‘The Wedding Ringer’ Review: Kevin Hart’s Phony Best Man Elevates This Wildly Uneven Comedy

If this buddy farce offered as many surprising smarts as it does lazy contrivances, it would be more deserving of our engagement

While “The Wedding Ringer” isn’t the total waste of time that its painful trailer (and January release date) threatens, it’s also a movie whose occasional good ideas are ultimately drowned out by sloppy, contrived screenwriting. On the scale of Kevin Hart vehicles, it’s not up to the standards of “Think Like a Man” and “About Last Night” — but hey, at least it’s better than “Ride Along” or “Think Like a Man Too.”

The screenplay by Jeremy Garelick and Jay Lavender offers up an intriguing premise and some truly unpredictable comedy misdirects, but you can feel the gears grinding in the third act when characters start doing 180s so the story can go in one particular direction. “Ringer” sets you up to expect a comedy that’s homophobic but not misogynistic; that it delivers the opposite counts as a surprise, albeit not an entirely satisfying one.

Hart stars as Jimmy Callahan, a professional best man who offers his services up to friendless grooms who need a surrogate pal to schmooze the in-laws, make a killer toast and generally fulfill the duties that would ordinarily be handled by an actual buddy. (Is this a thing? Who are all these adult men with no friends, and how are they finding spouses? And doesn’t this whole plot smack of “I Love You Man”?)

Jimmy’s latest client is tax attorney Doug (Josh Gad, “Frozen”), who’s marrying Gretchen (Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting, “The Big Bang Theory”) in a week and a half. Between familial obligations and a need for seven groomsmen, Jimmy must pull off his first-ever “Golden Tux” package. Jimmy frequently reminds Doug that they aren’t really friends, and that their relationship will end when the honeymoon starts, but naturally bro-for-hire Jimmy turns out to be just as lonely as Doug; whether or not these two will stay chums after Doug’s final payment turns out to be the real dramatic thrust of “The Wedding Ringer.”

wedding-ringer-the-WR-PK-23_DF-06025_rgbAnd that would be fine, except that it’s hard to take this one relationship seriously when everything else in the movie is such a cartoon — which, in turn, would be fine if said cartoon were funnier. There are definitely some gags that land, including a visit Jimmy and Doug pay to another wedding that’s so hilarious it won’t be spoiled here, but much of the humor lacks inspiration or zest.

First-time director Garelick sometimes undercuts promising ideas through his lack of skill; for instance, there’s a scene where Gretchen’s blowhard father Ed (Ken Howard) challenges Doug and the groomsmen to a friendly game of touch football, which turns out to be a ruthless, muddy throwdown because Ed’s friends happen to be NFL alums like Joe Namath. After getting creamed by the old guys, Jimmy rallies the ersatz groomsmen to fight back, but the sequence is filmed and edited so haphazardly that we never see much of what could have been outrageous physical comedy.

Hart, once again, outshines his material; he’s too often funnier and smarter than the scripts he accepts, and one can only wonder what acting heights he’d hit if paired with filmmakers at his level. Even with what he’s working with here, however, he brings his A-game, often apparently creating moments out of thin air. (The scene in which Jimmy tries his fake name “Bic Mitchum” on for size has a just-keep-the-camera-rolling feel to it, and while that kind of improv can be deadly in some comedies, here it provides a needed jolt.)

Gad is game, if a bit one-note, and it’s fun to see old pros like Howard, Cloris Leachman and Jenifer Lewis, even if they’re barely given anything to do. Also criminally underused is Olivia Thirlby as Gretchen’s sister, who figures out that Jimmy isn’t who he claims to be, even if that revelation never leads anywhere interesting.

Ultimately, the movie feels like the kind of wedding band that can play a handful of tunes pretty well, but by the end you wish they’d just leave the stage already.