It’s not hard to understand why the intellectual property marauders at HBO Max saw potential in a 2022 reboot in Father of the Bride. The Steve Martin version was a big hit in 1991: It earned $129 million, a sequel, and an enduring place in the ’90s rom-com hall of fame. About 40 years earlier, the 1950 Father of the Bride, starring Spencer Tracy, was an Oscar contender and among that year’s top performers at the box office; it has long since ascended to Turner Classic Movies status. So why not serve up the seemingly timeless and universal story to a 2022 streaming audience, now with Andy Garcia as the titular old man—what could go wrong?
Well, of course, the story isn’t entirely timeless and universal. While each movie has the same basic premise—a man struggles with his daughter’s decision to leave the nest as well as the more concrete stresses of her wedding—each is also a clear product of its time. And watching all three movies recently, as I did, it’s clear the franchise can’t outrun our shifting mores on marriage forever.
The 1950 movie, with Tracy as the father and Elizabeth Taylor as the bride, is a now hopelessly dated commentary on what a raw deal the father of the bride gets when she gets married. He has to pay for the whole wedding, naturally, but everyone else’s happiness seems to be more important than his own. Imagine that! The satire is really that basic: Wow, aren’t weddings expensive these days? Taylor’s character, Kay, is 20 and seems to be getting married at a relatively normal age and with relatively normal (for the time) speed, and marriage was practically compulsory for women of her background at the time, so one has trouble understanding what’s so bothersome to her father about the situation. But maybe that’s part of the satire too: It’s funny to be so annoyed your daughter is getting married when obviously getting married is every family’s greatest wish for a daughter. The movie’s cast has dazzle for days, but it’s quite a relic.
The 1991 movie, while taking many scenes and lines of dialogue straight from the 1950 version, is more about a father’s discomfort with his daughter leaving the nuclear family and his feeling that, at 22, maybe she’s a little young for it, as well as the whole weddings-are-expensive-and-ridiculous rigmarole. Martin’s George Banks sees his daughter Annie (Kimberly Williams) as a little girl, sometimes literally imagining a toddler sitting across from him, so—in a nod to the then-present, I guess—her choice to get married is framed as a kind of assertion of independence. She’s going her own way, against her father’s wishes, but going her own way means … the extremely radical act of swapping out one patriarchal institution for another. Still, Annie is a modern woman of the ’90s, one who finished college and intends to work. George grapples with feeling irrelevant; this version of the movie, moreso than the 1950 one, is about the internal growth and adapting he needs to do to get with the times. But the times aren’t all that different in the end, and as charming as the movie is in parts, its old-fashioned roots stick out more than you might remember.
That brings us to today, and 2022’s Father of the Bride. One of the biggest changes, beyond a Latino-led cast in South Florida, is that in this iteration, Garcia’s Billy and his wife, Ingrid (played by Gloria Estefan), are on the verge of a divorce when the movie begins. Their older daughter and the bride, Sofia (Adria Arjona), has been given 2022-friendly politics: She was the one to propose to her husband-to-be, and in the end of the movie, he takes her last name. Naturally, these things befuddle her father, as does the couple’s plan to move to Mexico to work after the wedding, as does their wish to have a small wedding rather than a more traditional large Cuban one. It seems like Sofia and her fiancé would be the types to have a Zoom wedding instead of rushing things if you ask me, but the movie can’t resist tradition for too long, and things of course culminate with a ceremony.
The movie notably omits a bit that the 1950 and 1991 versions both pointedly featured, in which the wedding officiant asks who presents this woman, and the audience hears the father’s inner monologue focused on not messing up his line. Both Tracy and Martin manage to speak up without a hitch: “I do.” This time, instead we get to see Sofia walked down the aisle by both of her parents. It’s Billy’s idea, a reflection of how much he’s grown and loosened up over the course of the movie—a nice, if convenient, touch in the script, even if both parents walking their daughter down the aisle hasn’t been a shocking move for at least a few decades.
The changes to this Father of the Bride are hardly radical, but they’re clearly intended to modernize the story. Yet they somehow only made the flaws inherent in this premise, past and present, more noticeable. It’s almost silly to point out that the concept of Father of the Bride is patriarchal—I mean, duh: You’ve got a father, a literal patriarch, and a bride, which implies a wedding, a husband, and the making of a brand-new patriarchal union. But when this new movie affixes its contemporary window dressing to try to distract from that, it feels a little dishonest. An actually radical revision of the movie might interrogate the institution of marriage a little more—how it works, and who it works for—especially since it gave itself a prime opportunity in Billy and Ingrid’s divorce plotline. Instead, for all its timid nods at our present moment, the ending feels deeply conservative.
As an avowed lover of romantic comedies, I’m conflicted in feeling this way. Over the years, there’s been much debate about whether the push for sexual equality has been bad for love stories, removing many of the obstacles to romance that raise the stakes and make it so fun to watch. If we had succeeded in achieving sexual equality, this version of Father of the Bride might not exist. Or maybe it would; maybe a good writer can find the humor in any situation. This one felt halfhearted to me. If there’s another Father of the Bride one day in the future, a part of me remains hopeful that the right screenwriter would be able to wring some laughs out of a daughter (or a son) who doesn’t want a wedding at all.