When Jennifer Lopez gave us the wonderfully complex performance her longtime fans always knew she could give in 2019’s “Hustlers,” you might have expected she’d at least temporarily hang up doing frothy romantic comedies that buried her range as an actress for so many years. (You probably don’t need a recap considering how massively popular they all were, but those included “The Wedding Planner,” “Maid in Manhattan” and “Monster-in-Law”). But now, following a truly mind-numbing Oscar snub for “Hustlers,” she has returned with yet another addition to her saccharine rom-com universe: “Marry Me.”
And at this point in Lopez’s life and career, it’s hard not to question why the multihyphenate star — who is also a producer, recording artist and business mogul — continues to attach herself to not only the genre but the same fairy-tale iteration of it. The answer to that may be more about Hollywood’s biases and the consistent narrative around her celebrity that has followed her throughout the last three decades than any ideal she perpetuates on her own.
Even in the months and weeks leading up to “Marry Me,” the media has hung on every morsel of information Lopez divulged about her rekindled and widely adored relationship with Ben Affleck. Few stories miss the chance to also mention her many romantic disappointments (including her recent broken engagement to Alex Rodriguez), painting a sympathetic narrative that she’s been unlucky in love paired with one implying that she, well, gets around, and quickly.
You can find that same coded sentiment in any era of Lopez’s public life. Remember ex-husbands Ojani Noa, Cris Judd and Marc Anthony? Bennifer version one? And how she bolted from her romance with Puff Daddy shortly after their dual arrest in 1999? But it seems to have an additional function these days, now that she has even more money, more fame and Hollywood clout that has given her the right to show off her expensive jewelry, designer clothes and trainer-assisted six-pack on social media.
Because folks aren’t trying to tear Lopez down as much anymore. Rather, it’s almost like they want to live vicariously through her and even look to her to provide the joy they might crave — particularly through the image of a picturesque romance. The New York Times’ recent profile on Lopez asks whether she can actually “save the rom-com,” a genre that has long been a punching bag for film elitists. Time calls her “the patron saint of romantic comedies.”
Even Lopez can’t help but jump aboard this narrative: “People like seeing me do these rom-coms,” she recently said on “The View.” “But I honestly believe that these movies, especially in times like right now, really give hope. At the end of the day, life is really about loving somebody, finding somebody to spend your life with, being happy.”
But being the so-called patron saint of romantic comedies for her has also meant fitting into a very specific ideal that heavily caters to the white gaze, which has largely been in control of these narratives about Lopez, who is of Puerto Rican descent.
“Marry Me” is no exception. In it, she plays what is assumed to be a version of herself — a glamorous singer named Kat navigating the scrutiny of celebrity with three failed marriages under her belt. She is about to be married once more, to fellow recording artist Bastian (Maluma), when she discovers he’s been cheating on her on the same day they have an extravagant and very public wedding/concert planned (featuring the film’s titular song, of course).
Thwarting yet another breakup headline, she finds — and inevitably falls for — a random guy in the audience at the ill-fated concert (Owen Wilson) and marries him instead. Comedy and charm ensue of course as the fabulous singer and Wilson’s Charlie Gilbert, a single dad and math teacher, fall in love for real.
As pleasing and cute as “Marry Me” definitely is, it also falls prey to a few major issues in Lopez’s church of rom-com. For one thing, her character always falls in love with a white guy (see “Second Act,” “The Back-Up Plan,” the upcoming “Shotgun Wedding” and any of her aforementioned films for further evidence). Honestly, few others could compare to the level of average-white-guy energy that Wilson is giving in this film, though he’s always fun to watch.
The director has also almost always been a white man, with the exception of Wayne Wang, who directed “Maid in Manhattan.” The fact that “Marry Me” has a female director (Kat Coiro) and is co-written by a woman (Harper Dill) is certainly worth celebrating and makes a huge difference in the way scenes are shot and the overarching feminine lens. But a female director of color could have further authenticated some aspects and pushed back on others, like the fact that the one time Lopez has a nonwhite love interest in a rom-com, he’s a toxic, predictable male whom she leaves for a white guy.
It might seem subtle or insignificant, but these things matter when we talk about the white gaze and white feminism. Who benefits from it? Who’s it for? Lopez has earned a level of power few others of color have in Hollywood, and has her own production company with fellow Latinx talent Benny Medina, but hasn’t diversified the big-screen rom-com as she has with her TV shows like “The Fosters” and “Good Trouble.”
It’s easy to suggest that she could just not be interested in reshaping the gaze of Hollywood, which would of course be problematic. But we already know about the industry’s racist structure, as well as the overwhelmingly white voices who have dictated the narrative around her career and life. So, couldn’t it be that she maybe hasn’t been able to truly break through a stifling glass case as the patron saint of (white) rom-coms that she’s been put in?
If we were to take Kat’s words to heart in “Marry Me,” even she says that after all the work she’s put in, and as happy as she’s made so many others feel, she hasn’t received the awards or credit she’s long deserved. She is not even in control of her own narrative. And no matter how in love with love she actually is, there’s always going to be someone like Jimmy Fallon, who plays a version of himself in the film as the pithy white male late night host, who will make her the punchline.
Perhaps she’s seen less as the joke many thought she was earlier in her career, but with “Marry Me” Lopez seems to actually be contending with, and sometimes supporting, knotty narratives about herself and her celebrity unlike what we’ve seen before. Maybe that’s the new headline.