Polish Wedding is one of those films that has a feeling of timelessness about it. Although it is set in the 1990s, the movie could easily take place in the '40s or '50s. The characters' sensibilities are definitely modern, but the world they inhabit doesn't belong to a specific era. The underlying feeling throughout is that of a childhood memory brought to vivid life.
Capturing this mood is a difficult trick for even an experienced filmmaker to pull off, but writer/director Theresa Connelly gets it right her first time out. She's helped by a good visual sense, a wonderful score, and strong writing that highlights her obvious love for her characters. Unfortunately, she loves them too much; she can't bear to let their stories end unhappily, no matter what problems they experience throughout the film.
Polish Wedding revolves around the trials and tribulations of the Pzoniaks, a Polish family living in a working-class neighborhood of Detroit. Bolek (Gabriel Byrne), a baker, and Jadzia (Lena Olin), a cleaning woman, preside over the large clan which consists of four sons, one daughter, Hala (Claire Danes), a daughter-in-law and an infant grandson. Despite the occasional row between the eldest son and his wife, the boys of the family present their parents with little trouble. Hala, however, is an entirely different story. All too eager to grow up, the teenager has become a rover, sneaking out late at night to see what trouble she can get into. She finds it in the form of Russell (Adam Trese), a young cop, who falls under the girl's spell. Despite her mother's warnings, Hala welcomes her suitor's advances, a decision which ultimately leaves her pregnant.
Hala's dilemma parallels her parents' own past; Jadzia and Bolek also found themselves 'in trouble' at a young age-indeed, that is the reason they got married. Content with motherhood at first, over the years Jadzia has begun to feel trapped by her life. These feelings are only intensified when she sees the freedom her daughter possesses. Out of her desire to find a similar freedom, Jadzia begins an affair with Roman, a wealthy businessman. The pleasure of her secret life makes it hard for her to return to her house and husband, who has become increasingly withdrawn. Hala's pregnancy, though, forces Jadzia to return to real life. More importantly, it rekindles the fondness she and her husband once shared for each other, feelings that eventually allow the two to reconcile.
While both Hala and Jadzia are interesting characters, Connelly has trouble fitting them into the same movie. It's obvious that the daughter's experiences are meant to mirror her mother's, but the film's jarring structure never makes the parallels clear. Connelly jumps between the characters seemingly at will; just as we're getting involved with Hala, the film suddenly cuts to Jadzia, not returning to the teenager for a long stretch of time. It's as if the filmmaker can't make up her mind which story she wants to tell more.
Polish Wedding truly comes apart in its final half-hour, when Connelly forces the film to a happy ending. Jadzia returns to her husband, who, like the noble soul he is, forgives his wife almost immediately. Meanwhile, after spending the past hour refusing to accept responsibility for Hala's pregnancy, Russell finally gives in and marries the girl. A short epilogue shows all four characters in domestic bliss, with the men working hard in the garden, and Hala washing her baby while smiling adoringly at her husband. After all the trouble the family has experienced, this happily-ever-after ending feels quite contrived.
What's especially disappointing about the ending is that for much of the film, Connelly's depiction of the relationships and conflicts that exist in a large family rings very true. She has scripted some moments which will undoubtedly cause a great many audience members to nod in recognition. The best scenes in Polish Wedding are the family's loud conversations around the dinner table and the late-night talks between father and daughter in the kitchen of Bolek's bakery. It's here that Connelly truly displays her talents as a writer; like a young Steven Spielberg, she understands and can capture the distinct rhythms of family communication.
The actors are all uniformly good, with Olin stealing the show as the strong-willed and stunning Jadzia. Byrne's performance takes a little getting used to; it's a shock at first to hear this very Irish actor adopt a Polish accent, but, as the movie progresses, the actor settles into his role. He also develops a strong rapport with Danes, who continues to demonstrate that she would have been a wonderful silent-screen actress. Her delivery is flat, but she makes up for it by speaking volumes with her face. In the scenes where she tempts Russell, Danes, without saying a word, captures the awkwardness and the excitement of a teenage girl starting to understand her sexual power.
The conflicts that face the Pzoniak clan can present themselves to any large family. In real life, however, these problems are not always resolved, particularly not as easily as they are in this film. Ultimately, Connelly allows her fondness for her characters to distract her from the reality that she otherwise captures so well.