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31/07/2015

Jenny’s Wedding review – good intentions can't save this lesbian drama

It’s time to face the music. As we fought for marriage equality, one line of rhetoric was “who does it hurt?” Now we have the answer. It hurts the liberal film critics, condemned to watch insipid family melodramas like Jenny’s Wedding, a tedious low-budget cavalcade of cliche so marinated in good intentions that I don’t know how I’ll look myself in the mirror after filing this review. But duty calls. This epistle to bigoted middle American boomers means well and may indeed be therapeutic to some struggling to accept a gay family member (or to gay people whose families aren’t accepting), but as a movie it is a complete misfire. The story, performances and editing choices range from predictable to risible.

We open in a church in the Cleveland suburbs. A baby is being baptised and Jenny (Katherine Heigl), the young woman who, in an earlier era, would eventually grow to become the spinster aunt, is having trouble reciting the text. “What if I don’t believe in Satan?” she asks. Jenny’s parents (Tom Wilkinson and Linda Emond) begin sotto voce commentary from the pews, the first of many scenes that feel lifted directly from an off-off Broadway play. “What’s the matter with Jenny?”

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Back at the house, Jenny’s brother (Matthew Metzger) is once again introducing her to his single guy friends and her sister (Grace Gummer) is fishing for info about possible secret boyfriends. What they don’t know is that her roommate for the past five years, Kitty (Alexis Bledel), is more than just a roommate. This latest get-together, stressful though it may be, makes Jenny realise she wants a family of her own, and the time has come to come out of the closet and into the pages of Bridal Guide.

Heartbreakingly, her parents react in an all-too-realistic way. Their primary concern is what the neighbours will think. When confronted with the ridiculousness of that position, they pivot to “How could you lie to us all these years?” While this very response begs the question, it leads to a schism and many a sad musical montage. Eventually, Mom will realise that the children of her busybody friends are far more screwed-up than her happy, gay daughter. Similarly, Dad needs to man up and tell the chilli-stirrers at the firehouse to douse their prejudice.

Jenny and Kitty’s apartment has large windows through which one can see a flying American flag. “I know times have changed,” Wilkinson grumbles, but “you don’t know what it’s like,” he says referring to his generation. “And the church won’t allow it,” Emond adds.

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Heigl and Bledel are, of course, both gorgeous by conventional Hollywood feminine standards, and while couples like this aren’t non-existent, one can see these are training-wheel lesbians for an audience primed to go “ew”. Other than some quick smooching this is a very chaste affair, and when Jenny cries over her mother’s absence at her dress fitting, it’s a fairly stern admonishment for the remaining homophobes whose own insecurities take precedence over the love of their children.

If only Mary Agnes Donohue’s film-making were up to these noble instincts. How is it that, in a small town, everyone in Jenny’s world can know about her partnership but it never got back to her parents? Why is it that, only days after finally telling her mother and promising to stay quiet, that only then Jenny’s sister spies her in a public embrace with Kitty? And why does Donohue block every dramatic scene as though it were a black-box play, with actors standing on their “X” and barking inelegant (but socially relevant!) dialogue at one another? Acceptance has to work both ways. Jenny, we’ll get you something off the registry, but we won’t make it to the reception.

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