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It’s a rough ride to the altar at the movies

The irony of Hollywood’s fascination with weddings has always been that as much as it loves the romance of a wedding, it also loves the romance of a disrupted or destroyed wedding.
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

The irony of Hollywood’s fascination with weddings has always been that as much as it loves the romance of a wedding, it also loves the romance of a disrupted or destroyed wedding. This durable genre gets another entrant with “Made Of Honor,” opening May 2.

The trailers in heavy rotation reveal that the film stars Patrick Dempsey as a man who wakes up to his love for his best friend (Michelle Monaghan) just as she gets engaged to someone else, and he sets out to win her for himself. He is positioned to break up the wedding “from the inside,” as his friend urges, because his dear friend has chosen him to be her “maid of honor.” So naturally, he will reward her with the ultimate demonstration of love: destroying her wedding.

(It should be noted as a bit of an aside that the movie’s expectation that jaws will drop at the idea that a man would be someone's “maid of honor” is a little old-fashioned. It’s not all that uncommon for a man to serve as a woman’s attendant anymore, and there’s certainly no reason such a man would be referred to as a “maid of honor.” This makes the entire guffawing “does this mean he’s a GIRL?” joke that seems to permeate the movie into something of a non-starter, really.)

Movies that include preparations for a wedding that perhaps should not take place because another suitor awaits are nothing new. “The Graduate” is probably the best-known example, climaxing as it does with Dustin Hoffman’s famous fists pounding on the glass at the church where his beloved Katherine Ross is to be married. She ultimately abandons her wedding mid-ceremony, fleeing on a bus for what appears to be probably... a 50-50 chance at happiness. Maybe 40-60 against, at the worst.

Other examples abound: Sandra Bullock not quite marrying Peter Gallagher late in “While You Were Sleeping” because she really loves Bill Pullman; Hugh Grant not quite marrying Duckface in “Four Weddings and a Funeral” because he really loves Andie MacDowell; Reese Witherspoon not quite marrying... Patrick Dempsey, in fact, in “Sweet Home Alabama” because she really loves Josh Lucas. Throw in broken engagements that fall short of wedding interruptions, like Colin Firth’s in “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” and you could do nothing but watch betrothals implode for the rest of your romantic-comedy days.

Isn’t it romantic?Our romantic fixation with broken-up weddings is a little perverse. In reality, calling off a wedding at the very last minute would presumably be traumatic and sad, unless you’ve thrown yourself into it foolishly and without thought, which would detract from your status as a romantic hero. And once you’ve made the decision, called off the caterer, and sent everyone home, you might not be in the best frame of mind to make a decision about throwing yourself into another relationship. The idea that it would be comforting to have someone fall into your arms who was prepared to marry someone else 15 minutes ago isn’t entirely credible in Actual World, as charming as it is in Movie World.

There have been times when a savvy understanding of this fact has led to unexpected endings that subvert the cliché in a way that’s oddly satisfying. In some movies, when a wedding ultimately goes on in spite of whatever doubts have placed it in peril, the ending seems far more mature and interesting, if less dramatically swooning.

Julia Roberts utterly fails at breaking up Dermot Mulroney’s nuptials in “My Best Friend's Wedding,” and the ending plays as a very romantic one, even though there is, wisely, no cute hint of a new romantic prospect on the horizon for Roberts’ character when the credits roll. The film even dares to strongly suggest that trying to bust up someone’s wedding and snatch him away for yourself is, in most cases, a profound act of selfishness, and not of love. A person worth stealing away in the first place must have given it some serious thought before deciding to get married, so interfering is most likely not doing him any favors.

In the underrated and little-remembered “Forces Of Nature,” Ben Affleck’s tortured prospective groom spends the whole movie on a clear trajectory toward canceling his wedding to Maura Tierney to be with the free-spirited Sandra Bullock, only to realize at the very end that the nature of commitment is declining involvement with people you are sincerely attracted to, since of course, not pursuing the people you are not attracted to doesn’t require any commitment. The acknowledgment that Affleck’s character both loves his fiancée and has feelings for someone else, and that neither of those responses is false or inherently unhealthy, is a rare accomplishment of nuance.

Movies and television often struggle with this balance between marriage as a romantic ideal and marriage as a particularly dramatic obstacle to another relationship. “The Bridges Of Madison County” explored the soul-feeding joys of cheating on your husband with a stranger, and “Grey’s Anatomy” has created most of its headlining romances on the ashes of annihilated marriages that usually still existed when the parties got together.

Not having seen the movie, it’s difficult to say whether “Made Of Honor” will be part of the traditional of merrily using a woman’s broken wedding as a stepping stone to her next boyfriend, but the commercials certainly suggest as much. Perhaps, like “Enchanted” (Dempsey’s last movie), “Made Of Honor” will ease its own conscience by pairing the jilted with someone else. Perhaps it will reveal that the jilted was faithless and undeserving of sympathy.

But here were are again, watching ads in which a wedding is gleefully undermined by a saboteur who is obviously meant to inspire sympathy. Maybe he will, but maybe next time, we could find a hero who might get around to declaring himself when it’s not yet a choice between speaking now and forever holding your peace.