02 February 2008

LOVE AND MARRIAGE

Sometime in the first third of 27 Dresses, the lead character Jane, played by Katherine Heigl, is flipping out over her cute but oblivious boss (as she does fairly constantly for 97 of the film's 102 minutes, less credits), when the sassy friend character, played by Judy Greer, slaps her hard on the face.

"I needed that," says Heigl. I am not inclined to disagree.

After all, was it not this same Katherine Heigl who complained of her starmaking vehicle Knocked Up that it presented an unfortunately sexist view of women, painting them "as shrews, as humorless and uptight." A hard reading to defend against.

Yet she somehow saw fit to follow that project with this one, a film of infinitely more retrograde gender politics. Knocked Up is The Second Sex compared to 27 Dresses. I say, in full knowledge that hyperbole is the enemy of good writing: 27 Dresses is one of the simplest and most reductive romantic comedies that I think I have ever seen. Here is what the whole entire plot of the film boils down to: all women want to have pretty weddings with handsome boys and talking about divorce is really ICKY, so stoppit!

Longer: on the cusp of 30, Jane is a wedding junkie who never turns down the opportunity to serve as a maid of honor and help plan every minute detail of all her friends' weddings. Indeed, as the film begins she is serving as a bridesmaid for the 26th and 27th times, racing back-and-forth across New York City as she changes dresses in a cab. If you guessed that this means intercutting between weddings, showing that the same exact dances and same exact speeches are happening at both ceremonies, you get a gold star.

Upon blacking out from exhaustion, Jane comes to under the care of Unnamed Fella (James Marsden) who obviously has an instant crush on her, because this is a romantic comedy, but to no avail - she has eyes only for her boss at Urban Everest magazine, George (Edward Burns, sounding even more like Alec Baldwin than he usually does). However, the guy does manage to steal Jane's ancient datebook, filled with all the weddings she is to attend and/or take part in.

Only the next day, when he goes to work at the New York Times Journal do we find out that he has a proper name, Kevin AKA "Malcolm Doyle," the author of the Commitments page that all the girls think is just the swellest thing, because of how sweet and sexy he is in describing all the fairytale weddings dotting the city like penicillin on bread.

Kevin wants Jane (who thinks he is a cynical prick), Jane wants George (who thinks she is a sturdy Girl Friday) and George wants Jane's sister Tess (Malin Akerman), who wants George and lies through her teeth about being an outdoorsy vegetarian to make sure they end up together. Hilarity ensues when Tess asks Jane to be her maid of honor and make all the arrangements. See, Jane loves George! But she's arranging his marriage to another woman! AND IT'S HER SISTER! Gawd, I love farce.

Of much greater interest than the specifics of how Jane learns that Kevin is exactly the right man for her - and I should probably mention, that I don't have a particular problem with the ritualistic predictability of the plot. Romantic comedies, more than maybe any other genre in film, are not meant to be challenging. They are comfort food in cinematic form; a significant part of their appeal is that the ending is fore-ordained and we the audience don't have to wonder "is she going to end up with that guy?" but can use the energy that would have been spent on that question appreciating the specific obstacles that come up between heroine and hero. I do not in any way object to this generic trait. The trouble is when this morally righteous inevitability begins to tell outrageous lies about how that love and romance function in the real world. But that's much too big an issue to trouble a slight little movie like 27 Dresses with, and it's already been covered by better thinkers than I.

Back-up. Of much greater interest &c, is that the movie ultimately validates all of Jane's pie-eyed musings about marriage in general and weddings in particular, and contradicts all of Kevin's cynical observations about the instability of marriage, the obscene industry made of weddings, and the anachronism of the whole system - all observations, it should be noted, that are essentially correct. But the film will have none of this. It exists largely as an extended pretty princess fantasy, where the 27 dresses are justified as long as the 28th is a beautiful white bride's dress - not a direct quote, but closer than makes me happy. Jane's whole life is reduced to a) finding a man who will make her existence meaningful; b) celebrating that fact in a showy two-hour ceremony. I have it on good authority that women who think this way do indeed exist, but it's never been my lot in life to meet any of them, and I don't suppose I'm very sad. Anyway, this is all probably no more idiotic than the idea that an upwardly mobile twenty-something in Los Angeles wouldn't get an abortion, forget the fat loser, and move on with her life, but at least Judd Apatow has a good ear for dialogue.

Insofar as this film ever comes close to being okay, and it sometimes has the illusion of being close to being okay, it's because of two things: Katherine Heigl's immense personal charm and the delight in finally seeing the (also immensely charming) James Marsden play a romantic lead and not the other guy. Neither performer is actually "good" at acting, but in the movies that isn't always as important as charisma, and between the two of them, Heigl and Marsden have a dangerous amount of that. Basically, this is one of those films in which you like the performers so much that you end up liking the character (unless you don't like the performers; in which case you're probably not going to see 27 Dresses, and are really just wasting your time here). It's not the same as the character being any good, but it's decent enough way to fake it. The result is that, however lame and frustrating the screenplay - it is both - and however industrial the directing - very - 27 Dresses is not helplessly unappealing, and despite myself I was sort of happy when the two finally hooked up.

A final word: have you ever thought to yourself that the beloved "Tiny Dancer" scene from Almost Famous could have been the definitive "group sing-along to an Elton John song" moment in all the cinema, if only it included table-dancing? Then boy howdy, is 27 Dresses the film for you.

4/10

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