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posted: 4/25/2013 9:00 PM

Big laughs, big hearts in 'Big Wedding'

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  • Bebe (Susan Sarandon) gets a leg up on her live-in lover Don (Robert De Niro) as a priest (Robin Williams) tries to keep a straight face in the funny and poignant "The Big Wedding."

    Bebe (Susan Sarandon) gets a leg up on her live-in lover Don (Robert De Niro) as a priest (Robin Williams) tries to keep a straight face in the funny and poignant "The Big Wedding."

  • Video: "The Big Wedding" trailer


"The Big Wedding" produces big laughs from big hearts.

It effortlessly pivots from hilarity to sentiment, often hitting the funny bone and plucking the heart strings simultaneously.

If you could imagine an R-rated version of the poignantly warm-and-fuzzy TV series "Parenthood," that might come close to capturing the essence of Justin Zackham's Americanized remake of the French comedy "Mon Frere Se Marie" ("My Brother is Getting Married").

More accurately, "The Big Wedding" merges two other American remakes of French comedies, 1989's "Cousins" and 1996's "The Birdcage." All celebrate the diversity and craziness of families with warm and gentle insights, capped by delightfully comical situations that skillfully sidestep the stale conventions of most Hollywood movies.

Zackham, who wrote the disappointing screenplay to Rob Reiner's artless ode to self-centeredness in "The Bucket List," supplies some snappy, thoughtful exchanges here.

Plus, he forces Robert De Niro out of his autopilot persona of late, pushing the Hollywood icon to create his freshest, most personable comic character since his hit man in "Analyze This."

De Niro plays Don Griffin, an artist and quasi-failed patriarch of a broken once-Catholic family. He divorced his wife, Ellie (Diane Keaton), of 20 years to hook up with her former best friend Bebe (Susan Sarandon, who proves smoking is still allowed in movie theaters).

Ellie and Don have three grown children: attorney Lyla (Katherine Heigl), doctor Jared (Topher Grace) and adopted Harvard graduate Alejandro (Ben Barnes).

Now, with Alejandro's upcoming wedding to his perky fiancee Missy (Amanda Seyfried), he asks his parents for a big favor:

Will they pretend to still be married so that his ultraconservative Catholic, Guatumalan biological mother Madonna (Patricia Rae) will bless their very Catholic wedding when she arrives?

(See? Shades of the duplicitous engaged couple attempting to fool conservative future in-laws in "The Birdcage.")

"The Big Wedding" offers much more than a rehash of "The Birdcage" plot.

Lyla is going through her own crises and family issues, first with a husband she has dumped after a bitter argument, second with a father who betrayed her when he stepped out on her mother.

Jared, the only sitcomish character in the family, is an unlikely 29-year-old virgin waiting for the right woman to be his special lady.

Cue the arrival of Alejandro's biological sister Nuria (Ana Ayora), a fetching babe with no qualms about skinny-dipping in the Griffins' lake behind a sprawling luxury home in the woods.

This might be a good time to point out that "The Big Wedding" is one randy R-rated movie. It allows middle-aged characters (all AARP members, no doubt) to be as fixated on healthy sex as the young adults in their family, and not be used as the cheap butts of gross jokes and ageist disrespect.

In fact, "The Big Wedding" is smart enough to tailor a big chunk of its story to experienced, older characters who've lived through heartbreaks, disappointments and self-doubts and come out the other side a little bit wiser and more resilient about relationships than their younger counterparts.

If Barnes' Alejandro is the least developed of the Griffin kids, and Robin Williams is woefully underutilized as the local Catholic priest, that's OK.

"The Big Wedding" boasts a heart-rending reconciliation scene between Lyla and her father that, like this whole movie, testifies to the awe-filled, overpowering force of love.

"What kind of love are you feeling right now?" Williams' priest asks Ellie after the wedding.

"All of them," she replies.

The only thing missing from this scene would be the Beatles' singing "All you need is ..."

Well, you know.

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