'One for the Money': Heigl Is Relaxed and Plucky

Despite Stephanie's sputtering, unevenly paced progress, the movie does improve as it goes on: the family shtick drops off, the editing smooths out, and One for the Money becomes watchable.

One for the Money

Director: Julie Anne Robinson
Cast: Katherine Heigl, Jason O'Mara, Daniel Sunjata, Sherri Shepherd, John Leguizamo, Debbie Reynolds, Patrick Fischler
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Lionsgate
Year: 2012
US date: 2012-01-27 (General release)
UK date: 2012-02-24 (General release)
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Lionsgate seems to have a love-hate relationship with Katherine Heigl: One for the Money is the studio's second Heigl-led action-rom-com that did not screen for critics (after the mostly forgotten Killers). But Heigl, for her part, looks like she's actually having a good time.

This runs counter to the usual formula for Heigl movies, where she's a Type A blond who must suffer before she learns to have it all. Here she lets her hair down into long, dark waves and takes on a Jersey accent to play Stephanie Plum, hero of Janet Evanovich's popular series of mystery-romance novels. Stephanie, as we're informed through too much voiceover and conversational exposition, has lost her job in the lingerie department at the Macy's in Newark, and is in dire financial straits. Seeking a filing job with her bail bondsman cousin Vinnie (Patrick Fischler), she finds instead an opportunity for work as a "recovery agent" -- a bounty hunter.

Stephanie isn't exactly rough and tumble, but she does know her Jersey neighborhoods, which makes her a surprisingly adequate investigator of bail-jumpers. She also knows her first big-money target: Joe Morelli (Jason O'Mara), a former high school flame, now a cop charged with murder. The movie rushes to get her into the bounty-hunting gig and in pursuit of Morelli, as if fearful that the audience will become bored if Heigl isn't engaging in hostile sexual banter with someone, anyone -- failing to realize that Heigl is playing a character who is interesting and likable independent of her man trouble.

As a result, the first 30 or 40 minutes of Money are distractingly choppy, with the aforementioned narration (which sounds lifted from Evanovich's prose or, in any case, like it might work as an ongoing point of view rather than a cheap narrative fix-it) introducing Stephanie, her family, Morelli, and assorted Jersey caricatures, like Stephanie's best friend who exists only to initiate information-dump phone calls -- even more exposition in a movie that doesn't need it. Director Julie Anne Robinson appears overwhelmed any time a scene contains more than two characters; often she cuts between weird single shots, making every actor look like an after-the-fact insert.

Robinson also has trouble getting a handle on the movie's tone; the parade of eccentric Jersey lowlifes has potential as Elmore Leonard-lite but keeps veering into sitcom. It may be that Heigl comes off so well -- relaxed, plucky, game -- because she's placed opposite such ridiculous cartoons, like Debbie Reynolds, who plays Stephanie's sassy grandmother by mugging with disturbing, hammed-up abandon.

O'Mara has the kind of coarse, over-emphatic voice Heigl can't catch a break with her romantic foe, either, generating little heat with O'Mara even while Plum becomes (unconvincingly) convinced of Morelli's innocence. O'Mara has the kind of coarse, over-emphatic voice UK actors sometimes affect when trying to flatten out their accents and, like Heigl's Ugly Truth co-star Gerard Butler, he glowers and shouts without the hoped-for roguish charm to back up the unpleasantness. This makes Plum's semi-obsession with Morelli feel like an affront to her credibility rather than a charming foible.

Stephanie's bounty-hunting mentor Ranger (Daniel Sunjata) is far more appealing, and apparently much of the book series hinges on a love triangle of sorts among her, Morelli, and Ranger. In the movie, Ranger turns up to give Stephanie advice, though neither she nor the filmmakers seem interested in the particular world of bounty hunting. For a dismaying chunk of the movie, Stephanie's acumen depends on her imitating behavior and ideas she gets from Ranger rather than coming into her own, like a kid passing a test via memorization instead of comprehension. She's most delightful in her own fits of ballsy inspiration, like stealing Morelli's car -- partially to draw him out of hiding and partially because she needs the ride and he can't call the police.

Despite Stephanie's sputtering, unevenly paced progress, the movie does improve as it goes on: the family shtick drops off, the editing smooths out, and One for the Money becomes watchable, if low in grade and stakes. But it fails to reach a balance of laughs and suspense; in fact, the movie has very little of either.

If it's not vastly superior to a typical Heigl vehicle, though, it's the first one in a while that at least feels like it could have been a cut above, if not for its unevenness, and lack of breezy-gritty crime-comedy tone. Her career hasn't shown much promise since Knocked Up, but One for the Money made me believe Katherine Heigl could play Stephanie Plum in a better movie.

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