Set in contemporary England, one of the aspects of this film that makes it so engaging is the propriety with which the humor is presented. Refreshingly subtle, there's more of Noel Coward than Tom Green or Rob Schneider to it; a matter of manners, mores and innuendo taking precedence over gross-out, in-your-face, shock schlock humor. And though Grant and MacDowell are at the forefront of the piece, Newell does an excellent job of developing all of the characters, succinctly supplying enough detail to each individual to give the film some depth and dimension, without having to actually go too deep. He never lets you forget that first and foremost, this is a comedy. There's some insight provided, but this is not an in-depth commentary on human nature, though there are some overtones and implications in that direction (Charles is always late to the weddings, for example; perhaps a subconscious denial of the impending nuptials?). Most importantly, the characterizations are rich, and the story is involving and presented with an even flow that allows you to effortlessly be swept away with it.
Certain actors make a career out of playing a variation of the same character in film after film, striving for that definitive portrayal. W.C. Fields played the hen-pecked husband in a number of films, finally perfecting that particular character in the person of Harold Bissonette in `It's A Gift.' For Hugh Grant, it's the retiring, somewhat self-conscious and stammering, eyelid fluttering charmer, of which he's done a variation in such films as `Sense and Sensibility,' `The Englishman Who Went Up A Hill, But Came Down A Mountain,' Notting Hill' and `Mickey Blue Eyes.' But Charles is his definitive portrayal of that character, the one in which he achieves the balance and honesty that makes the character so believable. It's a good bit of work by Grant, and definitely one of his most memorable performances.
Andie MacDowell, meanwhile, gives a rather composed performance as Carrie, the quiet American with a reserved bluntness who captivates Charles. MacDowell brings a sense of quietude to the role that is sensuously seductive, which lends credibility to Charles' infatuation with her. It's a role for which MacDowell is perfectly suited, as it allows her to play effectively to her naturally calm demeanor and exquisite beauty and femininity.
In a part that has to be an actor's dream, Simon Callow is absolutely exuberant as Gareth, one of the fixtures of Charles' circle of friends. More than just an effervescent character, Gareth is something of the conscience of the film, laughing away and laying bare any and all pretense or hypocrisy like a modern day flesh-and-blood Spirit of Christmas Present. It's a character that gives needed balance and perspective to the film, and he's wonderfully played by Callow.
Also turning in especially noteworthy performances are John Hannah as Matthew; Kristin Scott Thomas, who is quite alluring as Fiona; James Fleet as Tom, a character very reminiscent of his Hugo in the TV series `The Vicar of Dibley,' (and very effective here); Charlotte Coleman, memorable in the role of Scarlett; and Rowan Atkinson as the hapless Father Gerald.
Rounding out the supporting cast are David Bower (David), Timothy Walker (Angus), Sara Crowe (Laura), Anna Chancellor (Henrietta), Simon Kunz (John), David Haig (Bernard), Sophie Thompson (Lydia Jane) and Corin Redgrave (Hamish). There's enough twists and turns along the way to keep this film unpredictable, including one scene near the end that initially seems so mean-spirited that it may have you biting your fist and crying, `Oh, NO!' But, not to worry, Newell provides an instant resolution consistent with the rest of the film, and it not only works but gets a good laugh to boot. Entertaining, pleasant and funny, `Four Weddings and a Funeral' makes for a satisfying, feel-good cinematic experience that just seems so wonderfully civilized amid the seemingly endless rancor abounding in our world today. It's what's known as the magic of the movies. I rate this one 9/10.