Jenny’s Wedding (Mary Agnes Donoghue, 2015)

Jenny's Wedding

Jenny’s Wedding—a coming-out story set in Cleveland and starring Katherine Heigl—is a dated, lugubrious mess. The tone is drippy, the dialogue is ponderous, and the pacing operates in geological time. Watching this movie is like getting slapped in the face with raw, boneless chicken over and over.

I am not typically a mean person. Nevertheless, I find myself struggling (and ultimately unable) to find a kind thing to say about this film. It paints being a lesbian, coming out as a lesbian, getting married as a lesbian, or doing anything at all as a lesbian as a joyless, sexless trudge. This is not the fault of the fine cast. Tom Wilkinson, as Jenny’s father, does his level best to animate the script with something like paternal warmth and sadness, but mostly he furrows his brow, looks down a lot, and grumbles his way through his lines, as though hoping we won’t notice how wooden the writing is. Grace Gummer, as Jenny’s sister, tries gamely to have some fun with her role, but she is ultimately defeated as the film attempts and fails to achieve a moment of lightheartedness near its end. Alexis Bledel, as Jenny’s fiancée Kitty, might as well not be in the movie at all, for how little she appears onscreen or gets to speak—and for how little chemistry she shares with her onscreen partner. And poor Katherine Heigl.  In her solo scenes, she stares dead-eyed into the middle distance, perhaps trying to discern the dim outlines of a decent career move she can finally make—one that is forever receding from her into the mist.

The most puzzling thing about this film is how dated it feels. With its painfully earnest folkie soundtrack and inexplicable emotional turgidity, it feels like someone pulled it out of a vault, blew the dust off it, CGI’ed some twenty-first-century clothes onto its characters, and called it good. I’m fairly confident that the specific kinds of homophobic remarks made by Jenny’s family (about who’s the man and who’s the woman in her same-sex relationship, for example) haven’t been uttered by a real person since, say, 1992. And Jenny herself seems reasonlessly tormented about her identity. Neither she nor her family is especially religious (though they attend a baptism at the film’s beginning), there’s no dialogue suggesting political conservatism in the bunch, and there’s no back-story about a catastrophe having befallen a gay relative or anything of the kind that could account for her, her parents’, and her neighbors’ tragic posturing. So why is everyone so exercised about Jenny’s sexual orientation? Because, apparently, they “live in a small world,” as Jenny kind-of-explains. Yet the drama around Jenny’s sexuality wouldn’t have been out of place in a Douglas Sirk melodrama (minus Sirk’s visual gorgeousness), or, more recently, in any number of ’80s and ’90s lesbian indies. In fact, not since Claire of the Moon has there been this much dismal hand-wringing about being a lesbian. Even Desert Hearts was more fun than this.

I’m afraid the fault lies with the writer-director, Mary Agnes Donoghue (and, to a lesser extent, with Brian Byrne, whose intrusive score only highlights the movie’s tonal awkwardness). The script feels like a personal story—perhaps the director’s own, or that of someone she knows?—from a decade or two ago that hasn’t aged well. Perhaps had she allowed her cast the freedom to be a little looser and sent the script through a few more edits to tighten up the writing, the end result would have made everyone happier—including poor Jenny, who really deserved better.

Jenny’s Wedding opens Friday, August 14 at Varsity Theater.

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