Jennifer Lopez Plays Italian in The Wedding Planner

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.



Even Italian
girls like Jennifer Lopez, but that’s no reason she has to play one. Cast
as Mary Fiori, the lead character in the romantic comedy The Wedding Planner,
Lopez has a working girl amiability that is recognizable across ethnic identities.
In her clinging but chicly tailored suits, the film and recording star brings
back for a new generation the shop-girl ideal that used to be a movie staple
(once the provenance of Doris Day and Ginger Rogers). Lopez generates immediate
audience identification with how ordinary ladies strive and dream; her character
not only plans lavishly detailed wedding ceremonies but is totally committed
to that consummate moment when a young woman can expect society to celebrate
and adore her. Too bad this fairy tale plays out in ways that betray Lopez’s
good will, her smiling efficiency and visible ethnic attributes.


The map of
Italy is not on Lopez’s face. Her brown eyes, wide jaw and coloring declare
Puerto Rico. She actually resembles a young Miriam Colon (who suffered her own
ethnic mix-up as the Mexican matriarch in the enervating All the Pretty Horses).
Lopez’s essence queers how we are to read Mary Fiori. Though good enough
at her job to demand her boss make her a partner, Mary seems culturally subservient:
she’s not only employed by the upper class but sacrifices companionship
to support its ideals. Even Mary’s Prince Charming turns out to be a white
doctor (Matthew McConaughey) who, in finally choosing her over a WASP princess,
assures her own class ascension. White actresses from Meg Ryan to Diane
Keaton and Julia Roberts to Sandra Bullock act out middle-class romantic formula
to show their allegiance to social ideas most people don’t even think about.
We accept this dramatically, assuming those actresses do in fact benefit from
standard social conditions (privileged social positions). The Wedding Planner
can’t use that conventional model because of the distinct new element
Lopez brings to it: her nonwhite ethnicity. Social difference and struggle are
implicit in her very presence. It’s unconscionable that the movie does
not address that fact.


From Lopez
and McConaughey’s meet-cute to their eventual "I Do’s" the
film’s effort to be buoyant and delightful is sunk by its many unscrutinized
assumptions about class, ethnicity, marriage, religion. Although The Wedding
Planner
’s title alerts you to the unconscious way both movie romance
and the status quo are manufactured, this cake falls flat because Lopez
isn’t allowed to invest it with believability. It’s an old supremacist
affront to hide Lopez as "Italian." Who does Hollywood think she is:
Eli Wallach? Yaphet Kotto?


Some executives
in Hollywood obviously felt the moviegoing public has no interest in the love
life of an actual young Puerto Rican woman such as Lopez, so "Italian"
is the preferred, commercial ethic choice. Watching Lopez play the Italian princess
role again smothers the audience’s identification with her (in Out of
Sight
a similar daughter-father relationship was strange enough to initiate
that film’s multiculti social satire). Here, fake family feeling (Alex
Rocco, playing Mary’s dad, has never been so phony) suppresses the empathy
that millions of record buyers and video-watchers have already, happily felt
in connecting with Lopez’s homegirl/pop star presence. Director Adam Shankman,
screenwriters Pamela Falk and Michael Ellis and producers Gigi Pretzker and
Deborah Del Prete lack courage in exactly the same way that the skulking media
has badmouthed Lopez’s relationship of choice with Sean "Puffy"
Combs (as if starlets-dating-gangsters was not an age-old tradition.) The
Wedding Planner
represents a tacit rejection of the ethnic mixing Lopez’s
stardom ought to attest.


Fresh, interesting
comedy and romance might have come from seeing Lopez embody her own ethnic-wedding
traditions (or play out the sentiments of her good hit records). It does not
limit an actor to bring emotional richness to what they appear to be; it may,
in fact, offer an advantage. Rosie Perez made advances for Latinas; Lopez’s
acquiescence to "harmless nontraditional casting" drags culture behind.
The opening scene of adolescent Mary playing with Barbie and Ken dolls sets
us up for an ethnic subversion of fatuous white-bread romanticism; presumably
we’ve all outgrown playing with white-supremacist dolls. But the makers
of The Wedding Planner prove themselves to be willing blockheads. They’re
also clueless about the esthetics of ethnic star-making, showcasing Lopez less
ideally than her music videos and L’Oreal commercials.


As with the
entire cast, Lopez’s makeup and photography are inadequate. (McConaughey,
though in fighting trim, looks peaked, and Bridgette Wilson-Sampras as his WASP
fiancee is as plasticized as Barbie herself.) Most romantic comedies have a
simple basis in how the lead couple go together–that great dream fodder
known as "the two-shot." But Shankman is never able to ignite chemistry
between Lopez and McConaughey. He flubs the film’s basic point because
he can’t even make the stars look complementary.


 



The Million
Dollar Hotel

Directed by
Wim Wenders


The
Legend of Rita
Directed
by Volker Schlondorff


Germany’s
film heritage, recently lambasted by Shadow of the Vampire (the kind
of movie that fooled the smart kids in high school), stays fitfully alive in
new films by Wim Wenders and Volker Schlondorff. Both movies not only recall
Germany’s expressionist and realist traditions, but intermix them. Wenders’
uneven The Million Dollar Hotel is the most interesting, since it breaks
his usual form and displays previously underplayed romantic gifts. Schlondorff’s
The Legend of Rita returns him to his early socially conscious features
reporting on the ironies of post-WWII political life. Rooted in now-vague traditions
of Murnau, Lang, Pabst and Wenders’ and Schlondorff’s own, each movie
feels cut adrift: Wender’s story focuses on inhabitants of an obscure Los
Angeles (partly concocted by coproducer Bono and screenwriter Nicholas Klein)
while Schlondorff fictionalizes the fate of a young female radical, Rita (Bibiana
Beglau), whose random terrorist acts leave her politically displaced, spiritually
homeless.


The word "legend"
in Schlondorff’s title refers to new identities Rita takes on when East
German secret agents help her go underground. That pragmatic, self-conscious
mythologizing implies an escape from reality that dovetails with Wenders’
"legend" of spectral marginals hanging out at a run-down L.A. hostel.
Skateboarding Tom Tom (Jeremy Davies) seeks the meaning behind the death/suicide
of a resident poet, just as Rita has tried to supplement her youthful romanticism
with political principles. Both movies take positions on social commitments
that mirror current political doubts, as Wenders’ The Wrong Move
(1975) and Schlondorff’s A Free Woman (1972) queried individual
political quandaries of past eras.


Now in their
maturity, Wenders and Schlondorff’s political skepticism leads them to
reconnect with older expressions of distress. The way Rita traverses East and
West Germany, the Middle East and Paris, supporting shaky causes and fleeing
authorities, makes her phantomlike; slipping in and out of time periods (her
tale–based on the Red Army Faction and the Baader-Meinhof gang–could
be of the 60s, 70s or 80s). Similarly, Tom Tom’s infatuation with the prostitute
Eloise (Milla Jovovich) and his pursuit by all-seeing FBI agent Skinner (Mel
Gibson) evoke classic lower-depths wastrels.


If German Expressionism
derived from social malaise (and later influenced film noir), then Wenders and
Schlondorff now sensibly essay how German Expressionism’s mood might apply
to today. The Legend of Rita’s modern urgency may appeal to some
people’s abiding interest in failed radicalism, but Jean-Marie Straub’s
satirical short Machorka-Muff examined nationalist character better.
Schlondorff emphasizes a bleak political legacy that presages a line from The
Million Dollar Hotel
, "The truth is the only explanation most people
want to buy." Reflecting the current notion of relative social beliefs,
both movies focus on lonely outcasts, uncovering the expressionist despair we
no longer want to acknowledge.


Wenders uses
movie romanticism to divine those suppressed anxieties. While Shadow of the
Vampire
had little resonance (except posing a craftsmanly retake on The
Blair Witch Project
), The Million Dollar Hotel updates German Expressionism
for meaning. Its apocalyptic urban noir atmosphere laments the homelessness
and alienation that are part of contemporary social decline. Admittedly, you
need to have a taste for this kind of thing (cuz it’s not far from Schlondorff’s
60s nostalgia) but much of it is strangely, mysteriously piquant.


As in Wenders’
Wings of Desire
, the lyrical, cosmic fascination is up-front. Photographed
by Phedon Papamichael (and backed by some Eno/Jon Hassell felicities), parts
are as rapturous as if the great Murnau had had a chance to work in scrupulous,
dreamy color. One bravura scene follows a suicidal leap floating past Rear
Window
peeks at others’ lives going on. It could be the perfect music
video for The Divine Comedy’s threnody "Tonight We Fly" ("Over
the friends that we’ve known/And those that we now know/And those who we’ve
yet to meet").


Wenders’
human (musical) comedy of destitution features three memorable, emotive characters.
Davies’ spiky-haired Tom Tom fulfills the ingenious idea to put whimsy
into noir. After many attempts Davies finally achieves Anthony Perkinsish heights.
It’s an amazing pantomime. Wenders’ eloquent fade-outs, iris-shots
and silhouettes make this Jovovich’s most trenchant screen appearance.
In romantic scenes she teases Davies: "If you’re not gonna play retard,
I’m not gonna play whore." They circle each other in mad, balletic
duets like Hollywood Boulevard pierrots. Davies’ whole being gets caught
up in imagining bliss and she basks in his ardor. Davies is equally impressive
opposite Gibson’s sardonic, magnetic detective; they sustain tender and
gruff harmony. These are great, empathetic screen presences, like the actors
in German silents. They help Wenders keep romantic tradition alive.


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