Tonal issues and twist ending of ‘Table 19’ fall flat
Honestly, I should have known how much I would dislike “Table 19” just by looking at its film poster, which is designed to look like an Instagram post. And, like most people who are internally 80 years old and gigantic curmudgeons, I have never once in my life used Instagram, nor do I ever plan to. Simply stated, “Table 19” is made for a crowd of which I am not a member. While I will try to keep that in mind for this review, I’d also counterargue that art shouldn’t just resonate with a very limited intended audience.
The film’s premise is simple enough, though I wonder if that isn’t part of the problem. Eloise (Anna Kendrick) was going to be the bridesmaid at the wedding of her friend, Francie (Rya Meyers), until Francie’s brother, Teddy (Wyatt Russell), dumped her. Now Eloise has been relegated to the undesirable Table 19, intended for the guests who really “should have known” not to attend. Her companions are Francie and Teddy’s almost-senile former nanny Jo (June Squibb), desperate-to-get-laid teenager Renzo (Tony Revolori), bickering couple Bina and Jerry (Lisa Kudrow and Craig Robinson) and Walter (Stephen Merchant), a socially awkward yet harmless convicted criminal. Hijinks ensue!
“Table 19” has an interesting premise, but ultimately, it’s the setup to a joke with no effective punchline. Once everyone is uncomfortably together at the table, the question inevitably becomes: Where do we go from here? The writers prove to be of two minds about how to answer that question, and this becomes the film’s downfall.
Anyone who has read more than a few of my reviews (in other words, The Dartmouth editors) will know that I criticize films fairly regularly for having tonal issues. And don’t get me wrong, contrasting diametrically opposed tones in a film can be done to great effect; consider, for example, the simultaneous humor and brutality of a film like “Full Metal Jacket.” The result is effective because the tonal contrast is so uncomfortable. But, too often, tonal imbalances in films don’t feel intentional but instead like there were too many cooks in the kitchen. Such is the case with “Table 19.”
The structure of the film is that of a romantic comedy, a genre I usually loathe; however, I am nonetheless capable of admiring a good one when I see it. The issue is that the film incorporates various dramatic subplots and elements that simply do not fit in. The vast majority of the characters in “Table 19” are horribly despicable human beings who are regularly abusive to themselves and each other. While this premise could have worked in a twisted black comedy, it does not jive with the almost fairy tale tone of the romantic comedy that envelops it. This is most obvious halfway through the film, when the screenplay slams on the brakes and tries to have a “moment” with the characters. But it’s hard to take these characters seriously as they explore the brokenness of their lives when, seconds later, they trip and fall in an apparent attempt to fulfill the studio’s pratfall quota.
While the tonal issue might be distracting throughout the film, it becomes disastrous during the ending. Unsurprisingly, Eloise ends up romantically involved with a character who will go unnamed for the sake of avoiding spoilers. The problem is that the film has already established that these two characters have some severe issues they need to work through before they can even consider being a couple. However, I might have been willing to overlook that within the context of a rather unrealistic romantic comedy if it weren’t for the film’s major subplot about Bina and Jerry’s constant marital strife. So at the end of the day, I’m getting mixed messages. The film wants me to focus on and feel critical of the dysfunction of one relationship while ignoring another relationship’s dysfunction in the interest of our happily-ever-after ending. This is made all the worse by the fact that the screenplay sets up a totally different character for Eloise to end up with, only to subvert that narrative arc around the midpoint. But when the clichéd yet charming hypothetical outcome sounds infinitely more appealing than the mildly subversive yet deeply questionable actual outcome, you know you’re in trouble.
On the plus side, Kendrick is, as always, the most charming presence on screen. She and Robinson both surprised me during the film’s more emotionally charged scenes. While I found the film mostly bereft of laughs, I have to admit that Merchant is easily the funniest thing about the whole ordeal. The real shame is that these talented actors are often relegated to scenes where they just have to explain their emotions to each other and to the audience so that we’ll understand what’s going on. You see, when you have an ensemble cast of six characters in an 87-minute movie, it’s hard to establish all the characters’ stories effectively and instead much easier — and much lazier — to have them explain themselves in a manner that doesn’t even come close to resembling how real human beings behave.
A few years ago, I might have taken great pleasure in ripping a film like this a new one. But I would like to think that in that short period of time, I’ve matured a little bit. These days, I find that bad films disappoint me far more often than they anger me. I find “Table 19” particularly egregious because people will undoubtedly defend it as a romantic comedy, thus it obviously shouldn’t be critically analyzed. “Turn your brain off,” they’ll say. But why? I’m not suggesting that films can’t have leaps in logic or that there is anything wrong with a film that exists purely for the purpose of entertainment. But shouldn’t we hold all art to some sort of baseline standard? I think so. And when held to those standards, “Table 19” is sadly lacking.