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‘Wedding Ringer’ strikes a chord

I asked a fellow critic what he thought of a movie whose screening I had to skip this week. He replied, “So-so. But for January, it’s ‘Schindler’s List.’ ”

That’s the month’s cinematic curse: Studios put out films for which they have low expectations, and those that rise above the baseline seem like happy surprises. I doubt I’d have laughed as hard at “The Wedding Ringer” if the competition were stiffer, but director Jeremy Garelick (who wrote the script with Jay Lavender) keeps laughs flowing briskly before the inevitable collapse of the story.

The two, who also wrote “The Break-Up,” start with an original idea: Rich, nerdy tax attorney Doug (Josh Gad) wants to marry spoiled Gretchen (Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting) but daren’t confess he has no friends. So he hires “wedding ringer” Jimmy Callahan (Kevin Hart) to pose as his best man, mythical Bic Mitchum.

For $50,000 plus expenses, Jimmy spends one week training seven associates to pass as Doug’s lifelong pals and groomsmen, each with a constructed identity. Obviously, this can’t go well.

The filmmakers telegraph certain punches. About the third time Jimmy warns Doug they won’t become friends – the relationship’s just about payment – we know they’ll bond. Because the writers head for an obvious destination and don’t know how to manage the last few steps, the movie clunks to a halt at last.

Until then, it’s unusually fast, as fast as Hart’s motor mouth at its most agile. Jokes come quickly, occasionally cruelly and often crudely, but the majority of them work. (Prepare yourself for profanity and one scene involving a dog, some peanut butter and – no, better not go there.) Even the tired gag of a swishy wedding planner (Ignacio Serricchio) gets one twist, then another.

The razor-sharp Hart and vague, fluffy Gad (whose Doug resembles the dim, amiable snowman Gad voiced in “Frozen”) make an appealing couple. If we can’t believe these characters could really be friends, we can live for 101 minutes in a world where they do.

The solid supporting cast includes Olivia Thirlby as Gretchen’s savvy sister, Mimi Rogers as their clueless mother and Ken Howard (who now seems as tall and wide as Mount Rushmore) as their mean-spirited dad. Cloris Leachman, adept at 88, contributes a memorable cameo as the inevitable semi-senile grandma and gets the funniest sight gag.

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