As a creator of dramatic comedy, Alan Alda is not about to rival Woody Allen (or, for that matter, the makers of thirtysomething), yet he works in a way that’s distinctly pleasurable: He writes juicy-shticky dialogue and gives his actors plenty of breathing room. Betsy’s Wedding is typical Alda fare — a glorified sitcom about premarital jitters — but it’s less precious than his other movies (The Four Seasons, Sweet Liberty, A New Life), and Alda has a knack for undermining his own clichés. He plays Eddie Hopper, an architect determined to give his daughter (Molly Ringwald) a ritzy, show-stopping wedding. Trouble is, she’s a postmodern girl who believes in marriage but has no patience for all the attendant hoopla.
At first Alda seems to be doing a variation on the 1950 comedy Father of the Bride, in which Spencer Tracy (in a classic performance) played an addled middle-class patriarch struggling to survive his daughter’s elaborate — and expensive — wedding. We’re geared to expect much fatherly harrumphing over the Oedipal heartbreak of losing a daughter. But Alda surprises us in small ways; he has made a mid-life-crisis movie that’s more silver lining than cloud. The film gently satirizes the messiness of modern matrimony — the logistical nightmares and ethnic and class tensions that can turn the meeting of two families into low-rent tribal warfare. Alda is sly enough not to overplay the messiness. It’s just there, and the film, which opens up into half a dozen swirling subplots, becomes a celebration of diversity.
Alda has given free rein to an appealing group of actors. Joe Pesci is quite funny as Eddie’s rich (but cheap) philandering brother-in-law, and Catherine O’Hara as Pesci’s wife, performs with a great, vengeful gleam. Ringwald, looking boyish but sexy in a Jean Seberg haircut, is at her most vibrant as the unblushingly matter-of-fact bride.
The movie’s most delightful scenes center on the fairy-tale romance between Ringwald’s older sister (Ally Sheedy), a police officer whose career is ruining her love life, and the young mobster (Anthony LaPaglia) who falls for her. In recent years, Sheedy has lost her way as an actress (she seems to have contracted a terminal case of the cutes), but here, looking fleshier and more womanly than before, she plays her first convincing adult; her beauty is highlighted by a new, careworn soulfulness. And LaPaglia steals every scene he’s in as the ridiculously romantic Mafia clown Stevie Dee, a ”classy” stud who speaks with an air of such contrived formality that he never, ever uses contractions. LaPaglia, who suggests a puppyish, brain-dead Alec Baldwin, takes a character who’s nothing more than an ethnic stick figure and gives him a goofy inner life. The performance is just a trifle, but a delicious one.