From the outset, The Wedding Guest toys with your expectations. Its title implies a romantic comedy, one with a lead character in a powder blue tuxedo and ruffled shirt who eventually embarrassing himself to attract the object of his affection.
Dev Patel playing that lead might reinforce such a silly notion. Viewers may be most familiar with him from Slumdog Millionaire and the two Best Exotic Marigold Hotel movies, appealing to audiences with goofy charm and earnest ambition. But Patel went on to avoid typecasting with his Academy Award-nominated role in Lion, which likely compelled director Michael Winterbottom to cast him here. (We’ll also get to see him play another dramatic role in Hotel Mumbai later this month.)
Those who remember Patel as a lighter presence will raise an eyebrow early on in The Wedding Guest. His mysterious character — never called by name but listed as “Jay” in the credits — buys some guns and duct tape upon landing in Pakistan from London and promptly hitting the road. Even more jolting is watching him subsequently abduct a woman, tie her up and stick her in the trunk of his rental car. Jay also winds up killing a security guard in the process, which demonstrates that he isn’t the cold professional who might pull flawlessly off an operation like this. Later, it’s apparent that he hasn’t entirely thought his plan through.
Jay’s target, Samira (Radhika Apte), is kidnapped the night before her wedding — somewhat fortuitously as it was an arranged marriage of which she wants no part. As it turns out, Samira has a boyfriend named Deepesh (Jim Sarbh), who, unbeknownst to her parents, has hired Jay to bring her back to England. Yet what appears to be a straightforward narrative is complicated by Jay’s actions and their influence on Deepesh.
Soon after the abduction, Jay presents Samira with a choice: Return to Pakistan and get married to a man she doesn’t love or reunite with Deepesh and live on the run for the rest of her life. Samira, however, doesn’t necessarily believe she’s limited to those two options, since being forced to pick between one man or the other doesn’t really present her with a choice. Giving Samira more agency over her situation is an intriguing decision that creates more of a noir dynamic among the characters.
Steering away from expected paths shouldn’t be a surprise in a Winterbottom film. His body of work almost seems deliberately designed to defy definition. It includes serious dramas like Jude, Welcome to Sarajevo and The Killer Inside Me, but he’s also shown a more playful side in movies such as 24 Hour Party People and the Trip trilogy, featuring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon traveling through England, Spain and Italy.
However, if there’s no such thing as “a Michael Winterbottom Film,” the director certainly brings his talent for dialogue to scenes involving Jay and Samira hiding out in a hotel room. His previous experience filming in India for the productions of A Mighty Heart and Tess also helps the potentially chaotic street sequences feel natural.
The Wedding Guest ultimately relies more on its characters’ decisions than action or suspense. As a result, what should be an engaging thriller could feel underwhelming to some. But Patel’s performance still makes this a movie worth watching, especially if it leads to a future with more leading-man action roles.
Starts March 29 at Grail Moviehouse