“One for the Money” brings Janet Evanovich’s beloved heroine Stephanie Plum to life on screen, a ditzy would-be bounty hunter who succeeds only in endangering the lives of anyone near her and dismissing the intelligence of audiences. Adapted from the 1994 novel of the same name, the story finds the down-on-her-luck Stephanie (Katherine Heigl) in desperate need of money. Out of options, she turns to her sleazeball cousin Vinnie (Patrick Fischler), who runs a bail bond business unoriginally named Vincent Plum’s Bail Bonds. He reluctantly sets her up as a bail recovery agent, figuring she’ll soon tire of the endeavor and find herself a more appropriate line of work. But Plum instead sets her sights on the biggest score, both professionally and personally. Turns out the highest-stake target is a former vice cop wanted for murder who also just happened to leave Ms. Plum high and dry after taking her virginity in high school. Hell hath no fury and blah, blah, blah…
Remember when Katherine Heigl’s career showed so much promise, the engaging “Grey’s Anatomy” breakout star who charmed us opposite Seth Rogen’s pot-smoking schlub in “Knocked Up”? Since then, Heigl has flooded the market with a stream of indistinguishably forgettable rom-coms like “27 Dresses,” “The Ugly Truth” and “Life As We Know It.” We keep hoping for more, but Heigl keeps lowering those expectations. And so it’s hard to keep an open mind heading into a January Heigl release not pre-screened for critics, but we did try. After all, this isn’t simply a rom-com per se and Evanovich’s beloved character makes sense for Heigl, at least on paper. The books have a following, so the film could well launch a franchise of Stephanie Plum’s lighthearted brand of female empowerment. (God help us).
Who would have guessed “One for the Money” could make one long for the tired rom-com material of Heigl days gone by? At least those films made no bones about what they were, paint-by-numbers popcorn chompers tossed into the recycling bin upon theater exit. “One For The Money,” directed by Julie Anne Robinson (“The Last Song“), simply has no idea what it is. It’s kind of a rom-com, with enough sickening moments of fruitless flirtation between Heigl and her bounty (played by Jason O’Mara) to tire even the most patient audience members. Their chemistry exists only in the fact that they are both attractive, fit and constantly demonstrating their rock hard abs and/or ample cleavage. Otherwise the film dabbles in thriller territory, sort of an attempt at Elmore Leonard gone “Jersey Shore.” But it’s not smart enough for that.
The first of many problems with ‘Money’ is the film’s opening, a cutesy title sequence showing bills from collection agencies and threats of eviction. This is as much backstory as we get on Plum’s financial woes. Moments after showing up at her parents’ house for dinner in the first scene, her car is towed away and her kooky grandmother (Debbie Reynolds) suggests she go see her cousin Vinnie for a job. She does just that and off we go.
No one’s expecting deep material here, but is it too much to ask that we get to know Stephanie Plum just a bit before we are asked to accompany her on the journey ahead? This is the first movie, right? All we know about this character is that she’s recently divorced and got fired from her job selling lingerie at Macy’s. She doesn’t seem too concerned about her situation, laughing it off as she quips to the audience via an increasingly irritating voiceover. So why should we care? To someone who doesn’t know the character, Stephanie Plum basically seems like little more than an annoying loser. So why is everyone so nice and helpful as she embarks on a career she has no business in? Well, she’s good-looking. We got that. Otherwise we’re basically only staying with Plum because that’s who the damn cameraman keeps following.
The early moments of Plum’s new career are intended to be amusing. She tries to take down Morelli by tracking him down and asking him nicely. She later hits a dangerous and abusive prizefighter named Ramirez (Gavin-Keith Uma) with her purse and nearly winds up getting attacked by a repeated rapist. The one man who inexplicably offers to train her and help her out of jams again and again, Ranger (Daniel Sunjata), even manages to take a bullet saving her ass once again. And even as she starts to figure things out just a bit, Plum continues to put the lives of those around her in danger or worse because of her ignorance. Basically we’re meant to laugh at the fact that cute little Stephanie bumbles her way to getting one informant killed and another savagely beaten and thrown from a moving vehicle. Oh Stephanie, you’re a riot!
Comic relief comes in the form of Plum’s senile grandma, who dizzily pops in and out of scenes offering Stephanie words of advice on life and love. In one of the film’s most predictable moments (of which there are many) grandma plays with Plum’s new gun at the dinner table while the family ignores her and continues chatting. Will she shoot the gun? What a shock when grandma finally plugs the turkey. “She should be in a home,” says Plum’s father. Ha ha.
There weren’t many laughs coming from the theater at Friday morning’s surprisingly well-attended first showing. But the attendance and Heigl’s track record make a strong case for the fact that “One for the Money” will likely fare just fine, possibly even well enough to warrant a franchise. It is what it is. We just hope Heigl herself eventually tires of slumming it as much as critics have tired of watching her do so. [F]