If Steven Spielberg was destined to become a director, Brian De Palma stands at the other end of the spectrum of artistic self-realization. The young De Palma nearly made his way through Columbia University as a physicist before Citizen Kane and Vertigo changed his life. He enrolled at freshly-coed Sarah Lawrence College as a grad student in theater, where he cultivated influences such as Godard, Hitchcock and Antonioni. He also looked to Sarah Lawrence's drama teacher Wilford Leach, and when fellow student Cynthia Munroe used her family's wealth to fund a film, De Palma got the chance to test his film school techniques in a no-risk environment.
As such, The Wedding Party does not aim particularly high, particularly for a director who later expressed a desire to become "the American Godard." De Palma split credit for directing, writing and producing with Leach and Munroe, but it's fairly obvious that each chiefly fulfilled one role. Munroe surprisingly did not fund the film to give herself a vehicle, appearing only in a cameo. Despite my inexperience with De Palma and the fact that Munroe never did anything else, I cannot imagine her impacting the direction, and her involvement would seem to go scarcely farther than providing capital. Leach clearly handled the script and the cast, arranging dialogue as a series of tableaux of character actors gesticulating and speaking in believable but slightly goofy accents as they move through the set -- an island estate that emulates the old Hollywood sets, the kind that were simply projections of what theater designers always wanted to see. Leach doesn't particularly care for the story, doesn't care to tie the image of the bride-to-be's wealthy, isolated family into a larger film or even into the prospective groom's perception of them; he just likes to see actors doing their thing.
The characters typically assault Charlie (Charles Pfluger) with sexist warnings about marriage: a friend vociferously carries on about how "great men" were always hounded, occasionally undone, by devoting themselves to a woman, and an old man (one of his fiancée's family) flatly describes the ennui of wedlock like a dead-eyed veteran who's seen too much to get emotional over the "horror." They blend into one insufferable blob, and though we see Charlie come to despise them, Leach does not coach his cast into any sort of complexity, and the occasional discussions of the sexual revolution and Vietnam are lost in the crush of its boring dialogue. For all the wacky personalities, few stand out, among them Robert De Niro in his first screen role (he plays Charlie's best friend as the same sort of irascible, impossibly charming lunkhead we'd see retooled in Mean Streets) and Judy Thomas as a nasally wallflower who finds herself the target of a drunken Charlie's advances as the pressure of the impending wedding to Josephine (Jill Clayburgh in her own debut, sadly underused) and her family gets to him.
However, for all the staid tedium of Leach's script and coaching, The Wedding Party is occasionally entertaining, something entirely attributable to De Palma, which gives me hope for this retrospective: that he could wring some laughs out of what on paper is a toxic failure of farcical comedy is a testament to his giddy, shameless reliance upon the tricks he picked up in classes. He opens the film almost as a silent movie, with an audio track poorly laid over slapstick played in triple time as Charlie disembarks a boat to take a car to the Fish estate, and title cards appear throughout the picture. But De Palma shifts gears when he arrives at the mansion, playing the initial looks of Josephine's family in slow motion (a reflection on how dull the next 40 minutes or so are), only to employ jump cuts shortly thereafter as Charlie meets and greets to reflect how we simply shake hands and move on when introduced to large groups. It's a quietly perceptive bit of editing that speaks to an understanding of human interaction that's almost too good for the rest of the picture.
De Palma's sly sense of slapstick, filtered through a postmodern lens at times, pumps energy into the last act of the film after the first hour nearly made me fall asleep. He speeds up the wedding dinner as a cheeky way of showing how quickly the guests -- especially Charlie -- knock back champagne. He reveals the difference between Charlie's simple upbringing and Josephine's massive, aristocratic family by placing the names of all her relatives into a single title card, such that they jumble and blot out the screen, while poor Charlie has only his father to see him wed. De Palma also handles the ending foot chase well, where the two friends who warned him of marriage for the entire film suddenly track down a fleeing Charlie to force him to marry.
He's still clearly got issues to work out: much of the middle section of the film is interminable, so instantly forgettable I feel as though I watched two short films (the beginning 20 minutes and the final 20 minutes) and took a break in-between. But those moments where he does click are lovely and chipper, full of the sort of spunk befitting a young student itching to make his first full movie. Having taken the most cursory of glances at some of the titles I'll be watching as I move through his filmography, I find something delightful about The Wedding Party, which did not receive a release for six years after its completion in 1963, at last finding distribution through Troma Entertainment, that most legendary of schlock-meisters. But there isn't any of the bloody De Palma to be found here, only an unsure but undoubtedly talented young man testing the waters, and if the form had a bit more substance his style would be all the more impressive. Still, it's a glorified student film, made before his graduation from Sarah Lawrence, so for any aspect to be fairly realized deserves credit. I shall be very interested indeed to see where he goes from here.