Consider two kinds of mother, or rather two extreme varieties of maternal fantasy: Mother Teresa vs. Martha Stewart. Each archetype plays expertly on a tempting fancy within the female psyche. In After the Wedding, Michelle Williams plays a selfless, almost celestial being who mothers the children of the world without regard for her own comfort by running an orphanage in Calcutta. On the other side of the world, Julianne Moore is the embodiment of leaning in; she’s a rich corporate titan who provides spectacularly for her three children, all of whom seem lovely and well cared for in their elegant suburban mansion. These two mothering styles are about to collide.
Isabel (Williams), who in effect is the mother of a panicky eight-year-old boy who lives in the orphanage, is torn when she is called to New York City to give an account of herself to the benefactor who is funding the children’s home. That benefactor turns out to be Theresa (Moore), the founder of a successful ad-placement firm who is about to sell her company and make many millions in the process. How many is many? She might have an extra two, or even 20, to give Isabel for the orphans. To bring home a suitcase full of funds, Isabel will have to perform in a kind of audition, in more ways than she knows.
Isabel arrives in New York as Theresa’s oldest child, Grace (Abby Quinn), is about to get married at the posh home Theresa shares with her impossibly warm and thoughtful artist husband (Billy Crudup), so while details of the philanthropic gift are being worked out, Theresa invites Isabel along to the wedding as well. Inviting a total stranger to one’s daughter’s wedding at the last minute seems like a strange move, but things are about to get far stranger. What’s going on here?
A drama offering actors the caliber of Moore, Williams, and Crudup is an enticing prospect, but the movie winds up sinking into a pudding of emotion. It’s so contrived it amounts to the equivalent of an exceptionally glossy episode of Days of Our Lives. The film’s pedigree is impeccable: It’s based on a 2006 Danish movie of the same title by Susanne Bier in which the two lead characters were men. Switching the sexes is a fine idea, allowing the gravitational pull of maternal feelings to power the story, but the plot is so artificial that it’s hard to get invested in these thinly drawn characters.
Though much hugging and weeping is involved in sorting out the hidden mess within Theresa’s family, my objection is not to the emoting of the actors. Moore and Williams have each made a specialty of playing emotionally fragile women, and rarely does either of them put a foot wrong. Moore gets most of the juiciest stuff — she and her husband, Bart Freundlich, produced the film, which Freundlich directed — but she doesn’t abuse the privilege of being the center of attention and is surprisingly affecting in a climactic late scene. We see Theresa in every mode from curt businesswoman raining invective on underlings to martini-swilling negotiator to attentive mom, and Moore keeps shifting gears with aplomb.
Williams has a less interesting part. It obliges her to do lots of hokey looking-back-in-time sequences in which she reminisces about her fulfilling life in Calcutta, which is filmed in such golden hues that Freundlich seems to think of it as some sort of tourist resort. Crudup, whose hunky-sculptor type is an unfortunate cliché, does the best he can with a barely imagined character. Quinn, the young actress who plays the daughter getting married, does not belong in the same movie with any of these pros and makes the least of several critical scenes.
Remaking After the Wedding was worth a shot, and I wouldn’t fault a movie for trying to deliver genuinely emotional beats. Making them work is the challenge, though; if the script is unconvincing, the best actors in the world are not going to save it. At some level, Freundlich seems to be aware that he isn’t quite selling his plot twists, which is why he spends so much time lingering on beautiful scenery and enticing home decor. If you can’t deliver a convincing story, at least give the people some pretty pictures.