Solid performances and decent intentions are all on the guest list for “Jenny’s Wedding,” a sweetly played yet overly on-the-nose dramedy about a lesbian who finally comes out to her sheltered Cleveland family after deciding to marry her longtime partner. Katherine Heigl brings both ferocity and vulnerability to the role of a favored child discovering the courage to be herself in front of her parents and siblings, but while the fine cast teases out glimmers of nuance here and there, Mary Agnes Donoghue’s film plays like a series of hand-holding growth exercises for closed-minded conservatives, and relies too heavily on its tying-the-knot finale for both dramatic momentum and emotional closure. A name-y cast and fortuitously topical timing will ensure some audience exposure for this July 31 IFC release.
Keeping your characters in the dark for too long while tipping off the audience too early can be a risky strategy, and viewers can be forgiven for rolling their eyes when Heigl’s Jenny returns home for a family function and has to deal with the usual “When are you going to find a nice young man and settle down?” inquiries from her parents, Eddie (Tom Wilkinson) and Rose (Linda Emond). Her brother, Michael (Matthew Metzger), goes through his usual five-second routine of trying to set her up with a friend, while their nosy sister, Anne (Grace Gummer), badgers her relentlessly about her seemingly nonexistent love life. When Jenny quietly insists she’s in a relationship but refuses to say anything more, Anne somehow becomes convinced that her sister is dating a married man — a silly plot point that gets dragged out a few beats longer than necessary.
The audience will have figured out what’s going on long before Jenny returns to her apartment in the city and greets her “roommate,” Kitty (Alexis Bledel), who is in fact her partner of five years. But when Eddie gives Jenny a stirring talk about the joys of getting married and raising a family, he unwittingly sets his daughter on a course that will lead her to announce to her parents that she’s gay, and that she and Kitty are getting married. How these two revelations gradually become known to the whole family and their close friends, leaking and ricocheting from one person to the next, is explored in a reasonably sensitive, character-specific manner — from the different shades of awkwardness that develop between Jenny and her parents, to the pointed reaction of Anne, who’s less upset about her sister’s sexuality than she is about all the secrecy.
It’s no surprise that Jenny’s siblings are young and progressive enough not to be too bothered by the news (or even that surprised, in Michael’s case). Her parents, tradition-minded suburbanites that they are, prove far less accepting. Religion, although a factor, doesn’t seem to be the main issue for Mom and Dad, who are more concerned about the shame and disapproval they’ll have to endure from the likes of Rose’s gossipy best friend (Diana Hardcastle) and Eddie’s longtime co-worker (Sam McMurray). And so they ask Jenny to keep the truth under wraps — something she is no longer willing to do, as she makes clear in two angry, eloquent rants that will likely draw cheers and fist pumps from like-minded viewers in the audience.
It will come as little surprise to Heigl’s fans and haters alike that she socks over those monologues with righteous fury, and it helps that we’ve seen enough of Jenny by that point to understand that she’s a considerate, self-sacrificing individual whose natural inclination is to please those around her. Unfortunately, “Jenny’s Wedding” contains rather too much blatant speechifying all around, with nearly every major declaration rendered even more heavy-handed by an unnecessary burst of musical punctuation (courtesy of either Brian Byrne’s score or the equally hyperactive soundtrack). These scenes also serve to bring about the sort of sudden, I-love-my-gay-daughter epiphanies that might have felt more moving — and truer to life — had they been arrived at more gradually.
But there’s no time for that. There’s a wedding to plan, after all — and in that respect, despite its low budget and lesbian protagonist, this slickly crafted movie (Donoghue’s first feature since 1991’s Melanie Griffith-Don Johnson starrer “Paradise”) doesn’t feel like all that radical a shift for the star of “27 Dresses.” If it’s a truism of life that some couples lavish too much time and attention on their nuptials (often at the expense of their eventual marriages), here the impending ceremony too often short-circuits what’s really at stake for Jenny and her family; it’s hard not to feel the movie would have been more probing and honest if it hadn’t been required to tie a big white bow on at the end. And because Jenny’s romantic interests are presented strictly in terms of marriage and family, we never get a strong sense of exactly who her Ms. Right is and what their relationship is like, which seems like a considerable waste of Bledel’s talents.
Gummer brings a sharp, vinegary wit to the proceedings as the strong-willed younger sister, even if a lame subplot involving Anne’s useless layabout husband (Houston Rhines) exemplifies the worst of the script’s blunt-spoken tendencies. Emond has genuinely stirring moments as a mom initially torn between her undiminished love for her daughter and her utter inability to process the situation, while Wilkinson plays reluctant father of the bride with typically understated sincerity. In the end, “Jenny’s Wedding” seems targeted mainly at those who might share the perspective of these parents — characters who are presented here as fundamentally decent yet in need of enlightenment, even if it takes the form of a finger-wagging lecture.