weren't so forced and programmatic.
Blitz remains best known for his Oscar-nominated documentary "Spellbound" (2002), in which he took infectious delight in the pint-sized personalities competing in a national spelling bee. Some of that charm carried over to his fiction debut, "Rocket Science" (2007), an underrated comedy set in the world of high-school speech tournaments that featured one of Kendrick's most appealing performances — a terrific early showcase for the crack timing and brilliant verbal delivery she would show off in "Up in the Air."
Although it's clearly trying to reclaim some of those movies' snap and eloquence, "Table 19" lets Kendrick down. A movie even half as smart as its leading lady would have given Eloise more to do than agonize over an ex-boyfriend for an hour and a half, just as it would have found a way to tap into the endearing sweetness Revolori displayed in "The Grand Budapest Hotel" rather than saddling him with penis jokes.
By the same token, it's a drag to see Kudrow and Robinson, superb comic talents both, forced to bicker obnoxiously from start to finish, and you long to see the typically hilarious Merchant do more than stand around looking like a bespectacled deer in the headlights. Actually, you can: "Logan" opens this weekend.
MPAA rating: PG-13, for thematic elements, sexual content, drug use, language and some brief nudity
Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes
Playing: In general release