How many people does it take to have a Polish wedding? Four: a pregnant girl, a reluctant groom, a priest and someone to hold the shotgun.
The script for rookie writer-director Theresa Connelly's Polish Wedding doesn't quite pause to summarize its plot in the form of an ethnic joke, but that's the general idea. Every marriage and potential marriage in this heartfelt but often tone-deaf domestic comedy originates in careless passion between people who aren't sure how much they even like each other.
Bolek Pzoniak (Gabriel Byrne), a baker in the Polish Detroit community of Hamtramck, and his still lusty wife Jadzia (Lena Olin) got married to legitimize the birth of the first of their five children, and have stayed together all these years more out of familial ritual than love.
That first child, Ziggi (Daniel LaPaine), married Sofie (Mili Avital) to legitimize the birth of their firstborn, and are getting to know each other under the most stressful circumstances.
Now, Hala (Claire Danes), the youngest of the Pzoniak brood and the designated virgin of the coming Procession of the Virgins, is in a family way, thanks to Russell (Adam Trese), the tomcat cop she's been sneaking away to meet in the middle of the night.
Connelly, who grew up in Hamtramck, intends Polish Wedding as an homage to the spirit and rootedness of the immigrant families in her blue-collar neighborhood, and her three central characters have certainly been crafted with loving care.
Jadzia, the controlling matriarch of the Pzoniak clan, is a vibrant, passionate woman who remains sympathetic even while expending her sexual energy in an indiscreet, long-running affair with Roman (Rade Serbedzija), a successful businessman.
Hala is her mother's child, recklessly adventuresome, and despite all the warning signs around her--the tension between Ziggi and Sofie, the strain of her parents' marriage--she's on a fast track to parenthood.
Bolek, meanwhile, is the picture of a beaten man, waiting around like a dog, Hala tells him, while his wife is off with her lover. It breaks his heart, but he won't confront her for fear of losing her.
Somehow, Connelly wants us to believe that the family ties here are strong enough to withstand any test, from being cash-strapped in an overcrowded house, to the rambunctious kids getting themselves into trouble, to the passive father being betrayed. It's a hard sell, and Connelly doesn't quite have the storytelling savvy to pull it off.
Each time the film reaches a critical juncture, Connelly's solution is to distract us with slapstick farce. One minute, poor pathetic Bolek is so down in his cups that you're worrying about a suicide; the next minute, he and Jadzia are teamed up with their sons in the madcap kidnapping--complete with jaunty Polish folk music--of Hala's elusive boyfriend.
If the real point of Polish Wedding is that life in Hamtramck is so chaotically fraught that each new trauma buries the last, then a mere movie can't do it justice.
© Los Angeles Times 1998