The first version of the script for “The Wedding Ringer,” a new comedy about a friendless schlub who rents a best man for his big day, was written back in 2002, a fact that partly accounts for the whiff of stale leftovers that hangs over the movie from start to finish.
Several films have indeed been there, done that, or variations of that, in the 12 years since, including “Bridesmaids” and “The Hangover,” which all but redefined the pre-marriage debauchery sub-genre.
But a certain derivative, deja-vu quality isn’t the only sin this lazy, numbingly routine, very occasionally amusing comedy commits. An odd-couple bromance spiked with gross-out humor of a mostly unimaginative sort, “The Wedding Ringer,” starring Kevin Hart, largely fails to accomplish its most basic mission: making us laugh.
Directed by Jeremy Garelick from a screenplay he wrote with Jay Lavender, “The Wedding Ringer” opens with Doug (Josh Gad) nervously cold calling potential best men in preparation for his upcoming nuptials to Gretchen (“The Big Bang Theory’s” Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting). Alas, Doug is soft-spoken and overweight, which, in testosterone-drunk comedies like this one, means that he has no friends. Soon enough, he’s employing professional best man Jimmy Callahan (Hart) and a rag-tag team of groomsmen, each of whom is an ostensibly yuk-worthy “type”: the Fat Guy (played by Jorge Garcia of “Lost” fame), the Asian (Aaron Takahashi), the Redneck, the Beefcake (with a stutter — even funnier!), etc., etc.
As Doug and his homies-for-hire get acquainted, we’re treated to a variety of gags, including a boy getting hit in the gut with a baseball and a man breaking his own arm for show, as well as jokes about rape, child molestation and testicular deformities. Politically incorrect, lowest-common-denominator comedy and body horror humor can be sublime when the timing is sharp and the staging inspired. But here, almost everything feels anemic.
Garelick and Lavender consistently flirt with outrageousness without ever going all the way. Even a bachelor party set piece in which the term “service dog” is given stomach-turning new meaning (peanut butter lovers, be warned) feels half-hearted and half-thought-out; you giggle because of the situation’s bullying perversity, not because the execution is actually funny.
Slightly more amusing are some of the interactions between Doug and his future in-laws, thanks in large part to the skill of good actors slumming for a paycheck: Ken Howard as Gretchen’s macho dad, Mimi Rogers as her tightly wound mom, Olivia Thirlby as her too-cool-for-school younger sister and a sadly underused Cloris Leachman as her loopy grandma. If the movie has a high point, it’s surely the family dinner sequence that devolves into total chaos, culminating in Granny going up in flames. Moments like that one, as well as another that finds Doug and Jimmy hitting the dance floor at a wedding — breaking out moves ranging from hip-hop to disco to Charleston with incongruous flair — momentarily breathe some much-needed comic life into “The Wedding Ringer.”
Too bad it’s not enough for Doug and Jimmy to have fun; they’re forced to learn something in the process, too, as suggested by the perfunctory heart-to-hearts the two have in the film’s third act, acoustic guitars strumming in the background.
Hart offers a more restrained spin on his usual high-pitched, high-strung persona, but the role is essentially watered-down shtick. Meanwhile, Gad (who played a sex addict in “Thanks for Sharing”) isn’t given much to do except look dim and dejected, the neutered straight man to Hart’s neutered real-life cartoon.
The rather obvious lesson here is that in the age of Judd Apatow and smarter raunch, it takes more than fat dudes, penis jokes and dogs with wandering tongues to make us guffaw in spite of ourselves. Frankly, we’ve seen it all before.