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''Four Weddings and a Funeral'' a surprise hit

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The country that gave American moviegoers A Room With a View, Enchanted April, and Howards End has done it again: The veddy British romantic comedy Four Weddings and a Funeral is the most unexpected hit of the spring. Check out any showing and you’ll see a movie house packed with old and young, couples and singles, all laughing uproariously as the handsome yet self-deprecating Hugh Grant-surrounded by madly quipping friends-fights bad timing and fear of commitment in his pursuit of sophisticated American beauty Andie MacDowell.

There, however, Four Weddings‘ resemblance to its genteel British forerunners ends. This is no Classics Illustrated love story: In one scene, Grant, who has slept twice with his unrequited love, blurts out his feelings as she shops for the dress she’ll be wearing when she marries another man: ”In the words of David Cassidy…while he was still with the Partridge Family, I think I love you.”

”As British films go,” says Tim Bevan, the film’s co-executive producer, ”it’s not Merchant Ivory, not angst-ridden streets of London. While it’s slightly old-fashioned, the first 10 words in the film are f — -, which helps get the audience into it.”

And get into it they have. Unlike any previous specialized (read: upscale urban art-house) hit, Four Weddings, in its sixth week, became the No. 1 movie in the country. ”It’s playing in Lafayette, Louisiana, and Davenport, Iowa,” & gloats Russell Schwartz, president of Gramercy Pictures, the film’s distributor. ”It’s working in towns in Florida that sex, lies, and videotape (the 1989 benchmark independent hit) never got to.” That feat, suggests Schwartz, may have to do with timing. ”After a winter when snow blanketed the East Coast, it’s the first spring movie with pretty people in pretty clothes. And people who are getting married are thinking about weddings in June. It resonates in every small town in America.”

Four Weddings widened to 900 screens only last week, but it’s already grossed $24.7 million, a spectacular sum for a low-budget foreign art film with one name American actress in a cast of British unknowns, and it could top out at twice that. Fueling the film’s success is not only its uniqueness in a marketplace overcrowded with weak youth comedies but a winning mix of star elements: comedy screenwriter Richard Curtis (Mr. Bean, The Tall Guy), dramatic director Mike Newell (Dance With a Stranger, Enchanted April), and, most prominently, MacDowell and Grant, the couple smiling so radiantly in all those advertisements. Shrewdly, Gramercy made its stars linchpins of a national ad campaign that cost twice the film’s $5 million production budget.

While the movie’s universal themes have certainly helped it in mainstream America, Four Weddings had at its helm a group of hip Londoners who were bent on making a piece about people much like themselves. Writer Curtis, 37, says he began working on the script three years ago when he realized, after looking at his datebook, that he had attended 65 weddings in 11 years. In writing the film, Curtis sought to ”modernize some of those old Hollywood romantic comedies,” even though, as he admits, ”we do end with a kiss in the rain.”

After Newell, 51, agreed to direct Four Weddings, Curtis labored for another year. ”I come from a school where making it funny is what matters,” he says. ”Mike was obsessed with keeping it real. Every character, no matter how small, has a story, not just three funny lines. It’s a romantic film about love and friendship that swims in a sea of jokes.”

The cast wasn’t always sure that moviegoers would find Four Weddings so appealing. During filming last summer in Hertfordshire, after a hay-fever- stricken Grant had delivered a best-man speech intended to induce hilarity to a deathly silent wedding reception, he voiced strong doubts. ”I’m an eternal pessimist,” he says. ”I thought I was atrocious. I was terrified by Andie-she’s so attractive and such a big star. Getting a scene out was a miracle. I was planning my new career as a shelf filler at Woolworth’s.”

Grant admits he didn’t fully appreciate Newell’s direction until after he saw the film. ”He seemed to be giving direction against what I thought were the natural beats of the comedy,” he recalls. ”He was making a film with texture, grounding it, playing the truths rather than the gags.”

Despite Grant’s worries, he and MacDowell had struck the right note from the start. In auditions, they ”sailed the lines right,” says Bevan. ”The movie completely suited everything Hugh was able to do as an actor-it allowed all his charm, wit, timing, humor, beauty, and goodwill to come out.” And, adds Curtis, ”Andie had a basic sweetness and goodness of heart, as well as being smart.”

For inspiration, MacDowell says she used Katharine Hepburn. ”This is the kind of role she would have played 40 years earlier,” she says. ”She was forthright, the one with power and intelligence and the guts to say and do exactly what she wanted.”

While everyone has a theory about the film’s success, it’s probably the blend of romance and comedy that makes Four Weddings work. ”It’s a film with true wit,” suggests Hollywood screenwriter Terry Curtis Fox (Fortress). ”It’s what the Seinfeld crowd, who usually feel they have nothing to see, want to go to the movies for. It’s a movie for people who want to be hip and married.”

Four Weddings comes at just the right time for Gramercy, a joint venture created a year and a half ago by Universal Pictures and the European-backed PolyGram Filmed Entertainment. In the last year, most of Gramercy’s nine films-including Steven Soderbergh’s Depression drama King of the Hill, the ’70s comedy Dazed and Confused, and the noir thriller Romeo Is Bleeding-won warm reviews but little business. Four Weddings has put the company on the map. “With Four Weddings we did the most difficult thing,” says Michael Kuhn, president of PolyGram’s film division. “Take a small movie with a funny title and build it from five screens to 900 into a hit. It’s not Maverick, with two of the biggest stars in the world and some $24 million (in marketing and release spending)-that’s easy.”

After Four Weddings premiered like gangbusters at the Sundance Film Festival in January, Schwartz decided to go for broke; he moved the picture’s release up to March 9, flipping its opening date with that of the less commercial BackBeat to give Four Weddings a clear playing field until the summer season’s start. In TV spots, Gramercy pushed the film’s lush look and sexy humor, hoping to attract men put off by the title, but print ads sold women a love story. “We didn’t want it to look too wacky,” Schwartz explains. “We wanted two pretty people and some copy.”

In the wake of Four Weddings‘ success, Hollywood has become high on MacDowell, 35, whose mettle as a romantic comedian, established by Green Card and Groundhog Day, has been confirmed-though her next role, in director Diane Keaton’s drama Unstrung Heroes, will be serious. “Once the picture worked, she legitimized it as a crossover film, not all British, the same way Jamie Lee Curtis did for A Fish Called Wanda,” says Twentieth Century Fox senior executive vice president Tom Sherak.

But Four Weddings‘ wild card has been the Hugh Grant star-is-born story. During an exhausting 12-city public-appearance tour, the 33-year-old Brit was often described as the next David Niven or Cary Grant, and his presence in three other recent films-Sirens, Bitter Moon, and The Remains of the Day– helped pique media interest. Bowing to Grant’s enhanced marquee value, Miramax recently pasted his face onto its Sirens ads opposite Elle Macpherson; some have even floated him as a candidate to play James Bond. “He got more press than would have been usual,” says Landmark Theaters vice president Gary Meyer. “He’s the matinee idol of the moment.”

Grant went along for the grueling ride without knowing what was in store. “I was so nice when I started the tour,” he says, “and so nasty when I finished. The people in San Francisco think I’m heaven and the people in Atlanta think I’m a monster.”

The Four Weddings phenomenon means Grant can now afford to turn down “450 romantic comedies, all with weddings in them,” plus one role that he considered, then turned down: Paul McCartney in director Allison Anders’ Paul Is Dead. (The independent project almost fell apart without him.) While he’s just finished Newell’s next film, An Awfully Big Adventure, in which he plays a nasty actor-director in a ’40s Dublin theater troupe, Grant is still seeking the right script to shoot next fall. And although the offers he’s fielding are now coming in well over the $1 million mark, he is decidedly wary of America’s showbiz enticements; he turned down a chance to host Saturday Night Live when it conflicted with Four Weddings‘ London premiere, and of an upcoming week in + Hollywood he says, “It’s terrifying, meeting heads of studios for lunch. I shan’t know what to say or wear. I’ll really get going on the arugula salad.”

As for its larger impact on the industry, Four Weddings‘ success is helping to push Hollywood studios, already receptive after the hits When Harry Met Sally , Groundhog Day, and Sleepless in Seattle, to jump even faster into making more romances. But don’t count the imitators just yet. “We all get romantic comedies,” insists MCA Motion Picture Group chairman Tom Pollock. “We just don’t do that many that work. It requires charm.” And that may prove to be the year’s rarest import. (Additional reporting by Gregg Kilday and Kate Meyers)

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