Gown for the count
I missed Knocked Up when it came around and have seen only a couple of episodes of Grey’s Anatomy, paying scant attention even to those, so I was unprepared for Katherine Heigl in 27 Dresses. I knew the name, but I’d never noticed her before. Seeing her in this, her first solo-star vehicle, was like being in an observatory when astronomers discover a new planet.
The movie would be no great shakes without her. Heigl plays Jane, a perpetual bridesmaid always doing for others—even holding a bride’s gown up and out of harm’s way while she (the bride) is on the toilet. The 27 dresses of the title are all the bridesmaid’s dresses Jane’s worn once and kept as reminders of the one dress—the white one—she really wants to wear. (How a 20-something managed to amass such a closet-full is hinted at in an early scene where Jane dashes back and forth between two simultaneous weddings, changing clothes in the cab.)
Jane is also a mother hen to her younger sister Tess (Malin Akerman of the Heartbreak Kid remake), which Aline Brosh McKenna’s script establishes in the first scene, when the two are motherless kids—9-year-old Jane saves her cousin’s wedding by fixing her gown, setting the pattern for her own life to come.
The contrivances of McKenna’s script are only beginning, and some of them were old-hat before her parents (or director Anne Fletcher’s) were born. Jane is the love-struck assistant to a boss (Edward Burns) who takes her for granted, never noticing that she’s utterly devoted to him (see Footlight Parade, 1933). She has a wisecracking best friend (Judy Greer) straight out of—well, any movie with Joan Cusack. And she strikes up a prickly, reluctant friendship with Kevin (James Marsden), not knowing that he’s a cynical reporter writing a withering exposé of her life—until he falls in love with her and tries to spike the story (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, 1936).
When sister Tess moves back to New York and suddenly becomes engaged to Jane’s boss, Jane’s two lifelines—Miss Fix-It Bridesmaid and Big Sis Mother Hen—converge, and she finds herself planning her sister’s wedding to the man she (Jane) loves. And that pesky Kevin just won’t leave her alone.
Are your eyes rolling? Are you suppressing a groan? I probably would be, certainly if you went on to tell me about the obligatory sing-along to a pop oldie—in this case, Elton John’s “Benny and the Jets.” (This, plus the presence of Burns, is recklessly reminiscent of Life or Something Like It, one of the worst movies of the last 10 years.) By all rights, 27 Dresses should be stale and tiresome—McKenna’s script borrows promiscuously from movies good, bad and indifferent, and Fletcher’s direction is largely pedestrian. But the movie has something that doesn’t show on paper. It has Heigl.
Heigl is a true original, not quite like any other actress who’s come along in the last few decades. Oh, in bits and pieces, perhaps. She has Diane Keaton’s smartness and suppressed air of what could be either mirth or exasperation. Like Karen Black, she has wide-set, alarmingly large eyes that seem almost about to go crossed—as if an indignant disbelief were somehow preventing her from focusing on something directly in front of her.
And she’s a walking bundle of paradoxes. She has the no-nonsense bearing of an elementary school librarian and the madcap flightiness of a classic screwball comedienne like Irene Dunne or Claudette Colbert. She looks utterly ordinary and yet breathtakingly beautiful—not alternately, but both at once. She’s a plain-Jane stunner—level-headed and zany.
The supporting players acquit themselves well enough. Greer has most of the best lines, and she knows it. Burns, after a few forays as a leading man, seems to be growing comfortable as a second-banana hunk. Marsden’s ease on camera continues to grow—and this time (unlike Hairspray and Enchanted) he doesn’t need music to spark and liberate him. Only Akerman drops the ball a bit; in that company, she’s like an eager-to-please amateur.
But Heigl is 27 Dresses’ secret weapon—its only weapon, really—so good that we can’t wait to see her in a vehicle worthy of her.