Back in 2001, after building her resume in dramas like Selena and Out of Sight, dominating the music charts with 1999’s On the 6, and spawning the invention of Google images with the iconic green Versace dress she wore to the 2000 Grammys, Jennifer Lopez entered the rom-com sphere with The Wedding Planner, which opened at No. 1 at the box office and set off Lopez’s stronghold in entertainment in the 00s, with several more albums and a slew of Lopez-led rom-coms—including Maid in Manhattan and Monster-in-Law—to follow.
Despite its highly unfavorable reception from critics (its approval rating is a paltry 16 percent on Rotten Tomatoes), the movie was still a financial success, grossing $95 million at the box office, and, in the curious manner of seemingly all Matthew McConaughey rom-coms, has remained firmly planted in our cultural memory to this day despite its utter mediocrity (though it’s admittedly a fun watch). There are a million ways to unpack why, exactly, it’s trash, but today in You Had Me at Hell No, let’s dig into the two most curious reasons: the laughability that the very premise of its central romance could ever be seen as a good thing for either party, and its problematic casting decisions.
In the film, Jennifer Lopez plays Mary Fiore (yes, Jennifer Lopez is supposed to be Italian—we’ll get to that later), a perpetually single, perfectionist workaholic who plans weddings for a living. “Those who can’t wed, plan!” she exclaims. In stereotypical fashion, her focus on her career leaves her stuck eating alone on the couch night after night. Then, in one of the most classic Hollywood meet-cutes of all time, Mary gets her Gucci heel stuck in a manhole cover as a dumpster barrels in her direction. She’s as good as dead until handsome Dr. Steve Edison (Matthew McConaughey) saves her, and the two instantly share a major spark. Mary thinks she might’ve found the one, until it turns out Steve is engaged to her big new client, whose wedding will assure Mary a partnership at her company. But the spark can’t be denied! And even though Steve and his fiancé Fran (Bridgette Wilson-Sampras) are clearly on the rocks, and an acquaintance from Mary’s childhood in Italy (played with major Italian-hands energy by Justin Chambers, aka Dr. Alex Karev on Grey’s Anatomy) gives her a marriage-ready option, Mary opts to wait for the real thing as Steve and Fran head to the altar. Of course, Steve and his fiancé call things off at their wedding, and Steve runs after Mary, so our girl didn’t have to wait long for her dream guy. That’s amore, baby!
In theory, this could be a classic—though twisted—love story of two people who are perfect for each other meeting at the wrong time, a standard problem that arises both on-screen and real-life relationships; the commercial success of The Wedding Planner can be attributed to the halfway-decent chemistry between Lopez and McConaughey (the ballroom dancing scene alone is a 10 on the heat scale). But here, that “right person, wrong time” logic leads to some pretty damning emotional cheating on Steve’s part.
We can’t help who we love (just ask every poor woman who gave their heart to trash-man John Mayer, who I’ll never forgive for hurting Jessica Simpson); crushes have a tendency to develop at god-awful times with unavailable people. Steve is a highly crushable “good guy”—a pediatrician! Who saved Mary’s life! But this is the kind of head-shaking love story that gives people in a damaging crush or relationship situation hope, assuring them they’re in the right while disregarding anyone on the receiving end of pain caused by their indiscretion. (I think of Carrie Fisher’s character in When Harry Met Sally, who’s in a long-term relationship with a married man who keeps promising to leave his wife, but never delivers. Thankfully, she eventually gets a happy ending with another guy.) Anyone who’s been the “side piece” in someone else’s relationship can tell you how easy it is to convince yourself that their attached partner is not happy, actually hates their significant other, and will inevitably leave their spouse/partner for a realer, better love with them. But as every episode of Maury has taught us, the likelihood of that actually happening—let alone resulting in happily ever after—is slim.
In a glimmer of clarity, Mary realizes her crush is a bad idea, and tries to keep her distance from Steve despite being in the throes of planning his wedding. But even she isn’t above pettiness, telling Steve he and Fran are doomed for meaningless reasons like Fran wanting Olivia Newton-John’s “I Honestly Love You” for their first-dance song. Meanwhile, poor Fran is out here not knowing the emotional cheating and shit talk that’s going on behind her back by two people she trusts, and even unknowingly defends. When we find out that Mary herself was cheated on—her ex left her for the woman who planned her bridal shower—at no point does Mary think, wow, now I’m doing the same awful thing that was done to me. Instead, it’s all merely context for Mary’s loneliness, not a tool for realizing how she’s hurting Fran.
In summary: These people all suck. Except Fran. Fran, we hope you moved on to someone who deserved you. And Mary, good luck building a relationship with a dude who took his college girlfriend all the way to the altar before deciding to end it to be with you, someone he’s known for, like, a month.
Let’s revisit the other glaring issue with this insipid movie: Casting can make or break a rom-com, but sometimes even just one puzzling character trait can leave audiences thinking but why? When it comes to Lopez’s Mary, that “why” is the fact that she inexplicably plays an Italian American as opposed to a character of her own ethnic background . During their post-dumpster-rescue date in the park, Mary tells Steve she’s part of the Scrabble club where her parents learned to speak English when they “came over from Italy.” At this point in Lopez’s career, the Bronx-bred Puerto Rican singer-actress-mogul was becoming an important (though often controversial) figure for the Latinx community, and for Nuyorican boricuas in particular—one of the few to reflect that identity at such a megawatt level of fame.
On the one hand, I applaud any non-white actor snatching a role written for a white person. Call it comeuppance for every time a white actor played a person of color, a long-held phenomenon in Hollywood that continues to this very day. The fact that the role went to her as opposed to Kate Hudson or Jennifer Garner at least gave a woman of color time on screen that is hardly afforded to them now, let alone in 2001.
On the other hand, despite the film’s success, and the leveling-up it brought to Lopez’s career, The Wedding Planner was a wasted opportunity. She came ready to stomp her Timberland heels on the necks of more traditional (read: white) heroines of the genre like Hudson and Reese Witherspoon, but it would have meant more had she played a woman of color. When witnessing her not-so-great attempt to mask her Bronx Latina accent, it all begs the question: Couldn’t producers just make her character Latinx? It would have changed the essentials of the story zero percent if she was Mary Fernández, daughter of Salvador Fernández, who came to American from Puerto Rico, maybe with the insertion of eye rolling Spanish guitar sprinkled throughout to emphasize Mary’s spiciness, because Hollywood loves to do that any time a Latinx appears on screen. Her stint as an Italian, in retrospect, feels not only laughable, but like a case of classic Hollywood whitewashing.
With the choice to make the character Italian, producers hoped to guarantee the film wasn’t marginalized as something white audiences couldn’t enjoy because it was too “ethnic.” Historically, rom-coms featuring an all or mostly Black cast have been mostly marketed to targeted (read: Black) audiences as opposed to wider (i.e. white) audiences and deemed unbankable for no good reason other than ignorance and racism. And in 2001, Latinx rom-coms weren’t even on the table in mainstream American film; maybe being “Italian” was about as “ethnic” as the producers were willing to take Lopez in 2001. Any ol’ white girl with olive-ish skin and brown hair could be Italian, Mexican, Puerto Rican, Greek, Dominican, Indigenous, etc. (an indignation to the many shades people of these backgrounds embody), and Lopez’s slight ethnic ambiguity must have seemed close enough to play an Italiana—because apparently, all it takes is a base-level tan and talking with your hands a lot. So mamma mia! Guess Jennifer Lopez is :chef’s kiss:! It’s truly stupid, and speaks to Hollywood’s lazy efforts with regards to racial and ethnic representation, but thankfully some strides have been made to improve standards.
The Wedding Planner: come for the meet-cute, leave before you start thinking about texting that married “friend” of yours.
The Wedding Planner can be streamed on Hulu.
Alex Zaragoza is a senior staff writer at VICE.