Jennifer Lopez Plays Italian in The Wedding Planner

| 16 Feb 2015 | 05:31

    Even Italian girls like Jennifer Lopez, but that's no reason she has to play one. Cast as Mary Fiori, the lead character in the romantic comedy The Wedding Planner, Lopez has a working girl amiability that is recognizable across ethnic identities. In her clinging but chicly tailored suits, the film and recording star brings back for a new generation the shop-girl ideal that used to be a movie staple (once the provenance of Doris Day and Ginger Rogers). Lopez generates immediate audience identification with how ordinary ladies strive and dream; her character not only plans lavishly detailed wedding ceremonies but is totally committed to that consummate moment when a young woman can expect society to celebrate and adore her. Too bad this fairy tale plays out in ways that betray Lopez's good will, her smiling efficiency and visible ethnic attributes.

    The map of Italy is not on Lopez's face. Her brown eyes, wide jaw and coloring declare Puerto Rico. She actually resembles a young Miriam Colon (who suffered her own ethnic mix-up as the Mexican matriarch in the enervating All the Pretty Horses). Lopez's essence queers how we are to read Mary Fiori. Though good enough at her job to demand her boss make her a partner, Mary seems culturally subservient: she's not only employed by the upper class but sacrifices companionship to support its ideals. Even Mary's Prince Charming turns out to be a white doctor (Matthew McConaughey) who, in finally choosing her over a WASP princess, assures her own class ascension. White actresses from Meg Ryan to Diane Keaton and Julia Roberts to Sandra Bullock act out middle-class romantic formula to show their allegiance to social ideas most people don't even think about. We accept this dramatically, assuming those actresses do in fact benefit from standard social conditions (privileged social positions). The Wedding Planner can't use that conventional model because of the distinct new element Lopez brings to it: her nonwhite ethnicity. Social difference and struggle are implicit in her very presence. It's unconscionable that the movie does not address that fact.

    From Lopez and McConaughey's meet-cute to their eventual "I Do's" the film's effort to be buoyant and delightful is sunk by its many unscrutinized assumptions about class, ethnicity, marriage, religion. Although The Wedding Planner's title alerts you to the unconscious way both movie romance and the status quo are manufactured, this cake falls flat because Lopez isn't allowed to invest it with believability. It's an old supremacist affront to hide Lopez as "Italian." Who does Hollywood think she is: Eli Wallach? Yaphet Kotto?

    Some executives in Hollywood obviously felt the moviegoing public has no interest in the love life of an actual young Puerto Rican woman such as Lopez, so "Italian" is the preferred, commercial ethic choice. Watching Lopez play the Italian princess role again smothers the audience's identification with her (in Out of Sight a similar daughter-father relationship was strange enough to initiate that film's multiculti social satire). Here, fake family feeling (Alex Rocco, playing Mary's dad, has never been so phony) suppresses the empathy that millions of record buyers and video-watchers have already, happily felt in connecting with Lopez's homegirl/pop star presence. Director Adam Shankman, screenwriters Pamela Falk and Michael Ellis and producers Gigi Pretzker and Deborah Del Prete lack courage in exactly the same way that the skulking media has badmouthed Lopez's relationship of choice with Sean "Puffy" Combs (as if starlets-dating-gangsters was not an age-old tradition.) The Wedding Planner represents a tacit rejection of the ethnic mixing Lopez's stardom ought to attest.

    Fresh, interesting comedy and romance might have come from seeing Lopez embody her own ethnic-wedding traditions (or play out the sentiments of her good hit records). It does not limit an actor to bring emotional richness to what they appear to be; it may, in fact, offer an advantage. Rosie Perez made advances for Latinas; Lopez's acquiescence to "harmless nontraditional casting" drags culture behind. The opening scene of adolescent Mary playing with Barbie and Ken dolls sets us up for an ethnic subversion of fatuous white-bread romanticism; presumably we've all outgrown playing with white-supremacist dolls. But the makers of The Wedding Planner prove themselves to be willing blockheads. They're also clueless about the esthetics of ethnic star-making, showcasing Lopez less ideally than her music videos and L'Oreal commercials.

    As with the entire cast, Lopez's makeup and photography are inadequate. (McConaughey, though in fighting trim, looks peaked, and Bridgette Wilson-Sampras as his WASP fiancee is as plasticized as Barbie herself.) Most romantic comedies have a simple basis in how the lead couple go together?that great dream fodder known as "the two-shot." But Shankman is never able to ignite chemistry between Lopez and McConaughey. He flubs the film's basic point because he can't even make the stars look complementary.


    The Million Dollar Hotel Directed by Wim Wenders The Legend of Rita Directed by Volker Schlondorff Germany's film heritage, recently lambasted by Shadow of the Vampire (the kind of movie that fooled the smart kids in high school), stays fitfully alive in new films by Wim Wenders and Volker Schlondorff. Both movies not only recall Germany's expressionist and realist traditions, but intermix them. Wenders' uneven The Million Dollar Hotel is the most interesting, since it breaks his usual form and displays previously underplayed romantic gifts. Schlondorff's The Legend of Rita returns him to his early socially conscious features reporting on the ironies of post-WWII political life. Rooted in now-vague traditions of Murnau, Lang, Pabst and Wenders' and Schlondorff's own, each movie feels cut adrift: Wender's story focuses on inhabitants of an obscure Los Angeles (partly concocted by coproducer Bono and screenwriter Nicholas Klein) while Schlondorff fictionalizes the fate of a young female radical, Rita (Bibiana Beglau), whose random terrorist acts leave her politically displaced, spiritually homeless.

    The word "legend" in Schlondorff's title refers to new identities Rita takes on when East German secret agents help her go underground. That pragmatic, self-conscious mythologizing implies an escape from reality that dovetails with Wenders' "legend" of spectral marginals hanging out at a run-down L.A. hostel. Skateboarding Tom Tom (Jeremy Davies) seeks the meaning behind the death/suicide of a resident poet, just as Rita has tried to supplement her youthful romanticism with political principles. Both movies take positions on social commitments that mirror current political doubts, as Wenders' The Wrong Move (1975) and Schlondorff's A Free Woman (1972) queried individual political quandaries of past eras.

    Now in their maturity, Wenders and Schlondorff's political skepticism leads them to reconnect with older expressions of distress. The way Rita traverses East and West Germany, the Middle East and Paris, supporting shaky causes and fleeing authorities, makes her phantomlike; slipping in and out of time periods (her tale?based on the Red Army Faction and the Baader-Meinhof gang?could be of the 60s, 70s or 80s). Similarly, Tom Tom's infatuation with the prostitute Eloise (Milla Jovovich) and his pursuit by all-seeing FBI agent Skinner (Mel Gibson) evoke classic lower-depths wastrels.

    If German Expressionism derived from social malaise (and later influenced film noir), then Wenders and Schlondorff now sensibly essay how German Expressionism's mood might apply to today. The Legend of Rita's modern urgency may appeal to some people's abiding interest in failed radicalism, but Jean-Marie Straub's satirical short Machorka-Muff examined nationalist character better. Schlondorff emphasizes a bleak political legacy that presages a line from The Million Dollar Hotel, "The truth is the only explanation most people want to buy." Reflecting the current notion of relative social beliefs, both movies focus on lonely outcasts, uncovering the expressionist despair we no longer want to acknowledge.

    Wenders uses movie romanticism to divine those suppressed anxieties. While Shadow of the Vampire had little resonance (except posing a craftsmanly retake on The Blair Witch Project), The Million Dollar Hotel updates German Expressionism for meaning. Its apocalyptic urban noir atmosphere laments the homelessness and alienation that are part of contemporary social decline. Admittedly, you need to have a taste for this kind of thing (cuz it's not far from Schlondorff's 60s nostalgia) but much of it is strangely, mysteriously piquant.

    As in Wenders' Wings of Desire, the lyrical, cosmic fascination is up-front. Photographed by Phedon Papamichael (and backed by some Eno/Jon Hassell felicities), parts are as rapturous as if the great Murnau had had a chance to work in scrupulous, dreamy color. One bravura scene follows a suicidal leap floating past Rear Window peeks at others' lives going on. It could be the perfect music video for The Divine Comedy's threnody "Tonight We Fly" ("Over the friends that we've known/And those that we now know/And those who we've yet to meet").

    Wenders' human (musical) comedy of destitution features three memorable, emotive characters. Davies' spiky-haired Tom Tom fulfills the ingenious idea to put whimsy into noir. After many attempts Davies finally achieves Anthony Perkinsish heights. It's an amazing pantomime. Wenders' eloquent fade-outs, iris-shots and silhouettes make this Jovovich's most trenchant screen appearance. In romantic scenes she teases Davies: "If you're not gonna play retard, I'm not gonna play whore." They circle each other in mad, balletic duets like Hollywood Boulevard pierrots. Davies' whole being gets caught up in imagining bliss and she basks in his ardor. Davies is equally impressive opposite Gibson's sardonic, magnetic detective; they sustain tender and gruff harmony. These are great, empathetic screen presences, like the actors in German silents. They help Wenders keep romantic tradition alive.