Monday, February 14, 2022

The boy next door


Directed by Kat Coiro
Written by John Rogers, Tami Sagher, and Harper Dill (based on the comic by Bobby Crosby)

Spoilers: moderate

The moment I first saw the trailer for it, Marry Me hooked me pretty good.  The premise it laid out is the kind of premise I want from my romantic comedies, something unrealistic and absurd and, sure, slightly stupid.  It can somewhat feel like they stopped making romantic comedies altogether sometime in the 2010s, but the romcom with an actual high-concept seems like it's been in the grave for even longer, supplanted by low-concepts such as "I write a dating column" or "I came inside you."  Even the Before series, the snooty art film version of the romcom, has wound up shifting from "I met a chick on a train in Europe nine years ago and I still love her" to "we've been married for nine years and I kind of hate her."  Or maybe I just don't watch enough Netflix content, and there's hundreds of the things swarming around on some server out there.  It's probably just that.

Nonetheless, Marry Me certainly looked like it could be a throwback to romantic cinema from time out of mind, like Princess O'Rourke or Daddy Long Legs (or hell, Pretty Woman), something classic in its fundamentals but really inventive and singular in its specifics, and anything that I could even tentatively identify as "inventive" or "singular" here in 2022 would automatically get my attention.  That premise, of course, is as follows: a singer named Kat Valdez, who is basically Jennifer Lopez (and is therefore played by Jennifer Lopez), discovers she's been betrayed by her fiancĂ© Bastian (who may or may not be basically reggaeton pop artist Juan "Maluma" Arias, as I wouldn't know, but that's who plays him) right before they're supposed to go onstage and sing a duet together and formalize their marriage vows before millions of adoring fans; she takes to the stage with tears in her eyes, but in a fit of pique, stops the song, asks for the house lights to be turned up, and fixes upon the first random dork she sees in the crowd, Charlie Gilbert (necessarily played by Owen Wilson, because McConaughey would be too aggressively folsky-sexy, rather than this role's requirement of being retiringly folsky-sexy).  He's here by accident and barely knows who she is, but he happens to be holding someone else's sign marked with the name of the hit single she was about to sing, "Marry Me."  Locking eyes with him, she says "yes," and brings Charlie onstage so she can, indeed, marry him.  Bowled over, he just goes along with it, and now they have to deal with being legally wed (I'm a lawyer, and if I can roll with it, so can you), while Bastian plots in the shadows to win his bride back.

That's just an all-time-great premise, and you could do so much with that.  What a tragedy it is that Marry Me feels like the premise fell out of the sky into the hands of cavepeople who had no idea what to do with it.  (I am genuinely curious what the source material, a comic book, was like.)  For starters, I am doing work on the film's behalf to imagine that Bastian is "plotting" anything, and while there are several contenders for "biggest problem," maybe the hazy shapelessness of the conflicts that get in Kat and Charlie's way is the biggest, so that it's unclear who the film's antagonist even is (it's probably still Bastian, but Kat and Charlie sometimes flirt with being their own enemies; the single biggest asshole in the film might just be Jimmy Fallon, cameoing as himself).  But in any case, "hazy shapelessness" sums up the thing.

On paper they're a tantalizingly mismatched pair: Charlie's a divorced math teacher with a certain luddism about him (doesn't own a smartphone, etc.), father to a twelve year-old daughter with whom he's having the usual difficulties, especially as her enthusiasm for participating in her dad's "Mathalon" team has waned; Kat, as noted, is a global singing megastar.  (The film's various songs, incidentally, are anodyne and forgettable, except for the "pop" version of "Marry Me," which is nerve-wracking and atrocious; the "ballad" version's decent.)  Unfortunately, some of that aforementioned haziness attaches to basic biographical data: Kat's manager (John Bradley), in defending her, remarks that she's "a woman north of 35" in an industry hostile to a woman of any age, and, yeah, somewhat north, though I'm not sure if we're supposed to see Kat as a woman who's just recently gotten famous, or a woman who's been living with fame for almost thirty years like Lopez, or if she's only a little older than Bastian (played by a 28 year old) or a lot older than Bastian (Lopez is 52, and one thing I do like about Marry Me is that it has not so far been noticed by any of the usual scolds, though this is possibly because Lopez is a)a woman and b)simply doesn't read as middle-aged anyway, and perhaps never shall).  Still, their differences should be the occasion for a whole lot of spiky interactions.

They aren't, and that might be mostly because the balance of the film's 112-minute runtime after they marry (which itself doesn't happen for a surprisingly long time, over half an hour) is spent on the film's primary preoccupation, which isn't romance, but just following Kat along on her damned celebrity grind, bemoaning the lack of privacy inherent to her lifestyle (she's attended at almost literally all times by at least her livestream videographer, and usually half a dozen other servants) and the necessity of constant activity, as she busies herself with various endorsement deals and social media postings that would probably be handled by her staff if she were Jennifer Lopez.  (You may realize at some point that even Kat, who had intended on getting married, even if she married a different guy, presumably would have blocked some time out for her celebrity honeymoon.)  And all of these shallow observations about celebrity and social media are complete dead air, never even allowed to become particularly comic: this film is counterintuitively (and almost perversely) reluctant to ever get the slightest bit silly with Kat and Charlie.  (Silliness, you see, is the sole purview of Charlie's gay best friend played by Sarah Silverman, though no one does much of anything stereotypically funny with her gender-swapped stock character and they don't do much of anything new, either, except maybe that she has her own gay best friend (Stephen Wallum), which I suppose makes this movie gay best friend turtles all the way down.)  Anyway, Kat's character is still pulled off better than Charlie's.  She nurses the resentment of a performer who's managed to become famous and commercially successful but who's never been given recognition for her artistic merit, not even one single awards nomination; and that's something, even if, arguably, it's not especially relatable.

Charlie, on the other hand, is defined almost entirely by how he doesn't yearn for anything.  He's followed around (or rather, he follows around) his trusty dog, Tank, who's explicitly old and dying, an element that represents the closest the screenplay gets to any sort of intelligence, if it's intentional.  Intelligent, yet actually slightly depressing: what apparently attracts Kat to Charlie is that he's old and already dead.  There's a spin that could've been put on thisthe hustling life she's required to live for money and fame, contrasted with the appealing stillness of a guy who's completely content with his small slice of life (and he probably should be: he's a Brooklyn schoolteacher whose standing-set exposed brick condo is almost as nice as the millionaire megastar's Manhattan high-rise; his bathroom is presumably smaller, but it is absolutely gorgeous)but they emphasize all the things about him that really are boring, and almost sickly, like how he usually goes to bed at eight p.m. and can barely bring himself to leave his house.  Charlies shambles through this film, and what little animation he gets is down solely to Wilson's screen persona, though even this is about the flattest I've ever seen it.

It's a fairy tale without the magic, and while they want to do a reverse Cinderella, they forget to actually reverse it: Charlie's so put-off by Kat's coterie of sycophants that you wonder why he even bothers (initially, he almost expressly remains married to Kat out of pity), and he's so seldom wowed by the luxury his new wife could provide for him (in part because they seldom show her providing any) that he's almost annoyingly removed from any material attachments, including any particular horniness for his hot bride.  A couple of key scenes attempt to correct these deficienciesa lead-up to implied sex where Wilson finally remembers that his character might still be capable of an erection; a genuinely very sweet gesture where Kat rents out Coney Island in memoriam to Charlie's dead momand these scenes are actually good.  The film is at its best when they're alone, then, and even if the dialogue is still disagreeably spongey (I lost count of how many exchanges in this romcom written by three people would've benefited from being punched up with anything resembling "actual structured humor" rather than "lax, intermittent quipping"), and even if there's serious foundational problems with the characterseven if the whole thing seems to have been made with an eye to distracting you from the whimsy of the premise by leaning on subdued naturalism, a mode that almost never feels right, and is only ever occasionally redeemed by the sadsackier aspects of Lopez's performancewhen Lopez and Wilson are just hanging out alone, Marry Me at least offers the mild spectacle of two movie stars being nice to each other.

But they're not hanging out alone all that much, and the smudgy character work becomes an actual liability once the third-act plot phase of this romcom ramps up, whereupon it can't make it clear whether Charlie's problems with the relationship are thanks to him being too stupid and hidebound to understand the concepts of "the music industry" or "performance," or if they're thanks to some unstated tension in Kat between her desire to surrender to Charlie's hectoring mediocrity and the torch she may or may not be carrying for her bastard ex.  (A romcom made no later than even ten years ago would have obliged Charlieor Kat, or bothto have punched Bastian square in the face, and frankly I'm not sure it would have been wrong for it to have done so.)  This is on top of some fairly disastrous filmmaking.  I realize that nobody cares about how a movie like this looks, but anybody should care more than this.  Half the medium shots in the film come off like seventy year-old accidents with CinemaScope, blocked without any apparent awareness on the part of either director Kat Coiro or cinematographer Florian Ballhaus that with these lenses they were going to turn people on the sides of their frame into noodles; this is on top of some appallingly dysfunctional editing, which likes to hop across noticeably different source media (I think a cameraphone) without changing the angles, and in at least one case a mixed-media placeholder shot (in a place where no buffer was necessary) made it through the rough cut and into the actual finished film, without any indication where that shot was coming from or why it should be there.  And when I said that everything to do with social media in Marry Me was dead air, this accidentally let social media's onscreen visualization off the hook; that's not "dead air," it's actively irritating.  The final blow is an infuriating When Harry Met Sally riff with a bunch ofI don't know, real?married couples, intermixed with characters from the film, talking about their own unlikely meet-cutes, and this is flabbergastingly unearned; frankly, I'm not convinced it was actually earned even in When Harry Met Sally, but, sure as hell, this is no When Harry Met Sally either way.

Score: 5/10 

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