“The Wedding Planner” is an attractive bridesmaid but hardly a gorgeous bride among romantic comedies. Displaying early signs that it aspires to revive the urbane elegance of Ernst Lubitsch and the snap-crackle-pop dialogue of Howard Hawks, this tale of mismatched lovebirds begins with considerable charm but eventually loses its winning ways with an excess of ridiculous elements. In this way, pic by tyro helmer Adam Shankman is not unlike a wedding spoiled by too much of everything, when some scaling back would have sent the crowd home happy. Nevertheless, Jennifer Lopez’s fan base will pour out for opening-week reception, with steady numbers to follow in an early February honeymoon.
Though its disheartening to witness Pamela Falk and Michael Ellis’ script fall short of its promise as a sophisticated romancer — an increasingly rare animal in Hollywood — this comedy is good news for co-stars Lopez and Matthew McConaughey. Taking a sharp left turn from her unconvincing dramatics in “The Cell,” Lopez is far more comfortable in this classy San Francisco setting, displaying a knack for playing both a control freak who knows all one can know about nuptials and a woman falling nutty in love. McConaughey has never been sexier or more charming, generating a warmth that seems much more his metier than his various unsatisfying action characters.
Early scenes show that Mary Fiore (Lopez) knew what she wanted to be when she grew up: Whether it’s setting up Barbie’s rite of passage or a nervous bride’s in the present, Mary is the wedding planner par excellence, handling things with the authority of a TV director at the Olympics. Working under Geri (Kathy Najimy), who owns a successful San Francisco wedding-planning business, Mary is easily the firm’s best handler, and demands to become Geri’s partner if she lands the lucrative account of the wealthy, high-tech business clan the Donollys, whose strong-willed daughter Fran (Bridgette Wilson-Sampras) is about to be married.
Mary’s private life is a lonely affair. Dad Salvatore (Alex Rocco, playing a first-generation Italian immigrant and almost tongue-tied by the accent) eyeballs Mary’s childhood mate, Massimo (Justin Chambers), whom she disliked then and has no time for now. Like a clueless, innocent bulldog, Massimo is deaf to Mary’s signals and promptly announces that he’s marrying her — launching the movie’s increasingly dumb subplot.
A freak accident involving her Gucci pumps lands Mary in the rescuing arms of Steve (McConaughey), a pediatrician with charm to burn. Mary’s goofy assistant, Penny (Judy Greer), spots the appeal right away, and not so craftily arranges a date for the two of them in Golden Gate Park, where the pair end up dancing to an alfresco screening of “Two Tickets to Broadway,” starring Tony Martin and Janet Leigh. As in true screwball tradition, Mary turns around the next day to start prepping for Fran’s big day, and finds that the bridegroom is none other than Dr. Steve.
Vet choreographer Shankman struts his stuff staging a crackling tango dance number between the stars, who step and swoop while arguing back and forth about Steve’s seeming deceit. Another well-cut exchange — in which Penny convinces Mary to remain professional while Steve’s golfing buddy (Kevin Pollak, in what seems like a larger role now scissored to a cameo) convinces him that this was a one-night loss of control — suggests that this comedy is building toward something special.
That sense soon dissolves, though, with storytelling that leaves no doubt where it’s headed and has an uncertain comic sensibility. The insistent presence of Massimo damages the movie beyond repair — Mary’s bizarre inability to blow this guy off raises questions about her character — and Fran’s ice-queen persona is so contrived that there’s no question who will end up in whose arms when the dust settles.
There’s a gap between the chemistry of the marquee players and their disappointing support, with even the usually gifted comic Greer overplaying. Stuck in a rich-bitch role she could be typecast in for some time to come, Wilson-Sampras is pure blond calculation and little more. Chambers’ aggressive Italo naif is fake from top to bottom, while Fred Willard, in an absurd bit as a flamboyant dance teacher, bites into his brief role with total, blissful conviction.
Julio Macat’s widescreen lensing is pure class, and Bob Ziembicki leads an inspired production design team. Add, however, Mervyn Warren’s music to the growing tally of ruinous, overwritten scores.