The romantic comedy as we know it has been through four phases. It was born with “It Happened One Night” (1934), and the glory of the classic romantic-comedy period (Hepburn and Tracy and so on) was the ’30s and ’40s, though it extended into the ’50s with a movie like “Pillow Talk.” The form enjoyed a cultural resurgence starting in 1989 and ’90, with the release of “When Harry Met Sally” and “Pretty Woman.” You could call that the Age of Nora Ephron, since she kind of ruled over it; the fact that that era spawned the term “rom-com” says a lot about how love comedies, in their born-again popularity, were becoming a kind of consumer product. The third phase was the Matthew McConaughey/Kate Hudson era, when the sheer cheesiness of so many studio rom-coms (“Failure to Launch,” “Bride Wars”) became its own reward; the films were turning into guilty pleasures. Then there’s the phase we’re in now: the age of the Netflix rom-com, with movies made for streaming that are so fanciful yet slapdash they can leave you longing for a movie that stars Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson.
So where does “Marry Me” fit in? Somewhere between phases three and four. It’s undeniably cheesy — in fact, its premise is so farfetched that you could say the movie never pretends not to be cheesy. (Let’s call that the “Miss Congeniality” factor.) It’s the rare rom-com based on a graphic novel (by Bobby Crosby), and in many ways it fits snugly into the knowingly dopy throwaway aesthetic of the Netflix era.
Except that “Marry Me” is opening in theaters (with a simultaneous streaming release on Peacock), it’s being marketed as a movie that could bring back the rom-com, and its two stars, Jennifer Lopez and Owen Wilson, inject a winning dose of personality wattage into the equation. Watching the movie, there were a number of moments when I rolled my eyes at what was happening, yet at the very same moment I would think, “Damn, Owen Wilson can play a rumpled math teacher with just the right touch of aw-shucks neo-Jimmy Stewart charm,” or “I’m not sure I buy Jennifer Lopez as a famous but lonely pop star who just needs a rumpled math teacher in her life, but she infuses the role with such no-nonsense pizzazz that I’m enjoying not buying it.”
All of which is to say: The bar for rom-coms is not high, and this one, ludicrous as it often is, inches over the bar. But I would no more call it a good movie than I’d pretend fast food is high in nutrients.
You’ve heard of meet cute? In “Marry Me,” the two characters meet so contrived it’s cuckoo bananas. Wilson’s Charlie Gilbert is a divorced dad who teaches at the same earthy Brooklyn private school his 12-year-old daughter, Lou (Chloe Coleman), attends. She’s starting to grow up and apart from him, so when his guidance-counselor pal, Parker (Sarah Silverman, playing a new variation on that old rom-com staple, the gay best friend), suggests that they accompany her to a concert to see the global dance-pop superstar Kat Valdez (Lopez), Charlie agrees. It’s not just any concert. Kat is engaged to marry Bastian, a pop sensation from Puerto Rico (he’s played by the golden-throated Colombian pop singer Maluma), and the two have a hit single together entitled “Marry Me.” They’re planning to cap their love, and their brand, by getting hitched at the concert, in an event broadcast around the world to 20 million fans.
Just as they’re ready to go onstage and tie the knot, a Page Six story breaks: There is video footage of Bastian kissing another woman. Who happens to be Kat’s assistant. Kat, hearing this, practically has a nervous breakdown. And out of the sheer insanity of trying to save face in a situation that’s beyond impossible, she spots Charlie in the crowd, a totally ordinary schlump carrying a sign that says “Marry Me” (the title of their single). And she invites him onstage. And marries him. Right then and there.
If Preston Sturges returned from the dead, minus two-fifths of his brain cells, and made a romantic comedy set in the world of 21st-century media and celebrity, it might look like “Marry Me.” Neither Kat nor Charlie harbors any illusion that their marriage is real, but Kat decides that the best way to let the optics of the situation play out is to pretend that it is. She’s been married several times before (she always picks the wrong guy), and after conferring with her high-maintenance British manager (played by “Game of Thrones'” John Bradley in a likable Ricky-Gervais-wasn’t-available performance), she decides to hang out with Charlie for three months, almost as if they were staging their own reality show, all as a way to feed the tabloid buzzards and, at the same time, keep them at bay.
But the audience, of course, recognizes what’s really going on: that the entire situation is the movie’s knowing contrivance, a way of throwing a pop star and a nobody together. Charlie doesn’t fit into Kat’s world at all. He hates the lights, the buzz, the paparazzi, the filmmaker who tails Kat around — and, most of all, he hates the social media, which creates an insulated padding of unreality around everything. Kat doesn’t fit into Charlie’s world either, but she doesn’t hate it in the same way; she looks cozy in it. He’s just the kind of unglamorous guy who can bring her down to earth, and Wilson, at 53, is the perfect actor to play someone so shaggy-sincere that he’s pre-ironic. (In this culture, it’s practically a medical condition.) His Charlie is like the last old-school grounded, non-performative man in America.
Lopez and Wilson are cut from such different cloths that at first they don’t seem to have much chemistry. But that’s all built into the movie. They’re right for each other precisely because they’re so wrong for each other. Lopez, always a canny actor, poises Kat on a balancing beam between confidence and woe, spitfire and romantic casualty. When Kat shows up in Charlie’s classroom, crashing the math club (called the Pi-Thons) he teaches after school, she’s sweetly responsive to the kids — and when they all start dancing to a song called “I Just Got Paid,” it’s startling what a catchy song it is, and the students are such nerds-dancing-for-joy that you buy their infectious energy, and the way it infects her. “Marry Me,” in its unabashedly goofy Beauty and the Schlub way, starts to turn into a semi-musical. It’s “Pretty Woman” meets “Dorky Man.”
There’s a reason why rom-coms can get away with being cheesy, farfetched, synthetic, ridiculous. Even when they’re as concocted as “Marry Me,” they’re mythologies — about how “the one” we think we’re looking for doesn’t match the one we’re meant to be with. That may be an even timelier message now than it was in the ’40s. In the age of online romance, we try to fall in love by algorithm, and by checking off a shopping list of traits. In “Marry Me,” by contrast, the very absurdity of what happens is a metaphor for the absurdity of love. The cheesiness is romance.
But the movie still has to woo us, through the connection of its stars and the predictable-in-a-not-totally-predictable way their communion plays out. Your average streaming rom-com looks like junk, but Florian Ballhaus’ cinematography lends “Marry Me” a pleasing luster, and once you accept the setup (I fought it for about 20 minutes), it’s easy to roll with the situations in the connect-the-dots script: the way Charlie challenges Kat to live without her army of assistants, the twist presented by the Grammys (Kat gets her first nomination, for best pop vocal — but will she get back together with Bastian during the awards campaign?), the weaving in of Jimmy Fallon monologue jokes. The climax takes place not at the Grammys but at a student Mathalon in Peoria. How appropriate for a rom-com that, like all rom-coms, leaves us with the encouraging message that 1 + 1 = 3.