Dir: Bruce Sweeney. Canada. 2001. 100mins

Writer-director Bruce Sweeney covers well-trodden territory in Last Wedding, a sour reflection on modern love that gathers attitude and edge as it gradually darkens from light comedy to bitter farce. Focusing on three Vancouver couples, it observes the decline and fall of their relationships with a mixture of dry humour and wry insight that should strike a chord of recognition with most adult viewers. The sheer familiarity of the subject matter and initial mildness leaves the film struggling to make a strong impression and it only really begins to bite in its closing stages. The film received a mixed response as the opening night presentation of the Toronto Film Festival and is likely to be unfavourably compared to the work of Neil La Bute. Commercial prospects seem limited although the film should enhance Sweeney's reputation at home and abroad.

Weddings have been a fertile source of inspiration for filmmakers as diverse as Robert Altman, Vincente Minnelli and Nancy Savoca. In his third feature after Live Bait (1995) and Dirty (1998), Sweeney wastes little time on the tensions and turmoil of the countdown to the big day but instead focuses in on the less than happy couple. Despite the scepticism of friends and the misgivings of family, Noah (Ratner) and Zipporah (Betrani) seem grimly committed to a wedding that neither of them seems to want but both consider inevitable. They marry in haste and repent at joyless leisure.

The disintegration of their union is mirrored in the relationships of Noah's closest male friends. Wise-cracking academic Peter (Scholte) risks his domestic contentment with librarian Leslie (Sivak) for the cheap thrills and flattery of a meaningless fling with a provocative teenage student. Shane (Gale) lets his jealousy of girlfriend Sarah's (Parker) brilliant architectural career drive a wedge between them that becomes impossible to ignore or transcend. All of them drift towards a seemingly unavoidable parting of the ways prompted by the failings of men handicapped by insecurity, weakness and cowardice.

In its early stages, the film seems to belong firmly in the tradition of middle-class, Woody Allen-style relationship comedies with smart one-liners and public humiliation the order of the day. A deadpan delivery enhances the traditional pleasures of meeting the parents, choosing the dress and facing the gruelling cut and thrust of a friendly chat with an unimpressionable rabbi. So far, so familiar. When the relationships begin to buckle, the film becomes a much more interesting prospect as it starts to strip away the veneer of civility and surface respect to reveal all the raw emotions simmering below. It almost seems to relish its own appetite for the petty, vindictive side of human nature as the characters come to hate the one they loved and resent every little look and gesture they once held dear.

After her wedding, Zipporah spends her days consuming junk food and junk culture and pursuing an impossible dream of becoming a professional singer. Noah grows to despise her lack of intellect, her childish tantrums and her love of all things equine. Frustration and failure brings out the worst in both of them as they feed on each other's cruelty until their household has become a war zone.

Prospects for the other couples grow increasingly bleak, although Sweeney undermines the lasting impact of the film by opting for an inconclusive ending that feels a little anti-climactic. He does maintain a fair balance between the trio of relationships and has written a consistently amusing screenplay with a sting in its later stages. A couple of crude sex scenes are clumsily handled compared to the sure touch shown in construction and casting. The ensemble cast all acquit themselves well and internationally the absence of star names (with the possible exception of Molly Parker) may even add a certain freshness to the material. A little too conventional at times, it doesn't have that little something extra that would distinguish it from similar television and cinema fare and make the difference between an interesting Festival entry and a strong theatrical contender.

Prod co: Last Wedding Productions
Int'l sales: Thinkfilm
Exec prod: GD Sweeney
Prod: Stephen Hegyes
Scr: Bruce Sweeney
Cinematographer: David Pelletier
Prod des: Tony Devenyi
Ed: Ross Weber
Mus: Don Macdonald
Main cast: Benjamin Ratner, Frida Betrani, Tom Scholte, Nancy Sivak, Vincent Gale, Molly Parker.