James Marsden has long been Hollywood's best bridesmaid-- from The X-Men to The Notebook to the deeply underrated Superman Returns, he's always the leading lady's second choice, the romantic runner-up. What makes him intriguing in these roles in that, unlike such past second bananas as Bill Paxon or Ralph Bellamy, he's not forced to clamp down him own considerable charm and grace; by maintaing his charisma and humor and actually seeming like a viable choice, he gives these films an emotional heft they might not otherwise possess-- he refuses to play the dweeb, and that makes the romantic choice all the more affecting, since the audience is left thinking that ending up with James Mardsen wouldn't really be that bad (he found layers of fun peforming this act in the recent Enchanted, where his self-possessesd prince's goofiness came across as much more engaging than Patrick Dempsey's wimpy nice guy).
This second-choice status makes him the perfect choice for 27 Dresses, a film being hyped as Katherine Heigl's big coming-out as a romantic comedy star. As the eternal bridesmaid who lives out her romantic fantasies through other people's weddings, she's really good-- and that's saying a lot coming from me, a person who utterly despises Grey's Anatomy. But Marsden owns the film as her romantic destiny, a reporter who finagles his way into her life in order to write an expose about the wedding industry's manipulation of emotionally needy women. Yes, it's something of a romcom cliche (and the journalistic spin recalls recent films like How To Lose A Guy In Ten Days), and I presume no spoiler alerts are necessary if I hint at some of the steps along the way-- love/hate arguments, meet-cutes, singalongs, Easily Avoidable Misunderstandings and their Inevitable Resolutions-- but the two leads negotiate these treacherous narrative pitfalls with a wry and winningly cynical spirit.
Heigl's questioning eyes, lanky frame and marinated alto delivery make her something of an offbeat casting choice, despite the training ground of Dawson's Creekish Grey's relationship roundelay. She doesn't feel perky like Meg Ryan, or faux-put-upon like eternal wallflower-turned-swan Sandra Bullock-- she seems more like she stumbled in from a 50s romcom, where she would've had the Eve Arden, wisecracking best friend role (a part winningly carried in 27 Dates by the fabulous Judy Greer, continuing to spit out acidic lines with the same glee she displayed in 13 Going On 30). Similarly, Marsden seems more like the self-aware best friend than the himbo/frat boy leads (hello, Chris O'Donnell!) that often populate these films. It's been a good year from Mardsen, who also played an oily TV dance show host in Hairspray, and carries some of that earlier role's crinkled-tux knowingness into this role-- both character and actor exude the knowledge that the roles they're performing are bullshit, but are unpretentious and open-hearted enough not to pass up having a good time, anyway. Marsden has a great, crinkling smile that suggests he knows more than he's saying, which gives a nice ironic spin to some of the genre banalities he's forced to utter. At the same time, his tousled hair and southern boy charm makes him an authentic leading man (just as the occasional notes of hope Hegl lets slip into her readings signifies her hopes that the genre's myths might actually be true).
Putting these two at the center of 27 Dresses' paper-thin plot machinations makes the whole film much more charming and enjoyable than it might have otherwise been. That the movie itself is blatantly meta about its romantic aspirations-- what do we talk about when we talk about love?-- and that the two leads are ably supported by Ed Burns (surprisingly charming), Brian Kerwin, and Krysten RItter (here only in a cameo, but evoking nice memories of her turn as Mayor Woody's daughter on Veronica Mars) also contributes to the fun. With this enjoyably unstable mix of romance and cynicism-- with Heigl and Marsden teetering between full-blown comedy and low-key deconstruction-- it's a bit disappointing to see the film eventually devolve into some unbelievable plot twists, unmotivated character turns and unconvincing heart-tugging. In the end, the film is as silly and occasionally awkward in its choices as some of Heigl's bridesmaid dresses, but as her character says in the film, "I've had a lot more fun in those dresses than you might imagine."