Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Road Comedy: White Wedding

When Elvis and Ayanda tie the knot, it will not just be a wedding. It will be a microcosm of contemporary South Africa. The groom is Zulu, the bride is Xhosa, and the best man Tswana. There might even be some Afrikaner guests, who will be surprised as anyone to be there. However, Elvis has to get there in time for it to happen. Naturally, events conspire against him in Jann Turner’s road comedy White Wedding (trailer here), South Africa’s official 2009 submission for best foreign language Oscar consideration, which opens this Friday in New York.

Elvis is earnestly devoted to Ayanda, but for some reason he entrusts his safe arrival to Tumi, his aging playboy best man. Unfortunately, a run-in with a jealous ex sets in motion a string of complications that have them hopelessly lost and perilously late. It hardly helps Elvis’s stress level when Tumi insists on picking up Rose, a very white British hitchhiker. When they breakdown in a less than inviting Afrikaner community things look bad, but remember, this is a melting pot comedy.

Indeed, Wedding is a refreshing departure from many recent South African film exports, which tend to be either highly politicized or grittily violent. Instead, it offers a vision of middle class diversity and harmony. Frankly, it is kind of sad Wedding’s style of inclusive light comedy has been so scarce in South African cinema, but its domestic box office success should spawn a welcome new trend. Of course, the “get-me-to-the-church-on-time” storyline is about as predictable as one would expect, but Turner’s execution is rather crisp, never letting the film wallow in sentimentality.

A veteran of South African television, Turner is the daughter of the late anti-apartheid activist Rick Turner and the step-daughter of executive producer and best-selling novelist Ken Follett, who has unusually prominent billing for an EP. (Oddly, both Follett and Rick Turner’s most famous books happened to be titled The Eye of the Needle.) Still, Wedding was definitely a multiracial effort, co-written with Turner’s two principal actors Kenneth Nkosi and Rapulana Seiphemo, with whom she worked on a South African soap opera in the late 1990’s.

There is indeed a nice sense of rapport between Nkosi and Seiphemo. The former is appropriately earnest as the harried groom, while the latter is credibly rakish as the best man. In fact, Nkosi has some effective scenes chewing him out for his responsibility and commitment issues. Turner also handles the budding attraction between Tumi and Rose (played by an engaging Jodie Whittaker) quite deftly, acknowledging its significance but not belaboring the racial issues.

Despite some game performances, it is hard to be shocked by Wedding’s compulsively feel-good conclusion. Of course, most people do not really go to the movies to be surprised. They want that happy ending. Endearing in its way, Wedding opens this Friday (9/3) in New York at the AMC Village 7 and Empire 25.