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Some thoughts on the film version of One for the Money

January 29, 2012

One For the Money, the film based on Janet Evanovich’s popular Stephanie Plum novels opened in theaters around the country Friday.

I went to the 10:30 AM screening that morning and everyone wants to know how I felt about the film. It is not an easy question to answer.

If you are planning to see the movie yourself, you may not want to read this yet. You may want to go and form your own opinions. If you do not intend to see the movie or if you have already seen the movie or you just do not care and want to read my thoughts anyway, proceed.

With any book, realizing the characters and locales and putting them into a film is always an iffy proposition. The difficulties are compounded when you have a series of novels featuring a cast of cleverly drawn characters that have become a part of the readers’ circle of acquaintance. The translation to film is always going to be measured against the readers’ mental conceptualization of those characters.

And so it is with the Stephanie Plum character in One for the Money. Waiting nearly two decades from the inception of the series to bring the characters to the screen allows all that much more time for people to flesh out their imaginary personas of these characters. For almost 20 years, the Evanovich faithful have been coloring in the sketches that the author has so evocatively drawn for us. It is hard to have a producer, a director, or an actor match the expectations of the public.

I felt much the same way about the way the city of Trenton is portrayed in the books. At first, I took exception to Evanovich’s loosey-goosey attitude towards geography. She would mention the intersection of streets that do not meet or streets that do not even exist in the real Trenton. She would put buildings on streets were they do not belong. I eventually got over that and went along for the ride through her fictionalized Trenton with some quirky characters.

Going to see the movie One for the Money, one has to be ready to suspend their internal preconceptions of what a character looks like; what a character sounds like; how a character acts. Moviegoers have to give up whatever concept of what the real Trenton: the real Chambersburg is.

You have to allow the writer, the actor the director to take you on that ride.

The storyline is pretty much straight from the book with a couple of small variations. Nothing major. In the book Stephanie was a lingerie buyer for a made up department store in Newark, New Jersey. In the movie, she was a lingerie salesperson from Macy’s.  Cousin Vinnie, the bail bondsman Stephanie goes to work for, has some perverse sexual appetites that are referenced in a comic way in the books. They were dropped from the film. These are the kinds of changes that do not really impact the story.  In fact, I found myself wondering why these rather insignificant details were changed at all.

The script plays out like the books: there are some good lines; some action; some romance. Let’s not forget, as much as we may enjoy the books they are not great literature. Similarly, the film is not destined to be a classic. I doubt it will lead to a series of films. It might morph into a television series and I have always thought that was the best medium for the stories.

The casting of the film has generated a lot of commentary.  There were certainly better choices for some of the roles. At least on paper.

The world seems to be divided into those who love Katherine Heigl and those who don’t. I’m somewhere in the middle. She’s not hard to look at but she’s not a great actor. She’s an “eye roller”… a lot of her acting is through her facial expressions.  Chalk this up to her TV work (and the fact that the film’s director also came from TV).

More to the point, as Stephanie Plum, I think Heigl’s pretty credible. When it was first announced that she was cast in the role I had my doubts. Once I started seeing production stills during the filming over the summer of 2010 I started to warm to the idea. Heigl, with her long, curled and darkened tresses seemed to embody the attitude of Stephanie Plum.

Grandma Mazur, every bit as popular a character as Stephanie, was destined to be portrayed by Cloris Leachman or Betty White. Instead, the producers got Debbie Reynolds.

If I had doubts about that choice when it was announced, my fears were pretty much realized. Reynolds plays the character too broadly. At some points her Grandma Mazur veers from slightly eccentric into moderately drunk and then back again. In the scene where she shows up at Stephanie’s apartment door to drop off the keys to her late husband’s big blue Buick seemed almost another character entirely. Did she really need the sunglasses? Reynolds just doesn’t click for me in the role. Fortunately, there are only a few scenes with her so that’s not biggest problem with the film.

The casting of Patrick Fischler in the role of Stephanie’s cousin and boss Vinnie Plum seems weak as well. Fischler’s take on the character is more engaged, more hands on with the business and less sleazy than how the character is written in the books. Fisher Stevens, who portrays Morty Beyers, the bond enforcement agent Stephanie replaces, would have been a better casting choice for Vinnie Plum. The ultimate casting would’ve been the likes of a Steve Buscemi or Joe Pantoliano.

Sherri Shepherd as Lula is not as flamboyant and over-the-top as one might expect for the character. Her prostitute sidekick actually does a better job of playing up the comedy side of that stereotypical street character. Lula’s outfits were not quite as outlandish as in the books. Maybe that’s because you’re actually seeing them as opposed to having the author describe it to you.

The majority of the audience for Evanovich’s works is comprised of women. And their concern has always been with who would be the ideal actors to be cast in the roles of Morelli and Ranger.

Jason O’Mara as Morelli grew on me during the film, based mostly on the chemistry that seemed to be there between him and Katherine Heigl. For my money, the actor portraying Morelli should have dark eyes and be a little more solidly built.; almost verging on stocky, but not. Nonetheless, O’Mara does a credible job.

Daniel Sunjata plays Ranger. His looks may not be quite smoldering enough. The way he delivers his lines struck me as wide of the mark. Sunjata was almost too animated. I would envision the Ranger character being more understated; dark in character; threatening but with an animal appeal. None of that comes across in the film.

For people in and around Trenton the substitution of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania for New Jersey‘s capital city is a concern. If you know Trenton and your hypercritical, you’ll not think for one moment that what you see on the screen is actually Trenton. The topography that shows up in a couple of the wider establishing shots reveals the hilly terrain around Pittsburgh. We just don’t have that here in Trenton. We are, after all on the coastal plain of North America.

The houses chosen to represent Chambersburg really do not cut it. They could be houses that are found in Trenton but not in the Chambersburg neighborhood. Then again, the homes described in the books really relate more to those in Villa Park than Chambersburg proper. I always make that point in giving tours of Trenton.

Some of the old industrial buildings certainly could be here in Trenton. In fact, there was one that I could swear I’ve been in.

On the up side, the producers did come to Trenton and work out arrangements to use a lot of Trenton businesses and items and things in the film to make it more realistic. {Full disclosure, I did help with that process, for which I did receive special thanks the end of the credits at the end of the film} It does help that we can spot a storefront made up to be DeLorenzo’s Tomato Pies and that Italian Peoples Bakery shows up two or three times in the film. Look closely and you will see a Public Service Electric and Gas bill that was actually something I sent them to use to dress one of the sets with.. There’s a photo of the real Trenton Makes Bridge in an office in the faux police station. The bridge that appears in the opening shot of the film is not the real Trenton Makes Bridge. It’s a mock up done on a bridge outside of Pittsburgh. There are pages from the Trentonians newspaper; a map of the city streets Stephanie uses to plot out crime scenes, etc. All help to give a sense of place to the film.

When all is said and done, One for the Money is not going to launch a successful film franchise. It is certainly not going to be as successful as the book franchise. The film is not going to do killer box office. The film is not going to garner a lot of critical acclaim. The film is not going to win any major awards.

One for the Money is a diversion. At 106 min. long, it takes you away from your day-to-day as a movie should and provides a mildly pleasant experience. A little romance. A little comedy. A little drama.

— Jim Carlucci

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