Film writer AJ Caulfield has taken the #52FilmsbyWomen pledge, where she will watch one movie directed by a women per week throughout 2018. Here on The Young Folks, AJ reflects on the films she’s viewed — including female-directed classics and new-to-the-scene flicks — in efforts to celebrate female voices in the media landscape. Learn more about the #52FilmsbyWomen project here.
In my (slightly chaotic, a little topsy-turvy, generally unpredictable, and definitely difficult to compartmentalize) life, I tend to avoid presumption. (I got the “I know what you’re thinking, and I’m unquestionably right about it, even if I’m not” grossness out of my system when I was a young teenager, as most other people did.) But here, I have to make one of those blanket statements I otherwise hate making, because I’m certain I can predict the words bouncing around in your brain: 27 Dresses isn’t anything special. Plenty may consider the film unremarkable, too overtly frothy to be palatable, or simply Not Great.
Sure, its Rotten Tomatoes score doesn’t do it any favors in the “I’m a Legitimate Piece of Cinema, and I’m on a Mission to Prove It” endeavor, but then again, what constitutes the legitimate from the illegitimate? Yeah, its logline edges on hokiness that threatens to leave your mouth coated in saccharine. And, of course, there are moments of predictability and passion that comes at just the right moment and a dashing leading man who’s Been There All Along who seemingly swoops in to stitch up troubles and swipe away tears. But what’s so bad about that?
For some, all 27 Dresses is is exactly what it outwardly appears: A standard rom-com of the late-2010s era. For me, it’s more than that.
From director Anne Fletcher and screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna (hell yes to a dynamic lady duo), 27 Dresses exudes the same kind of cinematic atmosphere as Luke Greenfield’s Something Borrowed and Gary Winick’s Bride Wars (despite the latter releasing afterwards), and it’s structurally similar, too. You’ve got nuptials that mark a love built on a lie impending, a spinster-adjacent pining after the man who’s about to enter that sham marriage, and an unassuming prince charming who somehow finds himself at the center of it all.
Katherine Heigl’s Jane is the half-homebody, half-workaholic whose only love greater than that for organization and sticking to strict rules is for boss George, played by Edward Burns. Much to Jane’s devastation, and largely due to her own fear of rejection and inability to disagree or cause of a fuss, her affection is unrequited. It only gets worse when she learns George is engaged to be wed — to her younger sister Tess, portrayed by Malin Akerman, a flighty little blond flirt who always gets her way.
Following the revelation that inspires the mental and emotional equivalent of a Macaulay-Culkin-in-Home–Alone-face-smack reaction, catastrophe burgeons and bubbles in the basements of the trio’s respective relationships: Jane knows that Tess and George are wholly incompatible (Tess loves chicken wings and barbecue ribs, but George is a vegetarian; George would adopt 500 dogs if he had the time to cuddle them all, but Tess is a decidedly canine-averse) and is horrified in knowing Tess has deceived the man she touts as the apple of her eye, creating thick tension between them. George is none the wiser to Tess’ stream of xwhite lies that quickly turned into river rapids, and when Jane’s still-burning fondness for him starts to seep through the subfloors, the peril of a marriage call-off sends Tess into a total tizzy. And George, knowing how diligent a worker Jane is and how thorough she is in event execution, enlists her as their wedding planner, which is god-awful of obvious reasons. Jane’s left caught in a moral conundrum fueled by a desire to be desired, worried she’ll only ever be a bridesmaid, never a bride.
Ostensibly, the film’s just a derivative of My Best Friend’s Wedding. “It’s My Lying Little Sister’s Wedding,” you’d cry. But add in that aforementioned boyish but cynical psuedo-hero (here, it’s James Marsden’s wedding reporter Kevin, who covers Tess and George’s big day), a requisite post-rainstorm bar scene that ends in a ubiquitous alcohol-charged singalong to a chart-topper from yesteryear (here, a surprisingly sultry take on “Bennie and the Jets”), blips of genuine sentimentality, and a satisfying narrative sum-up, and 27 Dresses is enough of its own entity to resist umbrella comparisons.
It accomplishes what I believe all romantic comedies (particularly ones of its time) set out to do, but few actually follow through on: Capture a singular emotion and magnify it for the masses. Jane’s pain — loving someone who doesn’t love you back, not in that way; creating a dream for someone who doesn’t really deserve it; grappling with the notion of an empty heart, a ringless third finger, and a closet overflowing with bridesmaid dresses — is one with which we can all relate. Her jealousy, her righteousness, her anger, we know it, because we’ve housed it in our own chests before.
Beneath even that, down deep into the core of 27 Dresses, you see, behind the smoke and mirrors and sweet nothings of its genre, that the film does a commendable job of portraying women and female-female relationships, particularly the rapport between adult siblings. Suffocating under her sister’s secrets, the same weight of inferiority that has crushed her since childhood, Jane snaps, warning Tess, “You tell [George] the truth, or I will.” When Tess, the little sister Jane has always been forced to look and live up to, uses their bond to keep Jane quiet — “You wouldn’t hurt a fly. And you definitely wouldn’t hurt me; I’m your sister.” — Jane takes a stand. “That was yesterday. Today, you’re just some bitch who broke my heart and cut up my mother’s wedding dress,” she bites back, tears glassing her eyes over.
It’s here that 27 Dresses’ colors bleed through: The story isn’t just one of Jane’s heartache, Tess’ lies, George’s inability to see the truth, or Kevin’s anxiety over commitment. It’s one of a pressure uniquely felt by women: conform to the needs of everyone around them, bend backwards to accommodate others’ emotions, sacrifice their own happiness to give off an that impossible aura of easygoingness. 27 Dresses crystallizes that paradox, one that you may not see at first because, well, there’s so much else going on and James Marsden is unfairly good-looking and you have that damn Elton John track stuck in your head. But it’s there. Squint hard past Marsden’s face, and you’ll spot it.
Ten years since 27 Dresses made its theatrical run, and in what was likely my seventh or eighth viewing of the film over that decade-long period, I’m reminded that there exists intelligence in creations that seem superficially stale or paint-by-the-number or even silly. 27 Dresses crackles with it, the idea that the journey to eschew a life spent single and to land the love of your life will more often than not lead you to re-learning yourself first. (Exposing your sister’s falsehoods via a slideshow presentation at her wedding rehearsal not required.)