When Jennifer Lopez vehicle The Wedding Planner was released in 2001, major studios habitually released a new romantic comedy in theaters every other week, and in all sorts of tones and subgenres, ranging from Bridget Jones’ Diary to Kate & Leopold to Shallow Hal. That fall also saw big nerdy genre blockbusters at the beginning of their ongoing upswing, with the release of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and The Fellowship of the Ring. It was the year between X-Men and Spider-Man, and the last calendar year without any theatrical features based on Marvel or DC Comics characters. Now, it’s romantic comedies that are the “sometimes food” of American cinemas. In the past five years, only one rom-com has reached #1 in the US box office (Crazy Rich Asians), and only three more in the past ten (The Other Woman, Think Like a Man, and Think Like a Man Too). What I mean to say is, at the turn of the century, if there was a big, geeky genre movie coming out in theaters, fans of big, geeky genres would be excited to see it, even if it wasn’t very good, because its mere presence was exceptional. (Daredevil grossed $180 million.) In the present cinematic landscape, the silly studio rom-coms that used to be a dime a dozen are now sort of precious.
By this logic, it doesn’t super matter whether or not Marry Me, the new high-concept romantic comedy starring Jennifer Lopez and Owen Wilson and directed by Kat Coiro, is actually a particularly good movie. It’s a predictable, goofy but sincere light romance starring two likable leads who you want to see get together, and they do. It’s not completely un-special, swapping the genders on the vintage “plain girl meets Prince Charming” trope, but it’s still far more comfortable than it is provocative. Marry Me is like a steak from Applebee’s — it’s nothing special, but it is what I ordered, and if I wanted something fancy, I’d have gone somewhere else.
90 Second Fiancé
Kat Valdez (Jennifer Lopez) is a world-famous pop singer-songwriter whose personal life is the stuff of tabloid gossip. She’s thrice divorced (like Lopez herself) and is due to get hitched one more time to fellow pop star Bastian (Colombian pop star Maluma). Kat is an old pro at the social media and branding game and is flanked by videographers at all times, but her fiancé (who, it’s not mentioned, is 25 years her junior) is less exhausted by it and wants to make their wedding into the multimedia event of the century. At his urging, Kat and Bastian have arranged to wed live on stage with a few thousand fans in attendance and a few million more watching live online. The wedding has its own promotional tie-in single, “Marry Me,” which they composed and recorded together. Moments before they’re supposed to perform the song and tie the knot, a social media post reveals that Bastian has been fooling around with Kat’s personal assistant. Flustered and heartbroken, Kat sees a middle-aged man in the audience holding a sign that says “Marry Me,” calls him up on stage, and marries him on the spot.
Charlie Gilbert (Owen Wilson) is a mild-mannered middle school math teacher who has partial custody of his bright 12-year-old daughter Lou (Chloe Coleman, Gunpowder Milkshake). He’s a luddite who uses a flip phone and winds down most evenings alone with a book. Charlie fears that the risk-averse lifestyle that he’s developed to give his daughter stability has now made him the “boring” parent, in contrast to his ex-wife and her adventurous boyfriend. Hoping to show her he can be the cool dad, he takes Lou to the big Kat & Bastian concert. When Kat emerges for the climactic number, Charlie’s best friend Parker (Sarah Silverman) asks him to hold her “Marry Me” sign while she takes a selfie. He just happens to be in the right place at the right time to end up marrying a pop star who he’s never met and whose music he barely knows.
In the aftermath of the concert, everyone (such as Jimmy Fallon) assumes that Kat has had a mental breakdown and will spend the following days or weeks in a panic trying to undo what she’s done. Rather than be the butt of the joke, Kat decides to lean in, reframing her impulsive moment as a feminist statement and inviting Charlie to play a supporting role in the nonstop theater of her life as a backwards audition for her affection. Charlie is uninterested in wealth or celebrity, but is sympathetic to Kat’s desire to avoid humiliation, so he agrees to smile for the cameras. Kat is only interested in the charade at first, but finds herself charmed by how genuine and down-to-earth Charlie is compared to her paid entourage. Over the course of a few weeks, the two develop an affection for each other and begin to wonder whether or not they might actually make a good couple after all, but their dramatically different lifestyles and goals may be impossible to reconcile.
Marry Me runs almost entirely on the charm of its two lead actors, with both Lopez and Wilson playing directly to type. Kat is indistinguishable from the public’s perception of Lopez (minus an acting career), and Charlie leans hard into Wilson’s “so plain he’s endearing” persona. Neither has any heavy lifting to do, but they both show up for work and capably sell the arc of this “opposites attract” romance. Lopez is able to shed some of her A-list celebrity aura to evoke Jenny from the Block when called upon, and Wilson knows that for him, the difference between frumpy and handsome is just a matter of posture. Considering the film’s cartoonish plot, its attitude toward love and marriage is surprisingly realistic. It’s not about finding “the one,” so much as stumbling across something that works and putting forth the effort to keep it working for as long as you can.
This is, of course, conveyed through some very cheesy dialogue performed over almost non-stop treacly musical score that makes it indistinguishable from a parody on 30 Rock. Marry Me is unpretentious junk food, a painstakingly commercial product that contains within it more than one actual advertisement. I am going to spend the rest of this review criticizing how it reinforces celebrity worship and fails to interrogate the modern influencer culture in any meaningful way, because those are the most interesting parts of the movie to discuss. It is, nevertheless, a really sweet and fun movie and I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy watching it.
Take My Brand, Please!
Marry Me’s strong rom-com fundamentals are complicated by its inability to take a firm stance on the source of its central conflict — the perpetually broadcast life of the modern celebrity. Everything about Kat’s life is part of The Product. Her every move is “banked” by her videographer for her YouTube channel, and most of her interactions are streamed live on Instagram. At first, this attention seems as if it might serve as the villain of the piece. Yes, Bastian is primarily responsible as the cheating partner and society bears the blame for making her the butt of the joke instead of him, but this whole mess is also a consequence of willfully making your life into a soap opera, complete with product placement and sponsored content. Marry Me is in part about the challenge of maintaining yourself as the mascot of a personal lifestyle brand, but is ultimately neutral on the act itself. When the public response is positive, it’s because Kat is a cunning businesswoman with a heart of gold; when the response is negative, it’s because someone else has exploited her transparency, be that Bastian or Jimmy Fallon. The influencer institution is not held to account.
Kat marries Charlie out of an honest, desperate impulse, but because the event is a public spectacle, she needs to commit to it in order to control the fallout. The first few weeks of Kat and Charlie’s courtship are entirely performative; once the press team has all the footage they need of the two of them doing cute first date activities, Charlie goes home. Once they start taking an interest in each other, Charlie sticks around more than he has to and Kat starts participating in Charlie’s life, too, bonding with his daughter and his students. But, even when Kat makes a surprise visit to Charlie’s math club, she’s still got an Instagram feed rolling, and we can see commenters praising her for her community involvement. A generous reading of this is that Kat has been able to reclaim her dignity and power in the natural course of enjoying her new relationship. More cynically, this is just showing us her incredible media savvy as she exploits a group of tweens to bolster her for-profit personal brand.
This is hard to parse, because even when Charlie manages to arrange some camera-free time for Kat, she is exactly the same person as when she’s streaming. There is no division between the Kat who hocks Vitamix on Instagram Live and the one who charms kids and teachers at a phones-off junior high school formal. This avoids delving into the tired trope of the pop star who has no control over her own life, but it also avoids saying anything about a very poignant topic. In today’s world, it’s not only A-list celebrities who feel pressure to perform a personality and to tirelessly protect their public image. To an extent, everyone does this now, and it’s exhausting. But because Kat seems as comfortable with the cameras on as she does when they’re off, there’s no sense that the performance is a labor, or that she’s performing at all, which is exactly how celebrities and influencers want to be perceived. How else can their viewers take their sponsored posts seriously, unless they believe that they would use the same products whether they were paid to do it or not?
It would be impossible for me to write about Marry Me and not mention all of the product placement. There’s Kat’s aforementioned Vitamix sponsorship, plus her Coach endorsement and photo shoot, and her appearances on various real-life NBC programs, which characters speak of as if they’re still the center of the universe. Kat’s manager (John Bradley, Moonfall) loudly announces that Tom from iHeartRadio is on the phone. A student in Charlie’s class demonstrates how easy it is to call up a specific video using Google voice commands, and later excitedly declares that he’s already begun building Charlie a website using Wix.com. The brand callouts are glaringly obvious and, to me, very funny, but I don’t think they’re meant to be. (This isn’t Josie and the Pussycats.)
There’s also something a little sinister about a movie in which real-life pop stars play fictionalized versions of themselves so that the project becomes as a transmedia movie/album/concert event. When you watch Marry Me on Peacock, you are recommended a video of a 40 minute concert in which J.Lo and Maluma perform all their songs from the film. The climactic song “On My Way to You” played over various ad spots during the Super Bowl on NBC this weekend. Unlike in films where recording artists are played by actors who don’t also have music careers (again, see Josie) this makes it hard not to conflate watching Kat Valdez perform vs. watching Jennifer Lopez perform, and this feels deliberate. Of course, most movies about songwriters use the lead characters’ songs to help tell the story, as well they should, and it helps that most of the songs seem to have been written for the film rather than being rescued from the artists’ reject piles. Actual scenes of writing and recording music are laughable as usual, though I was surprised that the film implies an actual explanation (Charlie’s love of old musicals) as to why Kat would record “On My Way to You” live in a single take with an orchestra directly behind her, the way no one in modern pop would actually do.
In Marry Me, realism is not the name of the game, and frankly, it doesn’t have to be. There are plenty of more grounded indie rom coms out there, the kind that debut at festivals and then pop up on streaming services and occasionally pick up award nominations for their stars or screenplays. Marry Me is a glitzy, ripe-for-parody studio romance designed to make you smile without thinking too hard, and that’s all it aims to be. If action blockbusters are allowed to get away with being a dumb good time, so should romantic comedies, and it should happen more often.