It’s an unusual thing to see a movie as seemingly uninterested in its own premise as The Best People, which on paper sounds like one of those typically light, airy, facetiously mean-spirited wedding-themed romantic comedies but, in practice, doesn’t much care to be that at all.
That’s not to suggest that the film is just a half-hearted attempt to capitalize on a popular (if tired) brand of Hollywood studio fare. Instead, it’s as if screenwriter Selina Ringel and director Dan Levy Dagerman set out to make a high-concept, low-stakes trifle and then happened upon something more interesting along the way, or perhaps, vice versa – they had a thoughtful, character-driven story in mind all along and, for whatever reason, decided to couch it in more immediately recognizable, easily digestible terms. Whatever the case, even if it never entirely nails down what it wants to be, The Best People has a lot more to chew on than its plot description might suggest.
With that in mind, why not let’s get that plot description out of the way? Anna Evelyn Joy stars as Anna, a free-spirited, mostly lovable thirtysomething screw-up who has a close relationship with her much younger, much more mature little sister Claire (Claire Donald). Anna and Claire are living together and supporting each other emotionally as they recover from the recent death of their mother, but when Claire – after a few months of whirlwind romance depicted in breezy montage – ends up engaged to prototypical nice-guy Johnny (Johnny Canizzaro), Anna immediately fears that she’s going to lose the sisterly bond that’s the only real stable thing in her life. Similarly, Johnny’s hard-partying roommate Art (Art Napiontek) is wary of losing his best bro to repressed married life, and though he and Anna hate each other at first sight, when they’re asked to be best man and maid of honor (the titular “best people”) at the impending wedding, Anna convinces Art to join her effort to sabotage Claire and Johnny’s relationship before it’s too late. The stage is thus set for Anna and Art to come up with and execute some kooky schemes to scuttle the wedding, risk their relationships with the people they’re closest to, and, perhaps, fall for each other along the way.
“…at the impending wedding, Anna convinces Art to join her effort to sabotage Claire and Johnny’s relationship before it’s too late.”
The thing is, most of those things surely do end up happening to some degree, but they’re played almost as afterthoughts in a film that feels much more invested in exploring the character of Anna in all her complexity. Yes, The Best People hits the occasional Bridesmaids-like beat of vulgar rom-com slapstick, and you could probably cut together a nice little trailer that makes it look like that’s the movie’s primary focus, but the reality is, Ringer and Dagerman’s hearts just aren’t really in the comedy.
Thankfully, however, the pot-addled, casually self-destructive Anna, a seriously flawed but ultimately very sympathetic female lead in the Diablo Cody mold, is indeed interesting enough to carry the movie. For all of her wrongheaded ideas and frequent pettiness and almost complete lack of social graces, she somehow remains worth rooting for throughout, and through her, the film is able to address issues such as addiction and grief and sisterhood in ways that are unexpectedly nuanced and thoughtful for this genre. Joy’s charismatic, engaging performance – from the film’s loopily loquacious opening barroom monologue onward – helps immensely in grounding the character, and indeed, The Best People is at its most successful when it finds her in dramatic moments that reveal what makes Anna who she is. When performance and writing and direction really gel, as they do a number of times throughout, The Best People can be quite sweet and resonant and perceptive, its relationship dynamics and observations about family and marriage surprisingly keen and insightful.
“… its relationship dynamics and observations about family and marriage surprisingly keen and insightful.”
Unfortunately, though, and as might be expected, the film’s biggest problem is the tonal unevenness that it’s never able to fully overcome. The comedy is mostly broad and silly – when it isn’t simply trying too hard to be raunchy – and the jaunty music cues and only mildly amusing limply staged gags seem incongruous with the more fully realized character drama that surrounds them. Unlike, say, the more successful films in the Judd Apatow canon, The Best People is unable to mix humor and stark humanity in a way that feels seamless, and even when jokes occasionally land, they tend to undercut, rather than enhance, the story’s overall impact. Supporting characters feel a little sketched-in, as well, with Art particularly coming off a little too one-note to be a worthwhile foil or partner for Anna; worse, still, is Claire’s friend Ivana (Ivana de Maria), who shows up abruptly and seems shoehorned in only for a little extra (quickly deflated) conflict.
Had The Best People committed more to its obvious strengths, it could have been an outright knockout – a low-key seriocomic character study with a knack for articulating some very relatable truths about relationships both romantic and familial. The glimpses of that better, subtler movie that regularly reveal themselves – and the winning performance that connects them – are enough to make the film worth a look as-is, but the best version of The Best People remains sadly out of reach.
The Best People (2018) Directed by Dan Levy Dagerman. Written by Selina Ringel. Starring Anna Evelyn Joy, Claire Donald, Art Napiontek, Johnny Canizzaro, Ivana De Maria, Kyle Trueblood, Charley Rossman, Jan Haley
6 out of 10