Regardless of how many ordinary, homespun guys he plays, Steve Martin remains a naturally stylized presence. When he has to express rage or exasperation or sheer happiness, it automatically comes out as a joke. That’s how his performer’s instincts are wired. (When he’s surprised, his eyes blast open so widely you can practically see an exclamation point forming over his head.) In Father of the Bride, a remake of the 1950 Spencer Tracy vehicle, Martin takes over Tracy’s role as the befuddled middle-class patriarch struggling to survive his daughter’s wedding. As in the original, the big event spins Dad into a freewheeling Oedipal tizzy. The joke is that he can’t handle the hoopla — or the rapidly expanding price tag — of marrying off his daughter because, deep down, he can’t bear to let her go.

This new Father of the Bride is little more than a domestic screwball sitcom, and that’s really all the original was, too. Yet Tracy’s classic performance, with its lived-in disgruntlement, its escalating bull-in-a-china-shop fury, had a bracing spontaneity. Each new situation — meeting his future son-in-law’s parents, decorating his living room for the reception — seemed to catch him completely off guard. The more desperately and furiously he groused, the more we knew he loved his daughter. Martin has all the externals down pat. When he meets the polite, handsome computer whiz (George Newbern) whom his radiant 22-year-old daughter (newcomer Kimberly Williams) is planning to wed, Martin’s scowling disgust is hilariously out of place; it’s obvious to the audience that the kids are a perfect match. Yet the script gives him only this one note to play. Without making any major mishaps, the movie begins to sag.

Director Charles Shyer works hard to keep things light. Martin Short shows up as the wedding coordinator, a pompadoured boob who speaks in a tossed salad of foreign accents. Perhaps because we’ve seen him do this sort of thing before, he seems more frantic and less amusing than usual. (B.D. Wong steals scenes as his assistant.) In the end, Shyer douses the comedy in teary sentiment. He has staged a wedding scene it would be hard not to cry at. This feel-good finale might feel even better, though, if it had any true connection to the pat, amiable, and rather dawdling farce that preceded it. B-

Father of the Bride
  • Movie
  • 105 minutes