Friday, January 25, 2008

27 Dresses: Reasonably well-appointed

27 Dresses (2008) • View trailer
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for profanity and sexual innuendo
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.25.08

27 Dresses seems tailor-made for star Katherine Heigl, who continues her meteoric ascent from television's Grey's Anatomy and last summer's Knocked Up.

After taking a nasty tumble during the waning hours of an otherwise successful
wedding, Jane (Katherine Heigl) is helped to her feet by the solicitous Kevin
(James Marsden), whose presence isn't as accidental as it seems. Even so, as
"meet cute" encounters come and go, this one's pretty good.
Her talent and temperament are perfect for director Anne Fletcher's frothy romantic comedy, and Aline Brosh McKenna's script immediately establishes its charming premise: that Heigl's Jane has become a career bridal attendant, although her own happy ending is nowhere in sight.

We hit the ground running during a harried but not-so-atypical evening, as Jane finds herself catering to two brides on the same night, gamely racing back and forth between both events while changing in the back seat of a cab (a cute bit with Michael Ziegfeld as the flustered cabbie).

Jane fulfills this function not because she runs a professional bridal business — indeed, by day she's the efficient right-hand-gal to self-made entrepreneur George (Edward Burns) — but because, well, she just likes weddings. Likes to help plan them, adores being part of them, and has become indispensable to an ever-lengthening string of friends, acquaintances and office mates whose weddings were a triumph, thanks to Jane's meticulous efficiency and cheerful accommodation to even the most bizarre bridal request.

The latter can be typified by the inevitably hideous choice of bridesmaids' gowns, but even here Jane retains a soft spot in her heart for each of these taste-challenged outfits; every one represents a happy memory.

McKenna's script is peppered with tart dialogue and a reasonably credible approach toward the modern dating scene; the lines are delivered with well-timed crispness by Heigl and a mostly solid roster of supporting players. Top marks go to Judy Greer, who very nearly steals most of her scenes as Casey, Jane's snarky best friend and colleague at George's company, the New Age-y Urban Everest. Watch Casey's expressions, as she follows Jane and George during an early scene at the office; although we're getting important expository dialogue from Heigl and Burns, it's hard to concentrate on anything except Greer.

Jane's rather unusual hobby notwithstanding, her life is complicated by a series of additional issues: She's madly in love with her boss, but only from afar. Although relying on her for everything in a professional capacity, George is oblivious to his devoted assistant's worshipful gaze.

And that situation gets worse with the arrival of Jane's trashy and superficial younger sister, Tess (Malin Akerman), who immediately swoons at the sight of George. Although having nothing in common with him — which becomes a growing issue with Jane, who cannot stand deception — Tess lies like a rug to hook and land the guy, at which point our heroine suddenly is roped into planning a wedding for her own sister ... to the man that she secretly adores.

All this is observed and catalogued by the affable Kevin (the effortlessly charming James Marsden, recently of Hairspray and Enchanted), who turns shadowing Jane into something of a habit. His motives aren't entirely pure; he's a newspaper reporter hoping to get off the repetitive bridal beat, who views Jane as his potential feature story out of the taffeta ghetto.

Naturally, because it's that sort of story, he fails to mention this little detail to Jane ... just so the two can have a nasty fight, once the truth emerges.

But only after Jane and Kevin have begun to fall for each other, of course.

As long as the story concentrates on Jane, Kevin and — to a lesser degree — George and Casey, 27 Dresses remains solidly entertaining. It's blindingly obvious that Jane and Kevin are perfect for each other; they snipe in the classic fashion of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, and McKenna supplies appropriately witty dialogue to match their comfortable, casual chemistry.

But the soufflé collapses with the arrival of Tess, and not only because Akerman's clumsy and limited thespic abilities pale alongside everybody else in the cast. Akerman will be remembered — and not fondly — as the shrill shrew from last summer's odious remake of The Heartbreak Kid, and her performance "style" hasn't changed a jot. She's still stiff and overbearing, and she couldn't deliver a credible line-reading if UPS put one in a box for her.

Worse yet, the overall character dynamic changes with Tess' arrival. The story turns bitchy and mean, totally at odds to the rest of the film, and the third act is nearly destroyed by an act of revenge that — no matter how justified — all but sinks the otherwise light-hearted mood.

In a different film, this sequence actually would make a sharply observed psychological point: that we rarely feel good after the public humiliation of a lesser creature, even one who screams for such a come- uppance. And it's particularly crushing to watch Heigl's compassionate and virtuous Jane descend to such a level.

On top of which, the subsequent "reconciliation scene" is just a joke: a completely lame conversation that exists only because McKenna's script insists it must. Heigl, despite her many talents, can't come close to selling it.

Fortunately, the film is laden with far more entertaining sequences that will overshadow its weaker moments. Jane's initially reluctant — but soon enthusiastic — sharing of her closet of dresses, as an amused Kevin madly snaps pictures, is delightful. Even better is a bar sequence on a dark and stormy night, as Jane and Kevin make the best of things, imbibe too many shots and then heroically mangle the lyrics to Elton John's "Benny and the Jets."

Funny, funny stuff.

And sweet, which is the crucial ingredient. McKenna cut her teeth writing cute little romantic comedies such as Three to Tango and Laws of Attraction; her high-caliber triumph came with her wonderfully caustic 2006 adaptation of Lauren Weisberger's The Devil Wears Prada. I'm not sure 27 Dresses is a step forward; although McKenna's premise and dialogue are sharp and solid, she really does go off the rails in the third act ... which also is the point at which the 107-minute movie starts to feel about 15 minutes too long.

But I suspect the film's target audience won't care. Although Heigl's earthy and voluptuous side gets plenty of exposure in this mildly erotic tale, 27 Dresses apparently has a "chick flick" vibe, judging by the 10-to-1 ratio of women to men at a recent screening. And that's a pity: There's much to admire here, starting with Heigl's sure-footed climb up the ladder of what is certain to become a great career.

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