​​Marry Me and the Revenge of the Old-Fashioned Rom-Com

Thank goodness for the return of syrupy nonsense.

Owen Wilson and Jennifer Lopez in 'Marry Me'
Barry Wetcher / Universal

The plot of Marry Me is hard to describe without it sounding a little addled. Kat Valdez (played by Jennifer Lopez), a world-famous singer about to marry another pop star during a joint concert, ditches her betrothed at the last second when his infidelity is revealed. To replace him for the ceremony, she invites a stranger onstage, a math teacher and charming single dad named Charlie Gilbert (Owen Wilson), who was unwittingly holding a Marry Me sign passed to him by a friend. Then, rather than backpedaling, the two embark on a relationship, initially as a publicity stunt, but surprise: It develops into something more.

How could any of that make sense? Why would a celebrity marry a man she has literally just met? Why would the responsible, mild-mannered Charlie want to be dragged into a publicity maelstrom? There’s an easy answer to all of these concerns: Stop asking questions! We’re in silly–rom-com territory, and you simply have to accept every ludicrous development with calm rationality. Marry Me is a revived artifact from a time when Hollywood regularly churned out syrupy nonsense about people kissing under the most unlikely of circumstances. The presence of Lopez, once a reigning queen of the genre, only helps underline what a throwback Marry Me is.

Every time the mainstream romantic comedy seems poised to come out of cinematic hibernation, I get excited—the genre is one of the many previously reliable formulas that have fallen by the wayside as studios have pivoted toward giant-budget-blockbuster extravaganzas with supposedly universal appeal. In recent years, streamers have tried to fill the hole with buzzy hits such as Netflix’s Set It Up, reminding viewers of the comfy, guilt-free pleasure of watching attractive people bicker for 90 minutes or so before realizing they’re in love. Indeed, this Valentine’s Day weekend another streamer is offering a rom-com along those lines, Amazon’s I Want You Back, which stars Charlie Day and Jenny Slate. (More on that film in a minute.)

The glitzier Marry Me is getting a wide theatrical release from Universal—though it will also be available to stream on Peacock. The film, thanks to the presence of Lopez, packs a little more of a zeitgeisty punch than I Want You Back, making a very gentle effort to lampoon her real-life star persona while, of course, still presenting her as America’s lovable sweetheart. Kat is a performer of Lopez-esque renown, playing to packed stadiums of shrieking fans, and she’s also been married three times (much like Lopez herself) and has acquired a reputation for being unlucky in love. In Marry Me, her initial fiancé is a younger singer named Bastian (played by the Colombian singer Maluma), but after his private dalliances leak to the tabloids, Kat alights on Charlie in the crowd and weds him on the spot, in a moment of embarrassed spontaneity.

Lopez was one of the last great purveyors of the rewatchable, fluffy rom-com before the genre sputtered out in the mid-2000s, swamped by a tidal wave of unsentimental comedies and superhero flicks (Katherine Heigl tried to keep hope alive for a little while afterward, but her efforts waned). Vehicles such as The Wedding Planner, Maid in Manhattan, and Monster-in-Law always presented Lopez’s characters as grounded workaholics, and Marry Me is no different, even though the scale that Kat operates on is grander. Wilson, whose movie career has been slow of late, is a more idiosyncratic foil for Lopez than some of her prior squeezes, and their chemistry never really evolves into a steamier dynamic; Marry Me is less a tale of sizzling romance and more a story of two 50-somethings charting a relationship built on mutual respect.

Still, it’s a sweet, easy watch, especially once it zeroes in on Kat’s relationship with Charlie’s daughter, Lou (Chloe Coleman). The film feels like it has a proper budget, with good New York location shooting and blown-out choreography for Kat’s concerts. Throw everyone’s fashion back a couple of decades and remove some jokes about TikTok, and the entire experience would feel right at home in 2002.

Amazon’s I Want You Back lacks that glamour—aesthetically, it feels more like a network-TV movie, much like Set It Up does, and it does very little with its setting (Georgia, a hotbed of film production these days). Even so, it’s not without appeal, following two strangers (Slate and Day) who have recently been dumped and conspire to sabotage their former significant others’ new relationships, Strangers on a Train–style, so they can hopefully win them back. Of course, fate has different plans for these new friends, and any viewer who’s seen one of these films from their couch will be able to predict every coming twist.

What does it matter? Predictability has served the film industry very well for many years, regardless of genre; just look at most new horror films or the latest action-adventure blowout. Neither Marry Me nor I Want You Back does much to reinvent what’s been done before, but their resilience is worthy of mild celebration. Whether this is the start of a broader trend may depend on them building real buzz with general audiences. But Hollywood should recognize the value of this particular nostalgia—generations of rom-com fans are crying out for it.

Related Podcast

Listen to David Sims discuss Marry Me and the state of romantic comedies on an episode of The Atlantic’s culture podcast The Review:

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