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January 25, 2008

Dresses—and shoes!—fit this Cinderella story

A new romantic comedy, 27 Dresses, starring Katherine Heigl (Grey’s Anatomy, Knocked Up), is a good old-fashioned Cinderella story. There’s a heroine who’s always getting other people ready for a wedding, a sister who’s too demanding, a Prince Charming—played in this case by the adorable James Marsden—and a happy ending. But this is a modern Cinderella story, and it’s all the more satisfying because it’s about a woman who learns to make her own way.

Heigl plays Jane, a character who embodies the adage “always a bridesmaid and never a bride.” Jane spends all her time helping her friends get married without ever attending to her own love life. She is somewhere between a martyr and a guardian angel who, sadly, isn’t rewarded for her sweetness.

Heigl does a very good job as Jane, delivering lines with a comfortable sincerity that makes her likeable but not too sweet. She is also an excellent comedienne; as she waltzes about in the horrifying eponymous 27 dresses (highlights include a cowboy outfit and a skimpy pink number that would make Britney Spears proud), she does not lose a single opportunity to be ridiculous. Jane’s willingness to enjoy silliness makes her more lovable.

Still, it is hard to understand exactly why she is so generous and self-effacing until we meet her sister Tess (Malin Ackerman), the more socially successful of the two. Tess is a scary picture of entitlement. Like a nightmarish Barbie come to life, she struts around her sister’s life in skimpy clothes, barking out orders and expecting to be obeyed. Yet Jane loves her and, more shockingly, indulges her.

To some, this behavior might be impossible to understand, but Jane is a classic older sister: She has an overdeveloped sense of the importance of being good. Getting an A+ for kindness gives her satisfaction. That which might once have caused parental discomfort, such as getting a boyfriend, are the things she has more trouble girding herself to attempt. Many an older sibling will see something of herself in the way that Jane leaves goals that require courage to her younger sister, preferring to take what satisfaction she can out of working hard and getting praise. The skilled use of this big sister/little sister paradigm goes a long way toward grounding a story that might otherwise have had very little to do with reality.

Jane finally gets out of her rut with Tess and her many bride-to-be friends. The interesting thing about the film is that for her, escaping the things that hold her back does not require simply falling in love. Of course, love is a crucial element, but instead of falling in love and losing herself, Jane experiences the possibility of love as an opportunity to assert her independence. It is a tribute to the film’s relative sophistication that it proposes liking and trusting yourself as a prerequisite for liking and trusting someone else enough to love him. As a result, it’s very plausible that this story’s happy ending will stay happy.

The fairy tale style, as well as the fun costumes and the general upbeat tempo of the story, mean that 27 Dresses is a lot like a wedding. However tired you may be of seeing a girl walk down an aisle in a white dress to a guy in a suit and listening to a DJ spin the same old tune for the first dance, you’ve got to admit that every time you see it, it’s really lovely. So is this movie.