Heigl's intriguing presence is wasted

January 15, 2008 12:17:58 PM PST
"27 Dresses" is so chock full of romantic-comedy cliches, it almost plays like a parody.

(It might be fun, though, if they handed out lists at the multiplex door to allow you to check them off as you go along - could be an interactive thing. You know, to help pass the time.)

Katherine Heigl's Jane is always a bridesmaid and never a bride, a role she's performed 27 times already because she's so adept at anticipating and meeting her friends' every prenuptial need.

She's secretly in love with her boss (Edward Burns) but, naturally, there's another guy out there (James Marsden) whom she initially clashes with, and who obviously will end up being the one to keep her from having to wear bridesmaid dress No. 28.

Director Anne Fletcher ("Step Up") and writer Aline Brosh McKenna ("The Devil Wears Prada") also cram in a wisecracking best friend, the obligatory trying-on-clothes montage featuring all the hideous taffeta concoctions in Jane's closet, and a cringe-inducing sing-along to Elton John's "Bennie and the Jets."

And of course, the whole thing wraps up with a mad dash to blurt out some very painful, public I-love-yous. On stage. At a microphone. Outside of movies like this, does anyone really do that sort of thing?

Heigl has such an intriguingly different presence for a rom-com heroine, though - there's nothing cutesy about her, nothing self-conscious - she makes you long desperately to see her work with more inspired material. The star of TV's "Grey's Anatomy" proved a reliable straight woman in last summer's "Knocked Up" opposite a gaggle of goofy guys who stole all the laughs. Here, with her first chance to carry a movie, she maintains a down-to-earth likability, despite the fluffiness of the dialogue and situations.

One woman can only do so much. Two women, however - Fletcher and McKenna - could have done much more, and they should have. In an industry dominated by men, where female filmmakers are still only making the slightest headway, they owe it to female moviegoers to provide entertainment that isn't just mindless and mired in stereotypes. (This is especially a letdown coming from the person who adapted "Prada," a script that was breezy and stylish.)

Several of those 27 future wives are bridezillas, whom Jane assuages with her warm demeanor and her mantra in every tricky situation, "No problem." But it's clear from her obsession with weddings - which includes cutting out and keeping her favorite articles from the commitments section of the fictional New York Journal - that her primary, life-defining dream is to be the one walking down the aisle one day to Pachelbel's Canon.

Her best friend, Casey (Judy Greer), is singularly sarcastic and promiscuous. Her younger sister, Tess (Malin Akerman), has skated her whole life on her looks and her party-girl personality - and she manages to sweep Burns' character off his feet the night she meets him in a slinky little yellow number at a bar, much to Jane's dismay. Then they end up getting engaged within just weeks, since Tess has lied to make him think she's the perfect woman for him: an outdoorsy, animal-loving vegan.

Guess who the maid of honor will be?

Anyway, the chief source of tension comes from Marsden's character, Kevin, lying about the fact that he's the guy who's been writing all those wedding columns Jane adores under a pseudonym. She just thinks he's a reporter - and a cynical one, at that. (Kevin doesn't believe in love and marriage, Jane's bread and butter.) Then he lies again when he says he's writing a puff piece on Tess' wedding.

Marsden, who's been on a roll lately with the musicals "Hairspray" and "Enchanted," shows another comic side here and gets a couple of good lines. He and Heigl would seem to have some chemistry, only the banter isn't snappy enough to allow it to shine through.

Costume designer Catherine Marie Thomas deserves a mention, though, for creating all those wild gowns, which range from goth and cowgirl-themed to a Scarlet O'Hara-inspired monstrosity and a hot pink micro-mini for an L.A. wedding.

The theory offered here is that bridesmaid dresses are ugly to make the women getting married look better by comparison. "27 Dresses" has the same effect on its romantic comedy predecessors.

"27 Dresses," a Fox 2000 release, is rated PG-13 for language, some innuendo and sexuality. Running time: 107 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.