Old-fashioned movie musicals are called old-fashioned for a reason. While they are often beautiful and quite charming when viewed today—who doesn’t like to watch Fred Astaire flirting with Ginger Rogers to Cole Porter? or Dorothy Dandridge sashaying up against Harry Belafonte in Carmen Jones?—such pleasures also seem dated and extravagant. Surely, there are spectacles today that compare to these in terms of size and grandeur, but the new versions also tend to be faster-paced and less subtle than back in the day—you know, Christina Aguilera with an battalion of backup dancers, declaring what she wants in three minutes of acrobatic camerawork and high-speed editing. Because our expectations of romance and music in movies are now so different, big-screen efforts to reenact or even to comment on elegant performances of yesteryear can misfire, as in the cases of Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You or Kenneth Branagh’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, both decent ideas that ended up looking out of synch.
And so it’s understandable that The Wedding Planner, choreographer Adam Shankman’s directorial debut, tries to have it both ways—emulating musical conventions but not quite declaring itself a musical. It makes gestures toward “musicalness,” in its colorful set design and costuming, and in specific events, as when an old movie musical (the obscure technicolor wonder, Two Tickets to Broadway, with Tony Martin and Janet Leigh) appears as enchanting backdrop during an important, early scene (as the characters fall in love, they’re set against the film, which is showing outdoors in the park). And it follows the usual improbable plot of a musical: the two partners-to-be meet cute, face barriers to their liaison (here, prior engagements to other people), squabble, dance a bit (they tango during a conveniently scheduled dance class), and eventually admit their true love for one another. Trouble is, by the time they finally do admit their feelings, the film’s brighter-than-bright surfaces have become more tedious than delightful.
The couple is composed, conventionally, of opposites who can’t help but attract. She’s a control freak and wedding planner extraordinaire named Mary Fiore (Jennifer Lopez) and he’s a pleasantly unhurried pediatrician named Steve Edison (Matthew McConaughey).They meet a little too cute: a loose trash dumpster is suddenly loose, barreling down a San Francisco street toward Mary, who’s so concerned with her designer shoe heel stuck in a grate that she doesn’t even register the oncoming danger. Luckily, Steve leaps to the rescue, such that they end up on top of each other on the road. It turns out that Steve is engaged to internet tycoon Fran (Bridgette Wilson-Sampras), which means his interest in Mary should be suspicious at best. But making sense is not really a priority here. Case in point: while the sparks are supposedly flying between Steve and Mary as they lie together on the street, in fact, there’s little going on, and the camera is more concerned with how well Mary is lit and framed.
And indeed, Mary looks—as they say—marvelous. Throughout the movie, she’s exquisitely composed, with fabulous beige and pastel outfits (close-fitting of course), and make-up that doesn’t run in the rain. She’s more like a pretty portrait than a character (maybe not quite as exquisite—or scary—as Lopez was in last year’s The Cell, but perhaps a little too perfect for a girl who’s supposed to meet her man, literally, on the pavement, or later, bond with him at a street market, or spar while on horseback). And while such incredible perfection surely harks back to the leading ladies in old-school musicals, here it’s a too-easy shorthand for illustrating “character.” Mary’s costumes define her: she’s fiercely efficient on the job (while orchestrating weddings that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, she wears crisp suits and discreet headsets), and vulnerable and waiting-to-be-rescued during her off hours (when she wears halter tops or soft sweaters).
Meanwhile, Steve looks rumpled most all the time: this is a guy who goes along because it’s the easiest thing to do, and because it makes him seem a little less sleazy for dating someone else while he’s engaged. At the hospital, he’s warm and fuzzy with his kid patients, underlining what a sweetheart he is, but more importantly, setting up how mismatched he is with the ambitious Fran (think: an alternate universe version of My Best Friend’s Wedding, where the Cameron Diaz character is less lovely, and you see where this is headed.) All this unfolds slowly, which means that you’re way ahead of the characters at most every turn.
As if this business with Fran is not enough, the film also gives Mary an alternative mate, selected by her old-world father (Alex Rocco). This would be Massimo (Calvin Klein model Justin Chambers, using a ridiculous, ostensibly comic “Italian” accent), naive, sweet, utterly selfless, and in truth, probably a better choice than the ambivalent, relatively self-absorbed Steve (at one point, he and Steve engage in a wrestling match that suggests they might be the better match, with each other). But—and in this color-coded world, this is crucial—Massimo lacks the beige complexion to match Mary’s (check out the promotional poster for this film—could McConaughey and Lopez look more like brother and sister?), as well as the All-American guyness that would make him her proper pick. And that’s because the movie’s universe is so limited. For all its attempts to call up old movies and also update them, it ends up being more dunderheaded than quick-witted (as so many older musicals actually were). The Wedding Planner‘s many compromises—between eras, between genres, between color palettes—never really take you anywhere, except, perhaps, a place where everything has turned kind of beige.