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Julia Roberts, Meg Ryan, Sandra Bullock, and Kate Hudson. These are the agreed-upon reigning goddesses in the Pantheon of Golden Age romantic comedies, kicking off in 1989 with When Harry Met Sally and continuing through the ‘90s and just beyond with You’ve Got Mail, My Best Friend’s Wedding, How To Lose a Guy In 10 Days, and While You Were Sleeping. Beautiful, witty, yet somehow still relatable, these women all hold that ineffable quality that makes audiences root for them through the topsy-turvy travails of love. They’re also all white, an unsettling testament to what has long passed for mainstream romantic leads in Hollywood. But there’s someone missing from that list, a performer who has done more for the rom-com genre than it ever managed to do for her: Jennifer Lopez.
It’s not so much that J.Lo has been forgotten — how could she be? In large part, her omission from the list stems from the fact that her films don’t command the respect that they should. It should be noted that Lopez made her name in a myriad of ways — notably through her music, but also through her fashion and perfume lines, unlike the other women on the list. But also, it’s due to the fact that a J.Lo rom-com is a so-called guilty pleasure, pure sugar with no redeeming fiber.
Take 2001’s The Wedding Planner, Lopez’s sixth starring role in a feature film, and her romantic comedy debut. The movie holds a paltry 16% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with reviews calling out the contrived plot, lack of substantial character development, and the film’s many zany twists and turns as improbable at best, and ludicrous at worst.
Admittedly, there are a few things that don’t work in Adam Shankman’s 2001 movie, the most obvious being the casting of an actress and singer of Puerto Rican descent as an Italian-American, an offensive whitewashing of her identity. Still, Lopez rises above the erasure of her identity and heritage, delivering a performance that is funny, sweet, and real. The movie was a box-office smash, grossing nearly $95 million worldwide on a budget of $35 million, opening at number one at the U.S. box office on Super Bowl weekend. Combined with the success of her second album, J.Lo, Lopez became the first woman to have a number one film and album at the same time in the United States. She also earned a record-breaking $9 million, the highest salary paid to a Latinx actress up to that date.
Yet, many critics dismissed the movie as a forgettable flash in the pan, a lesser, derivative version of My Best Friend’s Wedding , an assessment that hasn’t held up in the nearly two decades since the film it theaters Just this weekend, The Wedding Planner was front and center in Netflix’s “Popular on Netflix” section. Similarly enduring are Lopez’s other rom-coms: 2005’s Monster-in-Law (18% on Rotten Tomatoes, though it essentially relaunched Jane Fonda’s career by pitting two masterful Big Personalities against each other); and 2006’s Maid in Manhattan (38% on Rotten Tomatoes and one of Lopez’s few rom-coms to explicitly acknowledge her Latinx roots, although that meant casting her as a maid). Together they form the triumvirate of early-aughts J.Lo rom-coms that captured the imagination and fantasies of a generation of young women.
But even if one despised the material, the refusal to acknowledge Lopez’s magnetic star power as a draw was short-sighted. The Washington Post described her performance in The Wedding Planner as “okay,” adding that “the movie's tone is at least a refreshing change and presumable career-lube after her last movie, that descent into slime called The Cell.” The San Francisco Chronicle piled on, calling her “bland.”
Even reviews that praised her performances did so by implying that she was an adequate lead stuck in a bad situation, which diminishes her very active role in making these films the blockbuster successes they became. The two truths can co-exist: J.Lo never quite got the quality rom-com she deserved, but the ones she did star in are beloved and important because she is great in them.
The Wedding Planner is the prime example. Lopez plays Mary Fiori, titular planner of all things nuptial, who, though she excels at making other people’s lives feel like fairy tales, has thus far been unlucky in love herself. That is, until she meets Dr. Steve Edison (a subdued, bespectacled Matthew McConaughey), a charming pediatrician who saves her life during a dumpster mishap meet-cute for the ages. The two instantly hit it off, enjoying a romantic evening together watching the 1951 musical Two Tickets to Broadway in the park, during which they share a dance and very nearly kiss. There’s only one problem: Steve is already engaged, and Mary has just been hired to plan the wedding.
From the very first scene, in which she comforts a distraught father by handing him a Valium from her trusty catch-all kit all while juggling three or four other minor crises, Lopez fills the screen. She’s charismatic and confident, playing off her anxious assistant Penny (Judy Greer, a perfect foil) and taking charge of difficult situations. But unlike say, Sandra Bullock in Miss Congeniality, that cool collected work demeanor doesn’t translate to a messy home life, the kind where the heroine can be seen eating out of five day-old takeout containers. Lopez’s Mary is not an emotionally stunted wreck, she’s an ambitious woman who’s been busy focusing on her career and would rather spend her rare downtime folding her laundry and lighting soothing candles than dating men who will probably disappoint her. And yes, the plotline about her dad trying to convince her to marry her childhood playmate from Italy (Justin Chambers, hilariously not Italian) is contrived, but Lopez leans right in, and brings us along for the ride with some impressive physical comedy to boot.
If The Wedding Planner has one fatal flaw, it’s that by trying to make Lopez palatable for the mainstream by giving her a veneer of whiteness, it deprives itself of interesting and meaningful subtext. Even if her identity didn’t play a prominent part in the plot — and if we’re going to be dabbling into cultural stereotypes about dads pressuring their daughters into marrying, it well could have — simply casting Lopez as an overtly Latinx character would have marked a turning point for representation. Instead, it seemed to pave the way for Italian actresses to go on being cast as Latina, a trope that unfortunately dies hard in Hollywood.
But if you can get over the movie’s original sin — a lot to ask, granted — The Wedding Planner does in fact have a lot to recommend it. The writing isn’t nearly as bad as its reputation would have you believe: Pamela Falk and Michael Ellis’s script has the extremely delicate task of keeping the audience from hating a couple who, in order to be together, have to engage in reprehensible behavior. Not only does Steve lead Mary on in the beginning, he’s also consciously emotionally cheating on his fiancee throughout. Meanwhile, if Mary wants to end up with Steve, she has to break the trust of a woman who has hired her to make things run smoothly. All of this is made even more fraught by the fact that Fran (Bridget Wilson-Sampras), Steve’s fiancée, isn’t a hateable witch a la Meredith Blake — far from it, she’s downright sensible, and the first to come to the realization that maybe this man isn’t for her, and that’s okay.
But another reason The Wedding Planner works better than other J.Lo rom-coms is that she’s rarely ever had a co-star who could match her. Michael Vartan never stood a chance, Ralph Fiennes was somewhat miscast as a Republican politician in Maid in Manhattan (although his performance has since grown on me), Alex O’Laughlin was fairly forgettable in The Backup Plan (cheese orgasm scene aside), and the less said about Ben Affleck in Gigli and Jersey Girl, the better. But McConaughey, with his languid charm and quick wit, exudes just as much star power and presence as Lopez. Watching them toss zingers back and forth as he accidentally super-glues his hand to a marble statue’s dick is nothing short of art.
Ultimately though, The Wedding Planner still tries to make J.Lo a little smaller and less vibrant than she should be. She’s at her most compelling when she has room to be bold, instead of trying to flatten herself into an already-existing mold. It’s what made her performance in Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers — a movie that arguably begins as a platonic rom-com between Ramona and Constance Wu’s Destiny — so exhilarating to watch.
Part of that comes down to the fact that she’s had 19 years to become the J.Lo we know and love today: A seemingly never-aging glamazon who has learned to shrewdly harness her considerable power. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that J.Lo’s most striking acting went hand in hand with her first time being directed by a woman. Nor is it by pure chance that her next two projects are Kat Coiro’s Marry Me and Reed Morano’s The Godmother. J.Lo. has spent a decade as a producer along former agent Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas (their first collaboration under the banner of Nuyorican Productions was Maid in Manhattan). This has changed the power dynamic. Not only does she develop the kinds of projects she’s interested in seeing — even if, as 2018’s Second Act proved, that doesn’t guarantee a critical hit— but she also gets to shine in them on her own terms. Today, Lopez is explicit about her intention to champion women and people of color behind the camera, as she recently made clear in an interview with Variety.
With that in mind, there’s hope ahead. Scheduled for release in February 2021, Marry Me is a rom-com about a musical superstar who decides to get back at her unfaithful fiancee by marrying a random member of the audience, played by Owen Wilson. As Kat Valdez, Lopez will star alongside Columbian singer Maluma — she was adamant that the movie feature a Latinx star — and the film will feature original music from both. It’s the kind of project that appears to play to her current goddess status, with a twist just quirky enough to bring out that awkward sweetness she coined in her previous films.
Could this be the elusive romantic comedy worthy of J.Lo? That would be quite something to behold.
According to a study by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, film criticism is a field overwhelmingly dominated by (surprise, surprise) white men. Not anymore. In Refinery29's series, Writing Critics' Wrongs, our woman movie critic will give fresh consideration to the movies we love, hate, or love to hate. It's time for a rewrite.