'Jenny's Wedding': Outfest Review

IFC Films
Mediocre filmmaking sporadically enlivened by a strong cast and timely subject.

Katherine Heigl plays a lesbian planning a big fat gay wedding — much to her Midwestern family's discomfort — in Mary Agnes Donoghue's dramedy.

There’s a fine, fierce film somewhere in Jenny’s Wedding, trying to claw its way out from under all the clichés, speechifying and sappy pop music.

Writer-director Mary Agnes Donoghue (best known for screenplay credits like Beaches and White Oleander) doesn’t make it easy: the movie, about a thirtyish lesbian whose coming-out rattles her traditional Midwestern parents, teases us with pointed moments of humor, truth and emotion only to devolve, again and again, into broad, Hallmark-style dramedy. The result is watchably messy and well-meaning, with a handful of scenes and performances worth savoring and a distinct whiff of squandered opportunity.

Premiering at Outfest and then in limited release July 31, Jenny’s Wedding may get a slight box-office bump from the topicality of its subject (given the recent Supreme Court ruling) and the presence of love-to-hate-her star Katherine Heigl.

The actress’ recent efforts — cancelled NBC drama State of Affairs, the ghastly Home Sweet Hell, country-music romance Jackie & Ryan — have hardly been career savers, and this film is unlikely to land her anywhere back near the A-list. Still, the role of Jenny Farrell, a closeted Cleveland yuppie secretly living with her girlfriend, Kitty (Alexis Bledel), is the most interesting Heigl has had in a while, and she invests it with an appealing mix of sensitivity and prickliness.

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The sitcomy opening scenes find Jenny attending a family gathering, where dad Eddie (Tom Wilkinson), mom Rose (Linda Emond), sister Anne (Grace Gummer) and brother Michael (Matthew Metzger) — all under the impression that Jenny is straight and Kitty is her roommate — badger her about her love life. When Jenny uses gender-neutral language (“somebody”) to hint at a significant other, they assume she’s talking about a man.

Given how fast and far the needle has moved on LGBT issues in the past few years, the Farrells’ cluelessness and Jenny’s extreme trepidation feel slightly off-key — as does the reaction of her loving, middle-class parents when Jenny tells them the truth (“What did we do wrong?” her stricken-looking mother begs to know). Such unabashedly retrograde attitudes would have made more sense had Jenny’s Wedding identified these folks as Bible thumpers or staunch conservatives; as written here, Eddie and Rose’s bigotry just registers as a bit arbitrary, as if they’ve been living in a cave — or at the very least a Tea Party stronghold — rather than a left-leaning American city.

Despite the sketchiness of that narrative context, the scene in which Jenny informs her mother that she’s gay and plans to marry Kitty is played with wit and authentic-feeling anxiety by Heigl and Emond. Less persuasive is a subsequent conversation between Jenny and her father: “We’re ordinary people, not rebels!” Eddie protests when she voices her desire for a big wedding with the whole family present. Unfortunately, such on-the-nose dialogue is typical of the film, which often telegraphs its apt observations — in this case, the way parents sometimes prioritize their image over their children’s well-being — with all the delicacy of a bludgeon. (To a colleague who utters a homophobic slur, a suddenly righteous Eddie snaps: “Don’t say that — they’re people just like you and me!”)

Luckily, Donoghue’s first-rate cast does its highly skilled darnedest to turn even the most ham-handed of the film’s heart-to-hearts and spats into something resembling real life. Aside from Heigl, convincing as a stubborn, principled woman more like her parents than she’d care to acknowledge, Wilkinson and Emond are especially good, inhabiting their roles with unfussy gravitas. Rose is the film’s richest character — a kind but conventional person forced to broaden her worldview — and Emond (Spike Lee's Oldboy, Cinemax's The Knick) plays her with a bracing nervous energy.

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Gummer (Meryl Streep’s daughter, who delivered striking supporting turns in films like Frances Ha and The Homesman), too, is a standout as Jenny’s sourpuss sister. The actress has a distinctive, sort of radiant plainness — her wide face punctuated by a sharp nose and curt dash of a mouth — and her line readings are so sly she even survives an awful subplot about Anne’s neglected lawn (a metaphor for — what else? — her failing marriage).

“Coming out” films, including much stronger recent works like Dee Rees’ terrific Pariah, tend to focus on the character coming out; if there’s a tiny spark of novelty in Jenny’s Wedding, it’s that the movie is less about a daughter’s revelation than it is about a mother and father fumbling their response to it. Indeed, the most poignant scenes find Rose and Eddie huddled in bed, fretting over their children’s lives and, particularly, their own parenting skills.

Too bad so much else here feels cribbed from countless other movies and TV shows, as when Rose overhears, then confronts, friends gossiping about Jenny at the grocery store. Even more detrimental are some bafflingly awful directorial choices by Donoghue, who, for example, is not above ending a scene in which Jenny tells her mother that her days in the closet are over with a shot of our heroine marching off defiantly as Mary Lambert’s “She Keeps Me Warm” blares on the soundtrack (its chorus: “I can’t change, even if I tried, even if I wanted to…”). Elsewhere, Brian Byrne’s invasive score swerves back and forth between perky and tear-jerky.

This is Donoghue’s first outing behind the camera since the 1991 Melanie Griffith/Don Johnson weepie Paradise, and beyond her bullying use of music, a certain rustiness — or laziness? — is evident in the predictable compositions and perfunctory camera movements.

Yet Jenny’s Wedding can’t completely sugarcoat the raw, often bitter feelings coursing through its slickly packaged story — a testament not just to the professionalism and sincerity of the actors, but also to the stirring timeliness of the movie’s themes. The climactic titular sequence, with its pomp, circumstance and inevitable swell of emotion, may even wring a tear or two; once you dry your eyes and come to your senses, you’ll just wish they were wrung more honestly.

Production companies: MM Productions, Merced Media Partners, PalmStar Media
Cast: Katherine Heigl, Tom Wilkinson, Alexis Bledel, Grace Gummer, Linda Emond, Sam McMurray, Diana Hardcastle, Matthew Metzger, Houston Rhines, Cathleen O’Malley
Writer-director: Mary Agnes Donoghue
Producers: Gail Levin, Michelle Manning
Cinematographer: Seamus Tierney
Editor: Eva Gardos, Nick Moore

Production designer: Jennifer Dehghan
Music: Brian Byrne
Casting: Marcy Ronen
Rated PG-13, 94 minutes

 

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