FILM / Reviews: Something old, something new: Sheila Johnston on Four Weddings and a Funeral, the Britcom that had America rolling down the aisles; plus round-up

Overhyped and over-praised over there? Four Weddings and a Funeral (15) opens here garlanded with praise from America, and it has been going great guns for a low-budget British picture. The production team has conjured up impressive quantities of flowers on straitened means (US critics single out the hats for special distinction) and, while the film is simply shot - lots of tight close-ups - the director, Mike Newell, also makes a virtue out of the necessity: the first wedding, at which the leading players are introduced, is filmed as a series of loosely connected brief impressions and pratfalls, a little like a high-class clip from You've Been Framed. Most of all, it is a diverting, crowd-pleasing romantic comedy, and, as last year's thin track record in this department shows, this is not an achievement to sniff at.

Scripted by Richard Curtis, best known here for the Blackadder series, Weddings has one gimmick, or narrative conceit: it takes place almost entirely at big ceremonial occasions. Here, over the course of about 18 months, a small knot of friends aged around 30 - congenital singles, for whom a marriage proposal is only tolerable as a way out of an embarrassing social situation - watch each other gradually disappear into the jaws of matrimony. Several, however, are resolved to slip the trap, notably Charles (Hugh Grant), a charming, slightly bumbling batchelor, even as they secretly long to yield to it. For Charles, the trap is finally primed when he catches sight of an elegant American (Andie MacDowell) across a crowded pew.

The film bills itself as a 'radical romantic comedy' but it's old-fashioned in its essence, and highly conservative: there will certainly be some British viewers who find the languid mating rites of the moneyed upper-middle classes less than compulsive (Newell took a rather more jaundiced view of them in his best early film, Dance with a Stranger). Since its characters are only ever seen at play, it's in one sense unreasonable to expect to see them working, or waiting for a bus, or walking the dog. But the film's only interlude, a rare wedding-less Saturday, is wasted on a silly, Pretty Woman-ly caper in which MacDowell drags Grant along to a bridal store and goofs around modelling wedding gowns.

And they do seem an uncommonly privileged, well-heeled, cocooned lot, with the vaguest of jobs: one character is 'only' the seventh-richest man in England; another owns half of Scotland and does something in politics (there's nothing on his wedding list much under a grand); and a gag in the closing credits assumes it's well within the bounds of credibility that one of the friends will marry major royalty. There are mavericks among them - Grant's punky flatmate, Scarlett, and a gay couple who are set apart from the rest by their class as well as their sexuality: one of them, it emerges, is of rather humble origins (and his funeral, at a drab industrial housing estate, affords us a glimpse of the movie's single black face).

But these characters are shadowy - Scarlett's fling with a tall handsome Texan is the flimsiest affair in the film. And, while the gay men are presented throughout as the film's only ideal match, they're barely seen together (the story is about how people pair off; it's not interested in established couples). They're just a catalyst, and always slightly outside the nuptial rejoicing: one, the exuberant Gareth (Simon Callow), instructs everybody to 'go forth and conjugate' before speedily expiring - he always liked to joke that he preferred funerals because they were ceremonies he had a chance of being involved in. His death is the dark moment which guides the others towards their respective happy ends.

So could all that fuss across the pond be just a severe attack of anglophilia? The film's so-British leading man has undoubtedly gone down a storm with American critics and so he should: Grant is good, his comic timing and detail immaculate. But it is also a familiar performance - remember his silly ass in Polanski's Bitter Moon? On the present evidence, it must be said, Grant's range is a tad limited and Weddings is least convincing when it tries to hint at his character's shallow, selfish side. He may have been compared to Grant, Cary, but he doesn't have his namesake's cruel, perverse streak and it's a stretch to imagine him in, say, Suspicion, Notorious or North by Northwest.

Grant's success may be a case of wimp power - a backlash against the athletic action hero (too, too Eighties): the film- going public has pigged out, perhaps, on beefcake and hungers for a low-protein leading man, which is why Tom Hanks is also becoming a major star. But, more likely, American audiences have fallen, again, for that well-bred English repression. In one scene, MacDowell and Grant compare sexual experiences. She rattles through several dozen lovers, with thumbnail sketches (lover No 22 kept falling asleep on the job: it was, she explains needlessly, her first year in England). Grant has been presented as an inveterate womaniser but can only rustle up nine. He's the buttoned-up Brit who must be seduced by a brash, rapacious American. It's the same scenario that helped make A Fish Called Wanda a US hit.

Grant's character isn't only ineffectual physically: he is also a wash-out with words, either blurting out too much - he has a reputation for social gaffes - or too little. In crisis, he will resort to expletive- heavy spluttering (it will be intriguing to see the airline or television versions of Four Weddings). He's not much of a one for soul-baring: when he says 'I do' to the vicar, it's in answer to the question, 'Do you love someone else?' When pushed beyond endurance to declare himself, he will resort to the immortal words of David Cassidy, 'I think I love you.'

He's not the only one - later, another avowal, by Callow's lover at his partner's funeral, borrows from W H Auden and, curiously, suggests it's easier to articulate these things when one's lover is dead. In fact the single figure who stands aside from the roundelay, and who keeps his ironic distance is Grant's brother (David Bower), a deaf-mute: he's denied access to spoken language (he communicates with his brother by signing), but in the film this is also a kind of liberation which enables him uninhibitedly to express his mind. He's the only character for whom the course of true love runs smooth, and the only one who can set his brother's straight by responding in an unusual manner at the final wedding to the standard exhortation 'speak now or forever hold your peace'. It's rare to see in a British film: a dramatic point that doesn't hinge on dialogue. Four Weddings and a Funeral is a lightweight affair, but this is one of several fine touches that make it, on the whole, a cause for celebration rather than for mourning.

(Photographs omitted)