The characters in Table 19 are all likable—there’s not one I wouldn’t enjoy a casual hangout with. Unfortunately, likable characters alone don’t guarantee good storytelling, and such is the case here. A few truly laugh-out-loud moments aside, Table 19 is more feeble than sturdy.
Anna Kendrick is Eloise, an underachieving twenty-something who decides to attend her best friend’s wedding despite having been recently dumped by the bride’s brother/Best Man. Demoted from Maid of Honor to mere guest as a result, she finds herself seated at Table 19, the table for people “who should have known to send regrets, but not before sending something nice off the registry.” The others too dense to realize this include the Kepps, a diner-owning couple from Ohio (Lisa Kudrow and Craig Robinson); Jo, the bride’s former nanny (June Squibb); Renzo (Tony Revolori), the awkward high school son of family friends, and Walter (Stephen Merchant), the father-of-the-groom’s money-embezzling British cousin, recently out of jail. Once they all realize that they’re at the loser table, they form a bond of mutual indignation, united around the task of cheering up Eloise (who’s not exactly over her ex).
Since the film takes place almost entirely at the wedding reception, there’s only so much that can happen, and I was pleasantly surprised that the writers didn’t throw in any outlandish schemes or hijinks. (Blessedly, there are no heists, prostitutes, or car chases.) The best thing about Table 19 is Table 19, that is, the six disparate weirdos inadvertently assembled and forced to endure one of society’s most potentially arduous events. Anna Kendrick is, per usual, Anna Kendrick, which is not necessarily a bad thing. She’s a cute but believable underdog, and her comedic timing and mannerisms are impeccable. Lisa Kudrow and Craig Robinson also play exaggerated versions of themselves, and are mostly funny as a bickering married couple. June Squibb, who played Bruce Dern’s scene-stealing wife in Nebraska, is spunky and pot-smoking, which has unfortunately become a bit of a cliche for elderly women in comedies.
However, the real standouts of the crew are Revolori (seen previously in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel) and especially Merchant (seen most recently in Logan). Both have a disarming earnestness that’s simultaneously original and hilarious. Merchant’s wispy figure and timid gait are amusing on their own (he’s 6’7”), and his character’s complete lack of conventional conversational skills had the entire audience (including myself) laughing both heartily and consistently. He takes awkward to a new level and is somehow funny in a way I’ve never seen.
Cast aside, the problem with Table 19 is that it’s not quite enough of anything. At times it seems like an R-rated comedy without the R-rating; it wants to be funny in an Apatow way but is too meek. There’s not enough depth for it to succeed as a drama, and not enough romance for it to work as a rom-com. It’s not quirky enough to earn any offbeat indie cred. And though, as the story develops, it’s actually somewhat unpredictable, the execution is uneven, so that when the “payoff” happens, it doesn’t feel earned.
I found myself thinking that this film would’ve been more successful five or even three years ago. What’s odd is that the reason Table 19 doesn’t really work has almost as much to do with the world it’s entering into as it does with the film itself. “Indie” films (which technically simply means films that are produced outside of a major film studio) have now become their own genre with their own conventions, and “indie” character attributes, from fashion to cultural tastes to lifestyle attitudes, have been thoroughly co-opted by the mainstream.
What once qualified as “quirky and offbeat” is no longer quirky and offbeat, or rather, “quirky and offbeat” have become a new norm. When I think of other, better films that have a similar tone or aim (Drinking Buddies from 2013, or Safety Not Guaranteed from 2012), I wonder if they’d pass muster today. I guess I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but our world, in particular the current political climate, has made me demand something more, or at least different, from movies, whether that’s nuanced commentary, honest reflection, or simply good-old fashioned escapism. Personally, my greatest dilemma might still be how to date successfully or curb my spending habits, but globally, what I’ll call my “millennial angst” no longer seems as important or as interesting to explore. This isn’t to say I want all my art heavy with a side of social commentary, but it is to say it can’t operate naively in a vacuum (or if does, it’d better be visionary).
What Table 19 offers is a timid pat on the back, and the lighthearted reassurance that “we’re all just awkwardly figuring out this thing called life together.” It isn’t a bad use of 87 minutes, I’m just not sure it should be an intentional one.
Rachel Woldum is barista and bartender currently living in Minneapolis. An MFA in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University, Rachel also writes a TV column for Southern Minnesota Scene, and develops comic book scripts for Cartoon Studios.