Fifteen years ago, director Jeffrey Blitz kicked off his career with the hit documentary Spellbound, which brought audiences into the high-stakes world of spelling bees, following eight competitors on the road to the 1999 National Spelling Bee. The kids were all outcasts, products of hard-driving parents who pushed them to memorize words like "hellebore" and "seguidilla" and study their lingual roots like thickly bespectacled Talmudic scholars. But when they got together for the big event, they had all these specific qualities in common and experienced a social ease and camaraderie that eluded them in everyday life.
Blitz's insight into these types of characters would later extend to his feature debut, Rocket Science, about the brainiac savagery of high-school debate teams, and to his frequent direction of the NBC sitcom The Office, which gathered a motley collection of white-collar drones in Scranton, Pennsylvania.
It also makes him the ideal choice to direct the new comedy Table 19, about the misfits and undesirables who populate the farthermost corner of a wedding reception. They alternately describe themselves as "the invisible table" or the table for people who should have RSVP-ed with regrets and sent something nice off the registry. To the extent they're acknowledged at all, they are treated like mutants.
Table 19 seems like a surefire proposition. Blitz wrote the script from a concept he developed with Jay and Mark Duplass, who made their names on chronicles of middle-class awkwardness, from their DIY debut The Puffy Chair to their HBO series Togetherness. And it reunites Blitz with the multi-talented Anna Kendrick, whose career took shape after her breakthrough performance as a wound-up debater in Rocket Science. Yet the observational qualities of Spellbound and the Duplass' best work are abandoned, here, in favor of stock characters and deeply contrived subplots. As a result, the subcultures that develop so naturally in Blitz's other work never take form.
The energy level is conspicuously low from the start, as if paced to the half-hearted '80s covers that the wedding band grinds out all night. Blitz labors to bring the various parties to the reception, starting with Eloise McGarry (Kendrick), who would have been at the head table if the bride's brother, Teddy (Wyatt Russell), hadn't dumped her a couple months earlier. Her table-mates run the gamut from family outcasts to distant friends: Walter (Stephen Merchant), a spacey ex-convict who tries to pass himself off as a "successful business"; Renzo (Tony Revolori, of The Grand Budapest Hotel), a fur-tie-wearing teenager who's trying to end his virginity; Bina and Jerry (Lisa Kudrow and Craig Robinson), a pair of diner-owners whose marriage is stuck in a rut; and Jo (June Squibb), a seemingly sweet-natured older woman who was once Teddy and the bride's nanny.
There's little evidence in Table 19 that a looser, more improvisational approach to the reception, like Robert Altman's A Wedding or the ensemble raunch of Bridesmaids, would have yielded a better film, because the group chemistry is stilted so much of the time. But the surprise of Table 19 — especially coming from the Duplasses, who prize spontaneity — is how loudly the gears of the story clank away. Rather than see where the afternoon and evening takes them, the characters bail on the reception fairly early and wander around the resort, with each coming to terms with whatever personal crisis is eating away at them.
Table 19 finally starts to cohere when the group decides to prank Teddy for betraying Eloise, but the plan is abandoned almost as soon as it's proposed, and they're left to mope around the premises, together or in pairs. Though Blitz was among the first to recognize Kendrick's immense talent, he reduces her to an off-the-rack rom-com flibbertigibbet, doomed to embarrass herself relentlessly until fate plays its hand. Of the other actors, Squibb, so memorably dyspeptic in Nebraska, does what she can with the standard granny-with-the-pot-in-her-purse role, but even she can't escape a maudlin subplot of her own.
Comedy and drama are toggled like a light switch, and the off-again/on-again flipping keeps Table 19 from getting any kind of flow going. Blitz offers up these characters as problems to be solved, one by one, rather than a more organic coming-together of marginalized strangers. At a certain point, the awkwardness behind the camera grows more pronounced than the awkwardness in front of it.