While Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip series exists to show off Steve Coogan’s and Rob Brydon’s improvisational skills and dueling impressions, it’s also an excuse to capture the lush romance of different European countries. Increasingly, the director makes travelogues, even when he’s chasing other interests; regional portraiture has become just as important to him as story and performance. This might explain the strange, lightweight nature of his latest film, The Wedding Guest, which employs a noirlike premise to showcase the sights and sounds of the Indian subcontinent. It plays like a compelling, genre-inflected advertisement for the Indian tourism board, even as Winterbottom toils in the country’s seedy underbelly.
Jay (Dev Patel) travels from Britain to the Punjab province of Pakistan armed with a suitcase of clothes and multiple passports. Along the way, he rents two different cars and buys supplies—duct tape, a second suitcase, a gun—all while scoping out an enormous wedding taking place in the region. What happens next shouldn’t be a surprise: Jay kidnaps the bride-to-be, Samira (Radhika Apte), at gunpoint and whisks her across the border. The full extent of Jay’s scheme or his allegiances should remain unrevealed here, but suffice it to say that Samira isn’t as innocent as she seems, and Jay’s motives are more mercenary than heartless. The plan goes awry, relationships evolve, and India becomes a backdrop for a sexy adventure shared by two strangers.
Winterbottom deserves some credit for keeping exposition and pat psychology to a minimum. He’s more concerned with actions than backstory, which provides The Wedding Guest with enough base-level mystery to ensure that it’s gripping for at least the first hour. The film benefits from how little it initially tells us about the characters; once Winterbottom explicates their motives, the luster begins to fade. Patel excels at playing steely efficiency (watching him meticulously plot the kidnapping is a lot more fun than anything that follows), but that quality belies a sense of reckless desperation that bubbles to the surface when things fall off schedule. Meanwhile, Apte holds her own against Patel, using her gentle façade for secretive, ulterior ends. On the whole, The Wedding Guest is at least half a decent genre exercise, complete with requisite tropes (multiple identities, fake diamonds, murder) and archetypes (handsome stranger, femme fatale, double-crossing lover) that allow Winterbottom to work out some muscles he hasn’t used in a while. The staging of the kidnapping scene alone might surprise people who primarily know this director through Coogan and Brydon’s fraternal sniping.
So it’s mildly amusing that The Wedding Guest’s genre spine eventually becomes something of an afterthought. The stakes ostensibly remain high, and there’s some minor bloodshed, but Winterbottom provides the project a gloss and languid energy befitting its road-movie core. As Samira and Jay travel south through India, from Amritsar down to Goa, like the Bonnie and Clyde of the East, Winterbottom soaks up the region’s vigor and noise. He relishes filming trains, markets, and fancy hotels, paying close attention to the hustle and bustle of people moving through. Winterbottom has a history of filming the region—In This World, The Road To Guantanamo, and A Mighty Heart were all partially filmed in Pakistan and India—and he brings an empathetic tourist’s eye to the subcontinent, depicting its unique beauty every step of the way. The plot itself eventually peters out, or at least becomes a telegraphed affair that coasts on only semi-earned chemistry, because Winterbottom can’t juggle his globetrotting interests and the narrative demands of a thriller. The Wedding Guest might end on a flat note, but there are much worse ways a film can go off the rails than transforming into a glorified tour through India.