There is a scene in License to Wed in which Robin Williams, playing an Episcopalian minister named Reverend Frank, throws a baseball at John Krasinski and hits him in the nose—and you suspect it wasn't an accident. Williams then comes up to Krasinski and offers to "heal" his bleeding nose, first by laying hands on him and speaking in mock tongues, and then by going "old school" and reciting some Latin. Meanwhile, a dark-haired boy in a dark suit, looking a little like a chunkier version of The Omen's Damien Thorne, stands to the side and shouts "The power of Christ compels you!" as though he was rehearsing for a grade-school stage adaptation of The Exorcist. And then Williams shrugs it all off and admits that Krasinski just needs some first aid.
If you take spiritual matters at all seriously, then you have to wonder why in the world any minister would mock multiple forms of prayer—especially at the very moment when someone needs his help, and all because of an injury inflicted by the minister himself. Of course, perhaps I take this too seriously. Perhaps we are supposed to forget that Reverend Frank is an actual character, and perhaps we are supposed to look at this entire movie as an extension of Williams's manic stand-up shtick. But even if that were the case, License to Wed still isn't very funny.
Instead, the film ranges somewhere between boring and offensive. And I don't just mean offensive because of how it treats religious themes. I mean offensive in the sense that the entire film is populated by characters who drive each other crazy for no good reason, characters whose presence you are all too eager to leave. And throwing baseballs at other people's noses is just the tip of the iceberg.
The film concerns Ben Murphy (Krasinski) and Sadie Jones (Mandy Moore), a young couple who meet, move in together, decide to get married and enroll in a bizarre marriage-preparation course created by Reverend Frank. The film gives a tacit nod to the fact that Ben and Sadie really shouldn't be sleeping together before marriage; when an afternoon quickie results in them being late for their first meeting with the Reverend, Sadie jokes, "We're so going to hell!" But Reverend Frank seems okay with the modern morality; not only does he approvingly call moving in together "the next step" after dating, there are certain aspects of his course that require the couple to live together. He does, however, stipulate that the couple abstain from sex for the duration of the course—though it seems he does so less for moral reasons and more because it's just another way to drive happy young couples apart.
And yes, driving young couples apart seems to be key to Reverend Frank's method—all for their own good, of course. Reverend Frank gets Ben and Sadie to participate in exercises that create a world of awkwardness for both of them, but especially for Ben: he gets them to improvise "fights" in front of strangers, fights that bring out tensions the couple never knew they had; he gets Ben to say what he "really" thinks of his future in-laws to their faces; he makes Ben and Sadie "parent" a couple of creepy robot babies that excrete all the usual things that babies excrete; and he gets Sadie to drive blindfolded, with Ben guiding her from the back seat, to teach them a lesson in trust. And why do they put up with all this? Because Sadie's family has ties to Reverend Frank's church and she has always wanted to get married there.
All of these characters are annoying, on some level or other. Planning a wedding is stressful enough—especially when it must be done within three weeks, as is the case here—without someone like Reverend Frank picking at every scab and looking for new wounds to inflict just so he can heal them. Sadie's willingness to play along with Reverend Frank's schemes—and her consistent disappointment in Ben for failing to be as enthusiastic for these schemes as she is—makes you want to call the wedding off long before any of the characters suggest doing so. And when Ben is goaded into telling Sadie's family what he "really" thinks of them, let's just say he goes beyond the call of duty in a way that makes him look dumb and clueless.
Does the film, directed by Ken Kwapis (The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants) from a script credited to four different people, give us any reason to root for these characters despite their flaws? Not really. The prologue rushes through Ben and Sadie's courtship too quickly for us to get a sense of them as anything more than a generically cute couple; and in places, the film seems to fumble for clichés without actually finding them. Case in point: Eric Christian Olsen pops up in a few scenes as a friend of Sadie's family whose advice Sadie is supposedly always seeking, and in a typical romantic comedy, he would be Ben's chief rival for Sadie's affections. But his presence barely registers here, and the advice Sadie seeks from him never goes deeper than wedding decorations—and since she raises this topic with Ben, too, he really has no call to be jealous.
Then there is the subplot in which Ben tries to dig up some dirt on Reverend Frank that will discredit him in Sadie's eyes—but when it backfires on Ben, the moment is remarkably non-funny. Indeed, on a certain level, it's almost sanctimonious.
The film isn't a complete dud. At times you can see the filmmakers trying to come up with something a little unusual or different, such as a flip-it book that turns into an animated dream. And anything which gets people to think about what it means to be married, and to commit to someone regardless of the difficulties that come along, can't be all bad. But if ever there was a ceremony or ritual that needed to be called off, it is the one that begins with the act of buying a ticket for this movie.Discussion starters
- What sort of things do you think couples need to talk about before they get married? Does Reverend Frank's course seem like a good way to get some of those issues out in the open? Why or why not?
- Do you think Ben and Sadie know each other well enough to get married before they begin taking Reverend Frank's course? What does the movie reveal or not reveal about them and their compatibility?
- What do you make of Reverend Frank's irreverent approach to life? Should he be treating some things more sacredly? How would you respond to a minister who behaved in real life the way that Reverend Frank behaves in this film?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
License to Wed is rated PG-13 for sexual humor, including a man coming on to his fiancée in bed while a minister spies on them from outside, and language, including a few four-letter words and a few uses of "God" and "Jesus" in vain. The minister frequently makes light of religious matters in ways that some might find irreverent: he keeps a bag of snacks in a hollowed-out Bible, he mocks both charismatic and Catholic forms of prayer after he injures a man, he says things like "Let's get the flock out of here," he makes double entendres and glib references to venereal diseases in a children's class on the Ten Commandments, and so on.
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