The infectious charm and sunny goodwill of Four Weddings and a Funeral (Gramercy, R) can so immediately buoy a soul ravaged by winter weather and winter movies about pet detectives that said soul may happily find herself halfway into the second wedding before the meaning of the Gershwin tune as sung by Elton John at the start of this bright, British romantic comedy begins to resonate fully: ''For every happy plot ends with a marriage knot/But there's no knot, no not for me.'' The melancholy, yearning lyrics directly reflect the emotional life of Charles (the currently omnipresent Hugh Grant), a perpetual guest at the nuptials of other grooms; the words allude as well to the fears and frailties of everyone in his close circle of friends one of whom any ravaged soul might imagine herself to be.
Charles' knot-free existence is challenged at the first wedding, when he meets Carrie (Andie MacDowell), a guest with an open American smile. Clearly the two are meant for each other. But nothing is clear to Charles. What happens along the way to his friends his punky flatmate, Scarlett (Charlotte Coleman); his deaf brother, David (David Bower); the rich, doltish Tom (James Fleet); Tom's elegant sister, Fiona (Kristin Scott Thomas); the Rabelaisian Gareth (wonderful Simon Callow); and Gareth's lover, Matthew (John Hannah) provides the tender counterpoint to Charlie's slow progress. The funeral, meanwhile, provides a powerful emotional jolt from which Charles and his chums begin to find the courage to connect to other human beings.
Weddings have rarely been choreographed so appealingly as they are in this creation from writer Richard Curtis and director Mike Newell (who also presided over the nascent sensuality and lush scenery of Enchanted April). And Grant is the rare actor who can mix the characteristics of sex appeal and ambivalence in believable, rather than irritating, proportions: His slightly stuttering, desperately charming, deeply self-conscious, and therefore peculiarly English character puts his fear of the dangers (and pleasures) of commitment in keen relief. I'd prefer it if Charles' American object of desire weren't played by MacDowell in her usual soft-boned manner, which mistakes languor for acting (that the fourth wedding stumbles is not unconnected to her lack of magnetism). But as an object of desire she'll do, if only to motor Four Weddings to the inevitable conclusion for which any winter-ravaged soul might devoutly wish. A-