If Woody Allen had let John Cassavetes take over September, it might have turned out a lot like Helena from the Wedding. (I admit, though, that throwing out those two names might give the impression that this film is better than it is—it’s good, but nothing revelatory.) At once raw yet theatrical, insightful yet mundane, and cynical yet romantic, the film’s jumbled yet effective stylistic choices sort of match the characters’ mixed feelings about life, the universe, and everything.
Delivering finely understated performances, Lee Tergesen and Melanie Lynskey play seemingly happy newlyweds Alex and Alice. We first see them traveling into the mountains on the way to a cabin (owned by Alex’s parents), where they intend to host a New Year’s Eve party for their friends. As they prepare for the friends’ arrival, Alex and Alice focus most of their attention on the worry and confusion bringing these friends together might yield.
Don and Lynn (Dominic Fumusa and Jessica Hecht) have been married the longest, have kids, and seem to hate each other. She drinks staggering quantities of wine while henpecking him; he kowtows to her every whim, no matter how absurd. Nick (Paul Fitzgerald) has recently gotten divorced and isn’t terribly thrilled to be among a bunch of marrieds. Steven and Eve (Corey Stoll and Dagmara Dominiczyk) decide to bring a friend not well-known to the rest of the group, the titular Helena (Gillian Jacobs, sporting an awful English accent for no apparent reason, other than possibly wanting to seem more exotic). On some level, Helena serves as a catalyst to bring everyone’s problems to the boiling point, but there’s a strong probability that the amount of wine and cocaine consumed might have led to the party playing out the same way even if she hadn’t tagged along.
As the characters splinter, real feelings emerge. The happy façade maintained by Alex and Alice dissolves over the course of the 36 hours or so the film covers. She bitterly complains to Eve that Alex has jeopardized their future by unsuccessfully pursuing his passion (writing, in the form of a play that opened and closed in two weeks) instead of a more practical career choice. Alex, meanwhile, finds himself deeply uncomfortable around Helena. Before he and Alice got married (but while they were engaged), Alex spent the better part of a wedding reception trying to get into Helena’s pants. She knows this, and he knows this, and Nick figures it out quickly, but Alice remains in the dark.
On some level, Helena has the There’s Something About Mary curse, causing men to lust after her simply by existing. Alex, desperately trying to hide his lust, fumbles around her like a schoolboy. He humiliates himself in front of her with some regularity, though luckily nobody catches him sneak outside (in full hunting gear) with a set of binoculars to watch her shower from a distance. Don, meanwhile, starts to see Helena as an avenue of escape from his worthless marriage. Of the men, Steven is the only one whose jaw doesn’t hang on the floor whenever she enters a room (possibly because he knows her better than the others), though ironically Eve suspects him of cheating.
Writer/director Joseph Infantolino crafts this story in such a way that Helena’s bewitching qualities are not a product of anything she says or does. She’s probably the most underused character in the film, which focuses more on the effects of her presence than her presence itself. She’s not an engaging conversationalist, she doesn’t flirt—she just has that elusive magnetism about her. Or maybe she doesn’t—maybe the men are just so unhappy in their marriages, they’ll flock to any single woman.
Infantolino mines both comedy and drama from the idea of a group of people—not all friends, but all connected through one half of the central couple—coming together awkwardly and, in some cases, unwillingly. Sometimes, he forces the awkwardness a bit too much, but the story of Alex and Alice pulling apart and then coming back together allows the film to overcome its occasional missteps. The film boasts great performances (aside from Jacobs’s misguided accent choice—she’s a fine actress, but it adds nothing and detracts quite a bit from her otherwise good performance) from actors often mired in bland supporting roles instead of the meaty characters they’re more than capable of playing.
Helena from the Wedding may not transform audience perceptions in the same way its characters transform, but it’s an alternately funny, thoughtful, and occasionally touching look at thirty-somethings in crisis. It’s worth a look.