I have no hard evidence to back up this theory, but I’ve always figured that one of the many reasons the studio romantic comedy slipped from view is that we ran out of patience for contrivances. When you have two winsome characters who clearly like each other, you have to come up with some reason to keep them apart for long enough to sustain a movie, and those reasons felt increasingly labored in the 21st century. You had your journalists sidling up to their eventual objects of affections under false pretenses (27 Dresses, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days), and your foes forced to work together (Two Weeks Notice, The Ugly Truth), and your smorgasbord of stars doing holiday stuff over the course of minimal shooting days (Valentine’s Day, New Year’s Eve). Meanwhile, an undercurrent of sexier (Friends With Benefits), more self-aware ((500) Days of Summer), or more grounded (The Big Sick) movies made the old formulas look calcified. More importantly, it made their characters, with their elaborate misunderstandings, look two-dimensional and delusional. It’s harder to surrender to the escapist pleasures of a movie when all you can think about is how easily its conflicts could have been avoided with a straightforward conversation.
Marry Me, the first of two nuptial-centered movies Jennifer Lopez is starring in this year, is a self-conscious resurrection of that faded format, complete with a real doozy of a contrivance. Lopez plays pop star Kat Valdez, who’s set to wed her equally famous fiancé, Bastian (Maluma), at a combination ceremony and livestreamed concert (one of a few times when it’s clear the movie’s budget isn’t on the scale of its fictional heroine’s career). When footage of him cheating hits gossip sites right before they’re set to give their vows onstage, she decides, out of some combination of humiliation and fuck-it-all delirium, to marry a stranger from the audience instead, and the guy she happens to pick, and who happens to go along with it, is a guy named Charlie Gilbert (Owen Wilson), who’s there with his daughter. It’s one hell of a meet-cute, though the gentle pleasures of Marry Me have everything to do with what comes next. The film, which was directed by Kat Coiro and is based on a webcomic by Bobby Crosby, is really about middle-aged people tentatively trying out a relationship despite the outrageous context in which they met.
Kat and Charlie start out fumbling their way through a publicity stunt, with John Bradley and Michelle Buteau fluttering at the corners as Kat’s manager and assistant, and Sarah Silverman and Chloe Coleman on the other side as Charlie’s friend and daughter. But there’s never any dissembling about the fact that they like each other, and that they like spending time together. When doubts do arise, they don’t have to do with misinterpreted gestures or miscommunications, but with the compatibility of their lifestyles. Charlie, who’s played by Wilson with a subdued aw-shucks charm, is a public-school teacher who coaches the mathletes club and goes to bed at 8 p.m. — to read, he offers in his defense when Kat pokes fun. Kat, meanwhile, works constantly to sustain her career in a world that values youth, and to navigate being a figure of talk-show mockery for being on marriage number four. For a rom-com, there’s very little com in Marry Me, maybe because it’s too intent on asserting the dignity of characters who’ve been battered a bit by past relationships.
But that, too, feels like an act of deliberate revisionism. The genre, especially in its Katherine Heigl days, started acquiring a sadistic edge toward its female leads, as though they needed to be taken down a notch before being allowed to live happily ever after. Marry Me refuses to be hard on Kat, even if it comes at the expense of laughs or dramatic tension. The narrative ultimately pivots on her choices and, though the movie doesn’t go so far as to say this explicitly, on the degree to which she has to monetize her life. Marry Me is straightforward about the mechanics of modern celebrity to the point where Kat explains to Charlie what “a private” is in blunt terms. We see Kat shooting a sponsored Vitamix video, and being followed around by a cameraman who documents her day-to-day for her channel. Her relationship with Bastian, too, is framed as a marriage of brands as much as it was going to be a marriage between two people, with the two of them having recorded a hit duet that goes on to nab Kat her first Grammy nomination. If these movies require a touch of the fairy tale, here it’s Kat who’s the magical one, descending from the stratosphere to spend time with a regular guy, with Lopez in full glam, impeccable even when she’s supposed to be lounging at home.
But what else would we want from Lopez in a production like this? For all that it has been positioned as the comeback of the rom-com queen, Marry Me isn’t really a return to form for the genre. Instead, it aims to have things both ways, to have the glamour and the buoyant fantasy and to also be more textured in its treatment of its characters and their relationship. While this doesn’t always work, it works more often than not, because the film understands one thing perfectly well: When you have two winsome characters who clearly like each other, sometimes that’s enough.
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