Long Take: The Decoy Bride Charms a Rom-Com Skeptic

Viewed July 7, 2012

It is not yet apparent—but it soon will be—that I am not one for romantic comedies. While I can enjoy some of them, I much prefer romantic dramas, particularly those set in a bygone era. We tend to think of such narrative dramas as more plausible than their comedic counterparts. And with good reason. Comic writer, essayist, and actress Mindy Kaling put it best in The New Yorker, back in October of last year:

I like watching people fall in love onscreen so much that I can suspend my disbelief in the contrived situations that occur only in the heightened world of romantic comedies. I have come to enjoy the moment when the male lead, say, slips and falls right on top of the expensive wedding cake. I actually feel robbed when the female lead’s dress doesn’t get torn open at a baseball game while the JumboTron camera is on her. I regard romantic comedies as a subgenre of sci-fi, in which the world operates according to different rules than my regular human world. For me, there is no difference between Ripley from Alien and any Katherine Heigl character. They are equally implausible. They’re all participating in a similar level of fakey razzle-dazzle, and I enjoy every second of it.

I felt a sense of enlightenment upon first reading her observation about the romantic comedy. It is with her outlook on her favorite movie genre that I am able to approach—and even appreciate—examples from it. For this reason, I was able to enjoy Sheree Folkson’s The Decoy Bride (2011), though I admit that the setting and actors were the main draws. Spoilers ahead!

Kelly Macdonald stars as Katie NicAoidh, a thirty-two-year-old who gives up her dreams of making it in the big city (Edinburgh!) and returns home to Hegg, a fictional island located way out there in the Outer Hebrides. She leaves her cheating musician of a fiance behind, along with a soul-sucking job writing for an online men’s trousers catalogue (laying it on thick, eh?), to wallow in self-pity at her mother’s bed & breakfast establishment. Her romantic future looks bleak (she’s turned “vegan” when it comes to men), as she is the youngest of 75 island residents and the only single woman among them. Cue the arrival of her soul-mate! James Arber (a flappable David Tennant) is an up-and-coming “serious author” who is engaged to the superstar American actress Lara Tyler (Alice Eve). When the pestering cameras of paparazzi make it impossible for the couple to get married in private, Lara and her handlers (agent Michael Urie and his assistant Sally Phillips, who co-wrote the screenplay) arrange their super-secret nuptials on Hegg. Having glimpsed her arch-enemy, the paparazzo Marco (Federico Castelluccio), trawling the chapel, Lara runs away the morning of her wedding, leaving her agent, Steve (Urie), to devise a dubious plan: he hires Katie to pose as Lara during the ceremony, hoping to pass off the event as the couple’s wedding to the press (he doesn’t even let James in on it). Steve believes that if the press and public already think they’re married, then they will be able to wed privately, for real. Don’t you see why it’s best to think of the romantic comedy as a sub-genre of sci-fi?

Complications arise when Katie accidentally signs the register with her own name, rendering her marriage to James official. (Seriously, she thought Steve’s offer of £5000 was worth the trouble of breaking the law?) It’s worth mentioning here that they had met each other the day before: James, under an assumed name (to keep his wedding secret from the islanders), bumped into her while Katie was researching the definitive guidebook to Hegg that she is writing. After she makes a disastrous pass at him, they both decide that they don’t like each other. Later, when James discovers what Steve has orchestrated, the verbal sparring matches between James and Katie really begin.

Steve locks the fighting newlyweds in the tower of the castle that he has had renovated for the secret, romantic destination wedding. James and Katie’s being locked up in the honeymoon suite and their subsequent determined escape from it subvert the setting’s fairytale ending connotations. But this is just the beginning of their love story. Like in the seminal romantic comedy Pride and Prejudice, the protagonists must offend each other before they fall deeply in love. This process begins shortly after James saves Katie from drowning in the castle’s moat, a heroic gesture that is clearly a reference to legends of chivalry. Astonishingly, his rescue surprises both of them—but not the spectator. Besides, how could anyone let someone else drown, no matter how irritating the person is?!

The Decoy Bride utilizes many tropes of the romantic comedy genre, especially the wedding theme, which is so prevalent that it warrants its own sub-genre. The “wedding film” has proliferated in the 2000s, counting among its ranks such films as The Wedding Planner (Adam Shankman, 2001), The Wedding Date (Clare Kilner, 2005), 27 Dresses (Anne Fletcher, 2008), Bride Wars (Gary Winick, 2009) and even the “manly” antidotes Wedding Crashers (David Dobkin, 2005) and American Wedding (Jesse Dylan, 2003). Last year’s hugely successful Bridesmaids (Paul Feig, 2011) injected a feminine-inspired cynicism into all the stages of planning a wedding. Feminist film scholar Diane Negra, in What a Girl Wants? Fantasizing the Reclamation of Self in Postfeminism, estimates that the American bridal industry is worth about $161 billion today (52). Along with magazines and news stories, these films contribute to pop culture’s fascination with the wedding event and stress the importance of the heteronormative rite-of-passage that getting married supposedly is for young women. As a wedding film, The Decoy Bride both makes fun of marriage and reaffirms its significance. On the one hand, the film upends the notion that marriage is a sacramental testament to everlasting love because James and Katie, who despise each other, accidentally wed. But on the other, since the mismatched couple fall in love while trying to get divorced, the spirit with which they were married turns out not to have been a fluke after all.

Although The Decoy Bride belongs with other wedding films, it has more in common with Pride and Prejudice than it does, say, Bride Wars. An English-language classic, Jane Austen’s 1813 novel is a telling portrait of the life options available to the women of her time: marry for money, for the betterment of your family, or face poor spinsterhood. The strength of Austen’s story lies in its form as a comedy of manners, the whole time poking fun at the institution of marriage and the people who endeavor to strike up the deals. While there is much more at stake pending Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy’s eventual union as opposed to whether or not Anne Hathaway and Kate Hudson will each secure the same overbooked wedding venue, Mr. and Mrs. Darcy’s early nineteenth century love story is thoroughly modern. Perhaps that is because our Anglo-American culture continues to recycle it. The (im)probable lovers have been immortalized in book and screen adaptations numerous times, often with funny sounding titles like Bridget Jones’s Diary (written by Helen Fielding in 1996 and directed by Sharon Maguire in 2001) or You’ve Got Mail (Nora Ephron, 1998). In fact, Katie resembles Bridget Jones’s version of Lizzie Bennet in that she is often publicly shamed for being over thirty and single. As struggling authors, James, who suffers from writer’s block, and Katie, who is just coming into her own as an author of a Hegg travel guide, lunge their daggers into each other’s literary egos in much the same way that Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan of You’ve Got Mail spar over carving out their respective book-selling niches on the Upper West Side. The Decoy Bride goes one step further in its homage to romantic comedies, pretty much all borne of Pride and Prejudice, with a scene in which James and Katie strip out of their wet clothes in her mother’s kitchen, a thin linen separating them—and tempting them to look at each other—as if they are in Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934).

My sister, an unabashed aficionado of romantic comedies, insists that the films work so long as the leads have chemistry. Kelly Macdonald and David Tennant do set off some romantic fireworks, but I’m afraid that James is not as appealing or likeable a character as Katie is. Mindy Kaling would be happy to learn that Katie is not so broadly drawn as to fit any of the archetypes for romantic comedies’ leading ladies that Kaling identifies in the piece I quoted from earlier. Katie is not an adorable klutz, a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a humorless and ambitious workaholic, or a gluttonous slob with a six-pack of abs. She is self-aware (she knows that James is her type, an emotionally stunted “arty” guy, which means trouble) and has a self-deprecating sense of humor. Casting Macdonald in this role is actually refreshing. An “indie” actress who made her debut in Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (1996), one of my all-time favorite films, she is usually cast in dark pictures, namely the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men (2007) and HBO’s Prohibition-set gangster epic Boardwalk Empire (2010-present). She brings to her character more nuance than we are used to seeing in other rom-com’s heroines. The look on her face when she decides to turn the ferry traveling away from Hegg back around, to reunite with James at the very end, is a prime example of this.

The problem with James as a male lead, an object of desire that we’re meant to want Katie to want and obtain, is that he never gets over himself or overcomes his charlatan ways. Lara chooses Hegg as the destination for their would-be super-secret wedding because it is the setting of his one and only book, The Ornithologist’s Wife, a heavy tome that the locals, including Katie, resent because it misrepresents the place. Using James’s book as a guide for planning their wedding, Steve soon discovers that James had never been to Hegg, because the lavish, bird-decorated castle doesn’t already exist there. Steve must invent it to appease his client. James’s dirty little secret remains buried vis-a-vis his fiancee, who, contrary to her lifestyle, is actually a down-to-earth, if a little naive, woman. Lara loves James because she believes he is a genius, regularly quoting his words back to him. On the occasion she says something stupidly romantic, he says he can’t believe he wrote that. In fact, it was her own original sentiment. Not only is he cruel, James has nothing in common with Lara, and it seems as if he wants to marry her because her desirability to others is a feather in his cap. He thinks that in addition to stroking his ego, she will also prove to be a fruitful muse and ensure his own fledgling fame lasts.

Despite the journey he takes with Katie all over the island, falling in love while trying to get divorced, it is revealed in the end, following the improbable lovers’ separation, that James and Lara never corrected the press and public’s shared impression that they wed. In other words, everyone thinks they’re still married. Thus, the dedication in his second book (“To my wife”), which is based on his experience with Katie, is directed not at Lara but at our heroine. While it may be a comfort that James and Katie share a private romance that is made public through his new novel, the fact that James would wish to deceive everyone, especially Katie, about being married to someone he does not love means he hasn’t learned his lesson. He may have started to write what he knows, at Katie’s insistence, but he hasn’t fully understood how to own up to it. Some romantic prize to be won.

Of course, embedded in all of this is a slight critique of our celebrity-obsessed culture. Lara is sympathetic in her desire for privacy, as is her hiding out in the village once the world’s press descends on Hegg. Since Steve has barred anyone from entering the castle, in trying to maintain the so-called integrity of the sham wedding, Lara applies her own makeup (quaint!) and takes up a disguise as an old village lady so that she may wander around the press camp undetected. In doing so, she chats with Marco, the paparazzo who has made her life a living hell and who redeems himself because he shows off candid photos of Lara that he never sold. In a pre-end credits scene, Lara attends Marco’s gallery opening, their suggestive smiles captured on film by a hovering paparazzo for the glossy tabloid Stars Today.

Back in Hegg, Lara also meets Katie’s mother, Iseabail (Maureen Beattie), who sold the wedding story to the press. Given the fact that Iseabail is terminally ill with an unnamed disease (this constitutes the weakest part of the film story), Lara’s threatening to push Iseabail, in her wheelchair, over a cliff if she doesn’t throw her huge wad of cash into the sea is unbelievably harsh. Lara then mistakes Iseabail as the inspiration for the titular character in James’s novel, a move that Iseabail encourages and in the end influences the actress to fund the dying woman’s trip around the world with Katie. (Having stayed put in Hegg all her life, Iseabail is itching to leave, her bucket list dreams recalling those of Tom Hanks in Joe Versus the Volcano [John Patrick Shanley, 1990].)

An opportunist and busybody, Iseabail is but one of the eccentric villagers. Others include elder citizens who hawk cookies and tea as well as expensive pet rocks to the deluge of visitors. Stranger still, there is Angus (Hamish Clark), a former boyfriend of Katie’s who weds someone he does not evidently love on the very day that Katie comes back to town. He later attempts to fight James for Katie’s hand. This is a ridiculous plot contrivance to prove to James and the audience that Katie is desirable. Then again, Katie is uneasy when it comes to the attention that Angus and William (James Fleet), Katie’s boss at the general store, regularly pay her. This probably has more to do with her unwillingness to stay in Hegg and her professional ambitions to travel and write. In the end, while she succeeds as the published author of a definitive if little-read history of Hegg, it is unclear if she and James will stay in Hegg. Or whether they will get married again—for real.

The Decoy Bride, a Scottish and Manx co-production, was shot on the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea, and while Hegg by no means represents a mythical Scotland a la the villages in Brigadoon (Vincente Minnelli, 1954) or Brave (Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman & Steve Purcell, 2012), the film does tread on all-too-familiar territory. The script calls for Katie and James to seek out Reverend McDonough (Tony Roper) because, as Katie assures, “he’ll know what to do.” Apparently in tune with island superstitions, he officiates their ceremonial divorce, which he rushes to perform before the first sunset as if he is breaking a spell. In fact, you might say that James and Katie’s determination to reverse their vows is not too dissimilar from Princess Merida and Queen Elinor’s race to lift the bear curse on the latter woman in Brave, which coincidentally stars Kelly Macdonald as the fiercely independent princess.

According to the film’s trivia page on the Internet Movie Database, many scenes and characters were struck from the shooting script because the budget was much lower than the screenplay’s earliest appraisal. This handicap is most noticeable toward the end of the film, leading up to the lovers’ inevitable reunion. I have no idea what changes would have been made if the filmmakers had the full £7 million as intended, but The Decoy Bride is a cute little movie nonetheless. Especially if you suspend your disbelief.

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