A not-quite-engaging enterprise in ``The Wedding Banquet''

September 03, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Who would deny that homosexuals have the same right to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness and the making of mediocre movies as the rest of us? And the last part of that equation is on ample display in "The Wedding Banquet."

This is a movie that sounds so much better on paper than it works on film. Meant to be a knockabout farce, full of mixed identities, elaborate deceptions that end up fooling only the deceiver and light-speed reversals, it is instead slower in the unfolding than day-old moo goo gai pan coming out of that white cardboard box on its way into the microwave.

Another disappointment is it's set up square on the edge of just about every social fault line you could imagine: interracial gay sexuality, cross-culture shock, the aspirations of immigrants and the weight of expectation of a more traditional generation upon a less traditional one. Yet it never really does anything interesting with the material; it's never dangerous, settling instead for a kind of cozy domesticity.

"The Wedding Banquet" is built on a situation screwball comedy master Howard Hawks might have enjoyed; the only thing different from Hawks' time is the genders. Real estate entrepreneur Wai Tung (Winston Chao) lives happily with his boyfriend Simon (Mitchell Lichtenstein), a physical therapist, in a brownstone in New York's Greenwich Village. They carry on pretty much like young marrieds the world over, all billing and cooing and teasing and nuzzling. The minor irritation in Wai's life is that his parents, traditional as 200-year-old oaks back on Taiwan, keep pressuring him to marry and produce offspring. He is married! He just hasn't broken the news and he's not about to.

But then the parents announce they will visit their son. Thus, he hastily arranges for a marriage of convenience to a destitute artist, Wei Wei (May Chin), living in one of his buildings. The point of the deception is to quickly get them off his back, while Simon retires to the role of roommate. On Wei Wei's part, marriage to a legal immigrant will earn her a treasured green card (a similar situation formed the basis of Peter Weir's underrated comedy "Green Card.")

Complications: The parents are smitten with Wei Wei and don't want to leave; then a seemingly kindly former servant of Wai Tung's father (who was a famous general in Taiwan's very tough little army) insists on providing a huge wedding banquet. Thus the harmless lie takes on a life of its own, becoming more and more gargantuan and demanding more and more energy in sustaining.

Some of this is funny and some of this isn't. Frankly, Simon's whining and bitchiness grew harder and harder to take over the too-long running time of the movie. May Chin, as Wei Wei, on the other hand, was very funny as the "It" girl of the movie, who would be the object of desire in a straight movie but something of a nuisance, given the orientation of this one.

If "The Wedding Banquet" has a secret virtue, it may be in its very banality. Dealing with materials that even five years ago might have seemed shocking, it doesn't even bother to treat them as unusual; it simply accepts them as commonplace, beyond even the slightest raising of the eyebrows.

"The Wedding Banquet"

Starring Winston Chao and May Chin

Directed by Ang Lee

Released by Samuel Goldwyn

Rated R

** 1/2

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