For Better or for Worse
Theresa Connelly's feature directorial debut, Polish Wedding, is a complete misfire. What is meant to be a somewhat farcical -- but also fairytale-like -- midsummer night's sex comedy ends up a tedious, uninvolving affair, burdened with a slim premise, grating characters, and poorly realized humor.
The film concerns the various romantic and sexual entanglements of the Pzoniak family, working-class Polish Americans living in Detroit. Smart and sexy matriarch Jadzia (Lena Olin, with a body to die for), who works as a cleaning lady, and her sweet-tempered but jealous baker husband Bolek (the always sexy Gabriel Byrne) live under one roof with their four sons, daughter Hala (Claire Danes), daughter-in-law Sofie (Mili Avital), and infant grandson. Jadzia rules the roost with an iron hand, all the while preaching the beauty and joy of procreation. "Nothing is more sacred to me than making life and love," she exclaims. "That is my religion."
Although Jadzia loves her husband, she is carrying on an affair with a handsome businessman named Roman (Rade Serbedzija), possibly because she feels Bolek is no longer interested in her. Nothing could be further from the truth, but she and her mate never confront one another about the issue. Instead, the clearly heartbroken Bolek is left to mope around and fear the worst. (He suspects ten lovers, not merely one.)
Teenage Hala is just beginning to explore her own sexuality. She promptly gets pregnant, something of a family tradition -- both Jadzia and Sofie got married as pregnant teens. This situation presents several problems, not the least of which is that Hala has been named to lead the annual church procession of the Holy Virgin, and she isn't about to decline the honor. Another small matter is that the baby's father, a young policeman, refuses to marry her; the Pzoniaks set out to change his mind.
Actors Olin, Byrne, and Danes do their best, but the material defeats them. Where writer-director Connelly sees humor, poignancy, and life-affirming drama, the viewer sees people with little or no ambition, seemingly content with their dead-end lives. Hala has dropped out of high school before the film opens and spends her days taking care of her brother's screaming baby. Her free spirit and sexually restless nature are meant to make her seem charmingly naive, but she comes across as just plain stupid.
While Danes makes Hala very believable, the character remains uninteresting. (A fine actress, Danes has not been well served by her last few roles. In both Polish Wedding and Les Miserables -- and to a lesser degree The Rainmaker -- she has offered a shy, awkward smile, a tilt of her head, and a wide-eyed expression in place of a true personality.)
Connelly, who grew up in a tight-knit Polish-American community in Detroit, probably envisioned her film as a Polish-American Moonstruck, in which life is a succession of tears and laughter, and in which humor and pathos stem from the human condition as well as from cultural mores and eccentricities. But almost everyone could relate to the characters, situations, and emotions in director Norman Jewison's 1987 romantic comedy. Polish Wedding fails to connect in the same manner, even though it ostensibly celebrates similar entanglements and loving, if exasperating, family ties.
Polish Wedding (the term applies to a wedding in which the groom is forced, under duress, to marry his pregnant bride) is more reminiscent of Andrew Davis's Steal Big, Steal Little (1995) and Lasse Hallstrsm's Once Around (1991). Not in terms of premise or story line, mind you, but rather in that all three films were long-nurtured pet projects of their respective directors, made with great love and commitment. Yet as anyone who had the misfortune to sit through the two earlier films can attest, the filmmakers' passion for the material completely eludes the viewer. So it is with Polish Wedding. The only thing worse than spending 100 minutes with these characters would be living with them.
Directed and written by Theresa Connelly. Starring Lena Olin, Gabriel Byrne, and Claire Danes.
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