By Wesley Morris
Rarely are romantic comedies titled more desperately than “Marry Me.” There is something pleasing about the bluntness. And because it’s a command that involves Jennifer Lopez, we’re permitted to skate atop the movie’s despair. But the ice is thin.
Lopez has rarely stayed emotionally still long enough to luxuriate in moods less emphatic than “I will” and “I do.” Her comedies argue for restlessness as a quest for true stability: The right man soothes her nerves, dispels her doubts, restores her worth. But none of those movies has been as point-blank as this new one, whose original source is a punky graphic novel.
The pop star she’s playing, Kat Valdez, has agreed to a stunt wedding during a live concert (and before a presumed online audience of 20 million) with her pop star boyfriend, Bastian. Within minutes of the ceremony, Kat discovers that he’s been messing around with one of her assistants, but she decides to wed someone and picks the divorced dad (Owen Wilson) holding a “marry me” sign in the crowd. Lopez performs this choice so lifelessly yet with such automatic determination that it’s fair to classify the sign as a cue card.
This brand-new relationship is Kat’s way of mourning her suddenly old one. Introspection and grief never cross her mind. “Why do I pick the wrong guy?” is as inward as things get. Amazingly, the next day, she endorses sticking with the brand logic of the marriage while doing yoga in her soulless high-rise home. She couldn’t have selected a blander, less objectionable stranger for a husband than Charlie Gilbert. He teaches middle-school math, co-parents one of those only-in-a-movie preteens (she’s spunky yet unsure of herself) and speaks in Wilson’s drawling whine.
Charlie dislikes the demands of Kat’s celebrity. “Her entire life is sponsored,” he cries, upon watching her shoot a post for Vitamix. But he concedes to the arrangement because, it seems, the daughter (Chloe Coleman), a big Kat Valdez fan, will finally believe her dad likes fun. He never sits her down to talk about fun’s downsides. Does she know why he and her mom aren’t together? How aware is she that Kat’s been married three other times and that one of those marriages lasted for two days? It doesn’t matter because this movie vows to satisfy all involved parties.
Does “involved” include me? I just kept counting the missed opportunities. Once, at about the halfway point, Charlie bets Kat that she can’t give up her accouterments of affluence and live like, say, Jenny from the block. Yet what Kat requests in exchange is so ... puny — for Charlie to open some social media accounts — that I hurt for her imagination. (That’s his daughter’s version of proof of life.) There’s a movie in that premise nonetheless, maybe even some stakes: Kat may yet discover where she keeps the wineglasses and how to properly use a Vitamix (they’re called lids, Kat). And, online, Charlie might meet a woman who dreams of even more for him — and hopefully, Lopez would play her, too.
She has her moments as Kat. They’re mostly physical: mincing down a school hallway in formfitting, scarlet couture under a parka; uttering the word “Peoria,” then appearing there, as if the mother ship abandoned her. Here is a star who’s been performing for so long that performance is all, as an actor, she knows. If Kat isn’t teaching Charlie’s math students how to dance in order to calm their pre-competition jitters, she’s luring them into singing one of her hits at a school formal. This is Lopez’s best mode, and she’s always known it.
But rather than indulge her stardom and its candy shell, the movie, which Kat Coiro directed from a screenplay credited to three writers, seems to apologize for them. Kat Valdez wishes for a kind of pedestrian normalcy, a common prayer of princesses in everything from the delight of “Roman Holiday” and “Notting Hill” to the despondence of “Beyond the Lights” and “Spencer.” “Marry Me,” though, has an awkward, translucent ply. Kat’s discography includes a catchy convolution whose chorus is “I am the love of, the love of my life.”
So many parallels exist between Lopez’s character and what, in reality, we know Lopez has withstood that the movie all but doubles as one of those brand-burnishing docu-selfies, right down to a crowd-pleasing retreat into the arms of a white suitor after someone charismatic and brown has let her down. Colombian singer Maluma plays Bastian; he’s a bag of cuddles here, masquerading as a red flag. At some point, Kat even notes that she’s never been nominated for anything. (The happiest we see her in the whole movie is on Grammy nomination day.)
The original songs are the best things in the movie. Those, and the two or three scenes in which Sarah Silverman — as Charlie’s sidekick and, somehow, a school guidance counselor — appears to abandon a script that it pained me to watch her obey. The pain extends to Lopez. I spend her movies waiting for the moments in which she seems most relaxed and least forced, when the effort has fallen away and the person she’s playing is free to do and be and feel. “Marry Me” is a sad tale that’s too busy leaping from plot point to plot point for Lopez to express anything close to real. It tells a lot and shows nothing.
I keep referring to her and Kat as entertainers, which, of course, they are. But what Lopez performs here — what she’s frequently performing — is the business of entertainment. She’s the star as executive, and all she often lets us see is execution. (Kat’s truest friend is her manager, an efficient Englishman, whom John Bradley plays with persuasive concern.) Kat and Charlie don’t meet much of each other’s families. And the movie denies them any chance to explore the weirdness of this relationship. He’s something Kat must do — although not carnally, never that; we just get a morning after in which she’s long removed herself from his bed and is taking work calls. Which is fine. But don’t call this love when all we see is task management.
Rated PG-13. (Kisses, cunning, backup dancers in bodysuits with nuns’ habits.) Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes. In theaters and streaming on Peacock.