Romantic comedies are to men what science-fiction is to women: part mystery, part cautionary tale. Men do not “get” rom-coms because they are not aimed at men. A good rom-com is about sympathy, tears, good clothes and sisterhood. Like sci-fi, it offers enjoyment based on strict adherence to convention. There must be: a woman (age 25-35) who is torn between two prospective husbands; a best friend who is slightly less attractive than the lead; a sing-along scene; much falling over and a happy ending (in sci-fi you replace the humans with aliens and the sing-along with a space battle). 27 Dresses (if you follow this scheme) is The Wrath of Khan, with weddings.
Katherine Heigl plays an archetype called Jane. She works in a nice, plush office doing something-or-other. Jane is single, with a slightly less attractive best friend, a slightly more attractive younger sister and an unrequited love for her boss, the scumbag Ed Burns (he doesn’t play a scumbag, you understand; it’s Ed Burns who is, unquestionably, a scumbag). Jane likes going to weddings. At two ceremonies (held on the same night, each attended by Jane) she piques the interest of a handsome, cynical, Mr. Darcy-esque reporter (James Marsden), who decides to pursue her. At first Jane rebuffs the reporter’s advances, but gradually, amid social faux pas, misunderstandings, and much else that Jane Austen perfected, they fall in love.
There is, of course, nothing new here. But what makes a rom-com work or not work (and again, I point out the sci-fi parallel) is casting. Katherine Heigl has the rom-com heroine thingamajig down pat; the whole funny/sad/fall-over-but-retain-your-dignity bit comes naturally to her. She is neither too pretty nor not pretty enough. She can convince you that a man might overlook her and, equally, that a man might fall for her at first sight. Jennifer Aniston has spent the better part of ten years trying to get this right on screen, with only mixed results. But Heigl succeeds because (unlike Aniston) she looks like someone Jane Austen would have approved of. She has the Lizzy Bennet mix of common-sense, self-delusion, and female chumminess.
In the “hunk” role, James Marsden rocks. He’s on a role currently, and he seems to know it (though not in a smug way). As he did for his “hunk” role in Enchanted, Marsden takes a part that another actor would have spit on, and laps it up. Ever since he was killed in X-Men 3 (he was killed, right? Does anyone remember what happened in that movie?) he’s been like a man re-born. He’s like Kevin Costner when Costner was released from playing heroes: footloose, horny, quick-witted… a woman-magnet. Just contrast Marsden with Burns (hide your eyes Burns fans); where Burns is doughy, torpid, doll-eyed, leaden… Marsden plays his scenes like a man drunk (but in a good way!). He’s got his shit-eating grin on and his inner-joy blasting. No-where does he succeed better (and this goes double for Heigl) than in the scene where he sings-along to Benny and the Jets. I love how a guy from the chorus comes up to Marsden and Heigl the day after. As a couple, they seem to inspire camaraderie.
27 Dresses isn’t exactly the 2001 of rom-coms. I don’t even know what the 2001 of rom-coms would look like (Eyes Wide Shut?), but damned if it ain’t enjoyable. You’d have to be a robot not to enjoy it at least a little bit. No, there’s nothing new in it. Hiegl and Marsden do not reinvent the wheel. No-one’s going to remember this movie years from now… unless it attains that capricious, sleep-over immortality of rom-coms like Overboard or Only You. It simply consoles, the way sci-fi consoles adolescent boys (and men who won’t grow up). It says to us: come here, see what you want to see, reserve judgement. Rom-coms and sci-fi are both about soothing nerves.