Made here. Big over there: The word from Houston: 'If you've ever thought, gee I love British humour, this is as good as it gets.' Sheila Johnston on a home-grown US hit
Wednesday 27 April 1994
Now for some brighter figures. Four Weddings has grossed over dollars 20m in seven weeks of release in America, and shows no signs of stumbling: last week it briefly nudged into first place at the box- office. It's the biggest hit from Blighty since A Fish Called Wanda topped the US charts in 1988.
And the critics over there seem to have been thoroughly charmed. 'A champagne bubble of a movie,' said the San Francisco Chronicle. The New York Times pronounced it 'elegant, festive and very, very funny'. For the Houston Chronicle it was 'achingly funny and sweet . . . If you've ever thought to yourself, gee I love British humour, this is as good as it gets.' The Washington Post called it 'an English lark full of lovely hats and pretty Brits' and the Chicago Tribune put it in a class with The Philadelphia Story. 'Tasty, sophisticated romp . . . The kind of sly pleasure only British comedy seems to provide,' said the Los Angeles Times. A diligent trawl through our database of American press cuttings failed to turn up a single brickbat.
All this said, and before we get too excited, it must also be noted that the current US box-office is way down on the previous year. There are no other heavyweight contenders around; indeed the distributors moved Four Wedding's release forward a month to hop into the vacuum. It has been skilfully and aggressively marketed by the distributors, the independent company Gramercy Pictures.
It belongs to a lucrative but neglected genre, the elusive 'date movie': Hugh Grant, Andie MacDowell, Simon Callow and others play the members of a sophisticated, moneyed set who keep meeting at each other's weddings. It speaks to thirtysomething singles: Curtis, 36 (and unmarried), started working on the script four years ago when he looked through his address book and discovered that he attended 67 weddings within a little more than a decade. And there hasn't been a decent date movie since Sleepless in Seattle.
At first it was viewed with suspicion, recalls the producer Duncan Kenworthy. 'Gramercy wanted to change the title. They said, 'Research shows that films with 'wedding' in the title do badly.' I take that with a pinch of salt. When someone says 'research shows' it usually means they've asked around the office. But it's true that Father of the Bride and Altman's A Wedding did badly; even The Wedding Banquet didn't break out of the arthouses. So we said, 'If you can find a better title, we'll go with it.' They came up with about a thousand variants.' These included Skulking Around, Tales of True Love and Near Misses and Loitering in Sacred Places. It was decided to stick with the original idea.
The bookers were leery too, says Russell Schwartz, the president of Gramercy. 'A few exhibitors in Texas, when they first saw the picture, said would we send them a subtitled version? Then they asked if we were going to do a remake with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. But now I look at the numbers in Texas, and they are terrific.'
And, as a matter of fact, it's likely that much of the film's success is due to its exotic appeal: English independent movies do better in America, and vice versa. That factor made Enchanted April (which, like Four Weddings, was directed by Mike Newell) and The Crying Game much bigger hits in the US than in Britain, while the American Reservoir Dogs did far better here than on its home turf.
That's the view of Graham Fuller, the executive editor of Interview magazine, a film writer and a long-time Englishman in New York. 'America has an obsession with the English class system. It throws up all the stereotypes they find roundly appealing, because it represents culture, gentility. And also repression: Hugh Grant always plays sexually repressed characters. Americans love that sort of thing - in cinema, they have a fascination with upper-class ladies and barrow-boys: Merchant-Ivory on the one hand, Kureishi and Leigh on the other.'
Grant, who has been working like a trouper on the promotional beat, is Four Wedding's main man. Helped by the accident of his surname, he is being widely touted as the new Cary Grant. 'He is of the same school, although he doesn't resemble him verbally or physically,' says Oscar Moore, the editor of Screen International. 'He's immensely flirtatious, both in real life and on screen - his flirtatiousness is actually more attractive on screen that it is in life. He has a quiet charisma.'
And Grant also stars in two other films currently on American release: Polanski's Bitter Moon and John Duigan's Sirens. 'In all of them he plays an upper middle- class Englishman with twitty manners,' Fuller says. 'Although he's very engaging too, of course.' Two sample scenes: in a bar, Grant and MacDowell are listing previous lovers. She gets up to 33, and counting. He stops at nine. At one of the weddings all the women on Grant's table are his ex-girlfriends. They discuss him, to his vast embarrassment.
All of which begs one big question: will British audiences buy into the exotic upper-class Englishness too? 'I'm extremely anxious about how the film will be received in the UK because anything could happen,' Kenworthy says. 'It was certainly my preference that it open in America first: if it comes here without the US imprint, people tend to be sceptical of it as a serious film. But of course there is also the element that the American success can work against us. The British may feel they're being manipulated into seeing a film that other people say is good. I hope they make their own minds up.'
The campaign here will be slightly different, he says. In the US Four Weddings was marketed primarily as a romantic comedy. In Britain, mindful of the film's Blackadder pedigree (by way of Richard Curtis, who wrote the series, and Rowan Atkinson, who here plays a small role as a Malapropian vicar) the emphasis will be on the broader comic elements.
'In America Four Weddings is perceived as very realistic. When we saw that in the test screening results, we scratched our heads a bit, but compared to the studio comedies I suppose it is. But in Britain it may be seen as a comedy about people who are too rich: one character is the seventh richest man in England. We never see them working - who cares about them?' It is the film's conceit to be set almost entirely at ceremonial occasions and never to show anyone working or performing chores of everyday life.
'Hugh's character is middle- class, and we wanted to make it clear that some of the characters are self-made; not all of them lead charmed lives,' Kenworthy adds. He is expecting the tabloids to love the film, but the broadsheets to 'tread carefully'.
This is Oscar Moore's prognosis: 'I would hope that it is very successful, but I think it's not going to find a major British public. It will tap into the Merchant-Ivory audience: I've already had people asking me about it who only go to the cinema when Remains of the Day is on - people who won't go to see a film unless there's a house in it that they recognise. But the sort of viewers who liked Naked will probably be left cold.'
'Four Weddings and a Funeral' opens on 13 May
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