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One for the Money

January 29, 2012
One for the Money

One of the more successful literary genres to be adapted to the movies is the detective story. You’ve got hard-boiled detectives like Sam Spade and soft-boiled detectives like Nick and Nora Charles. The protagonist of Janet Evanovich’s novels, Stephanie Plum, is more like a Cadbury creme detective. And while I can see how One for the Money plays out on the page, on the screen it’s a different story.

We join Stephanie (Katherine Heigl) at the start of her career as a “recovery agent” — a bounty hunter — for her cousin the bail bondsman in Trenton. Six months unemployed from the lingerie counter at Macy’s in Newark, Stephanie needs a job. She convinces her cousin to let her go after Joe Morelli (Jason O’Mara), a cop accused of shooting an unarmed man. Stephanie and Joe have some history, but that’s not exactly surprising in a town where any two people are separated by at most two intermediaries, usually extended family.

Of course, Joe isn’t about to just come in quietly; he’s investigating the case himself, trying to come up with the evidence he needs to prove his innocence. He drives Stephanie off at first, but eventually pulls her in to help, despite all the obvious reasons this woman should not be allowed anywhere near this sort of line of work. Domino Harvey she ain’t.

Once you forgo the core idea of a detective story being about solving a mystery, it lives and dies by its characters. This is no slight to a story that takes this route; The Thin Man spawned five sequels on the strength of its leads, and half of Elmore Leonard’s work seems to be more about using an investigation as an excuse to romp across one city or another. But in a novel you’ve got time to do justice to a large cast, and the smaller members can provide some color even within a single scene.

Unfortunately, in a movie throwing too many characters in starts to feel like a mess. There’s Stephanie’s grandma Mazur (Debbie Reynolds) and her cousin and new boss Vinnie (Patrick Fischler). There’s the secretary, Connie Rossoli (Ana Reeder), and the tough, experienced bounty hunter, “Ranger” Manoso (Daniel Sunjata). There’s the sassy hooker, Lula (Sherri Shepherd), the MMA fighter, Benito (Gavin-Keith Umeh), and the owner of the gym he trains at, Jimme Alpha (John Leguizamo). And then there’s half a dozen others, even more minor. By and large they do some solid character work, though by all accounts the “fun grandma” role isn’t much of a stretch for Reynolds, and Sunjata comes off — through no fault of his own, mind you — as the guy they called when they couldn’t get Dwayne Johnson.

And to some extent it feels like this constellation of characters is meant to distract us from the fact that Heigl doesn’t really carry off Stephanie Plum very well as a character. I’ve noted before that she generally plays herself and, but for brown hair and a slapped-on Joisey accent, this is no exception. Stephanie is written well enough — in isolation her lines sound right for a hot-blooded, working-class, maybe-Irish-maybe-Italian woman — but it’s an role Heigl doesn’t seem very comfortable in. It doesn’t help matters that she and O’Mara don’t really have any chemistry.

It’s sort of a shame, though; Stephanie Plum seems to have potential as an interesting character on paper — no pun intended. But Nurse Jackie creator Liz Brixius seems to have bitten off a bit more than could be chewed in her first feature screenplay, and director Julie Anne Robinson wasn’t ruthless enough with the editing to contain the sprawl. There’s something here, and if anyone greenlights Two for the Dough it could be done well, but One for the Money just isn’t there yet.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: pass.

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