When it comes to the romance genre, the fake relationship is something of an institution. One of the trope’s more extreme iterations is the marriage of convenience: Popular among historical romances in particular, two characters become spouses for reasons other than love—to protect a young lady’s reputation, perhaps, or maybe because a duke wishes to acquire some land and definitely not to defibrillate his long-ago-atrophied heart. In time, the pair will discover that they quite enjoy each other’s company, and soon enough they’ll be Doing It.
First comes marriage, then comes love.
Marry Me, director Kat Coiro’s rom-com, asks what the trope might look like in an era shaped by #sponcon and Kardashian-esque media spin—that is, our own. And while the film, based on Bobby Crosby’s graphic novel of the same name, sounds kind of ridiculous on paper (not that it’s necessarily circumspect on screen), it’s one of the most solid romantic comedy offerings in years—not just reminiscent of rom-coms of yore but actually in conversation with certain gems of the genre.
Kat Valdez (Jennifer Lopez) and Bastian (Maluma) are two of the biggest pop stars in the world. They’re also madly in love, or at least it looks that way from their Instagram feeds. In a stunt to rival one of Kris Jenner’s, the two are set to exchange vows in front of a combined 20 million viewers during one of Kat’s concerts in New York City. (“The end of a tour and the beginning of a lifetime,” reads the press one-liner.) It’s the pop culture event of the year, with enough brand integration to make one’s head spin. Zuhair Murad is supplying the custom couture; City National Bank is the wedding’s official sponsor; there’s even an earworm of a promotional single, which the couple will duet in lieu of a more traditional walk down the aisle.
Across town, math teacher Charlie (Owen Wilson) is worried that his 12-year-old daughter Lou (Chloe Coleman) thinks he’s boring—especially compared to his ex-wife’s new husband. So when his friend and colleague Parker (Sarah Silverman) ends up with two spare tickets to Kat and Bastian’s mega-wedding, it’s a chance for him to play cool dad. The night proceeds as advertised until Page Six releases footage of Bastian and Kat’s assistant in flagrante delicto seconds before the opening notes of “Marry Me.” Her emotions getting the better of her, Kat picks the forlorn-looking Charlie out of the crowd to marry instead. His logic getting the better of him—he assumes that she’s suffering from a nervous breakdown, and hopes to spare her any further embarrassment—he plays along. “Do you…some guy…take Kat to be your lawfully wedded wife?” asks the officiant, to which Charlie replies, “Okay.”
When Kat’s manager Collin (John Bradley) presents her with a plan to pay Charlie off and send him packing, she surprises everyone by suggesting that they instead “hit the gas and turn into it.” It’s her fourth marriage, so maybe it’s wisest to stay together long enough to regain control of the narrative. (In keeping with an even more specific subset of the “marriage in name only” trope, they actually attach an expiry date to their union: Three to six months, tops.) At the press conference where they spin Kat’s actions as a sort of feminist statement, it’s clear that she and Charlie sit at opposite ends of the idealism-realism spectrum, respectively. Both have loved and lost, but while Kat’s a staunch romantic, Charlie’s the type to chalk his divorcé status up to statistics. The superstar and the mathlete coach don’t appear to make any sense together, but that’s the point. As Charlie puts it in a particularly unromantic speech, marriage “wasn’t designed to be about love, and maybe that’s where people kind of get tripped up now.” How they’ll publicly explain their breakup in six months can be sorted out later.
Of course, going their separate ways looks less and less attractive as time passes, and their attraction grows. But the strangeness of their pairing remains an issue for the lowly Charlie, who isn’t sure that someone like him is meant to end up with someone like her—especially after “Marry Me” scores Kat her first-ever Grammy nom, bringing a remorseful Bastian back into her orbit. As with the best of the rom-com genre, the film is committed enough to its own shtick that any on-paper silliness doesn’t end up mattering that much. There are also quite a few real laughs, with express kudos to Silverman as guidance counselor Parker, the film’s updated take on the Gay Best Friend stock character. (That said, it’s in the general vicinity of the supporting roles that the film can feel a bit hammier.)
But Marry Me shapes up as a two-hour ode to rom-coms themselves, which have famously suffered a bit of a downturn in recent years. Seemingly aware of this fact, it reimagines several beloved tropes and staples of the genre: The film is itself a supercharged take on Notting Hill, and there’s at least one blink-and-you-miss-it nod to fake relationship classic Pretty Woman. (That Coiro’s film is led by two actors who played different but prominent roles in the genre’s heyday isn’t a coincidence.) It also harkens back to the time when studios put real budgets behind the romantic comedy, as celebrity cameos abound and most of the film is soundtracked by original music from Valdez/Lopez and Bastian/Maluma.
As tends to be the case when real-life pop stars play fictional ones, there’s some meta-commentary on the gilded cage of being a chart-topper. The montage footage we get of Kat is often J. Lo, and there will surely be people connecting the film to a certain phoenix-tattooed Bostonian. But it’s for the most part an escapist romp (blessedly pandemic-free, having been filmed back in 2019) about taking a chance on an unlikely romance…and also math. In the world of love, sometimes the most improbable variables still = <3.
Director: Kat Coiro
Writer: John Rogers, Tami Sagher, Harper Dill
Stars: Jennifer Lopez, Owen Wilson, Maluma, John Bradley, Chloe Coleman, Sarah Silverman
Release Date: February 11, 2022
Sydney Urbanek is a Toronto-based writer on movies, music videos, and things in between. She wrote her MA thesis on Jonas Åkerlund’s music video work. She also writes a newsletter called Mononym Mythology about mostly pop divas and their (visual) antics. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram.