Michael Winterbottom’s international thriller “The Wedding Guest” flips the script on British star Dev Patel’s nice-guy star persona. We’re not used to seeing him with a gun in his hand or stuffing a woman into a trunk while coldly executing a kidnapping for hire. But as Jay, his good looks and friendly demeanor serve his cover well while he infiltrates a small Pakistani city posing as a wedding guest to kidnap the bride.
When Jay frees his bounty, Samira (Radhika Apte), from the trunk, we discover she’s in on the plot, escaping an arranged marriage to be with a lover (Jim Sarbh) she met in the U.K. They plan to run off with some diamonds, as many young lovers do. If it all sounds like a heart-pounding suspense ride, unfortunately, it’s not. Twists and turns abound, but they’re all smoke and mirrors that ultimately don’t add up to anything.
Winterbottom and cinematographer Giles Nuttgens shot the film with the kind of neon-streaked, cover-of-night, lean, efficient muscularity that communicates to the audience what the film might be about — a shady underworld of arms and identification dealers, murder, double-crosses, betrayal and illegal international maneuvering. So it’s a surprise when it turns out that’s not the case at all.
Jay and Samira grow close as they discover their mutual connection — her lover, his employer — isn’t all he’s cracked up to be. They set out from Pakistan to Delhi to Jaipur to Goa, and halfway through the film, you realize this international crime thriller is actually a romantic road trip movie, which isn’t a relief — it’s deflating. Not exactly something you want from a suspense film, which is what we were ostensibly promised.
Patel’s inherent decency bleeds through, and despite his ruthlessness and cold efficiency, we never, ever believe he’ll do something outside of his moral code. Samira, however, is a mystery. She seems a bit too posh to be this scrappy and sits at the intersection of Old World customs and modern globalization. Watching her transform from a quaking young woman in customary dress into a gum-chewing, scrunchie-wearing Western woman illustrates how easily codes can be switched, how cultures can shift. Apte’s layered performance keeps Samira unpredictable. There’s more to her than meets the eye, but every time we grow suspect, nothing pans out. It’s a constant denial of our expectations of the genre.
Perhaps that is Winterbottom’s intent — to kidnap us thrill-seekers onto a romantic beach vacation and urge us to chill out (as he did with his funny foodie travelogues “The Trip” and “The Trip to Spain”). But one can’t deny the wobbly script, especially in the third act. You start to realize that rather than being ruthlessly efficient and spare, there’s just not much there. As the pair bounce around, “The Wedding Guest” ultimately just fails to gel into something captivating.
The ending is baffling but, in some ways, fascinating when you try and dig into what exactly Winterbottom wants to tell us and who this story is about. Much like the titular character, “The Wedding Guest” is a bait-and-switch, but what we end up with isn’t all that satisfying.
Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic
‘The Wedding Guest’
Rated: R, for language, some violence and brief nudity
Running time: 1 hour 34 minutes
Playing: Starts Friday, The Landmark, West L.A.; Arclight Hollywood