For certain movie stars, the elevation of gossip culture has changed the meaning of what gossip is. In the ancient old days (like, you know, 1992), a star’s off-screen life was a carefully baked confection of reality and sugarcoating. When you read about her affairs, break-ups, marriages, new babies, or work-out routines, it all added up to a vision of the star that served the purpose of buffing and enhancing her on-screen image.
These days, a star’s off-screen life is still a carefully baked confection of reality and sugarcoating (though, at times, a little more reality does poke through). Only now, the narrative of that actual/half-glimpsed/half-concocted glossy-tabloid “reality” frequently trumps and transcends the movies themselves. You could, by all means, point to examples of this from the past; the Golden Age of Gossip probably started when Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton had their tempestuous affair on the set of Cleopatra (1963), a relationship that proved far more fascinating, and enduring, than anything in Cleopatra itself. Now, though, it’s become almost standard to think of the off-screen life of, say, a star of romantic comedies as bigger, bolder, tastier, and more compulsively dramatic than anything she actually does on-screen. To borrow a concept from Neal Gabler’s 1998 book Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality, her life – in our eyes, at least – has become the chick flick she lives every day.
All of which brings me to Jennifer Lopez in The Back-up Plan, a movie that marks a case of one star’s off-screen life so trumping her on-screen one that the movie’s “reality” subtext is, in fact, its underlying essence. I’ve already reviewed The Back-up Plan, and found it to be, like so many romantic comedies, watchable and forgettable, with stray drops of charm popping out of a sea of formula. As Zoe, a New York pet-shop owner who has given up any hope of finding the right guy, gets herself pregnant via a sperm donor, and then finds the right guy after all (in other words, her entire romantic life unfolds in the wrong order), Lopez acts with her usual PowerPoint dynamism. The story, of course, is glorified fluff, but in this case the fluffiness is almost a vehicle for the real story, which is the film’s teasing invitation for women to gawk at J. Lo’s physique.
The Back-up Plan sets this up in the most literal of ways. It’s about a woman getting ready to have twins – and Lopez herself, of course, had twins two years ago. The cutesy-obvious true-life parallel may be the hook, but the hook doesn’t end there. This is Lopez’s first romantic comedy since Monster-In-Law (2005), and the early parts of the movie, before the heroine’s baby bump is showing, are like an advertisement for the wonders of what working out can do to get you back into shape after pregnancy. Lopez is now 40, she had twins, and she looks as radiant and shapely and smashing as ever. That’s part of the movie’s gossip-world come-on. But then, as Zoe starts to put on baby weight, we see Lopez, in essence, replaying her own pregnancy. It’s a calculated act of anti-vanity – but the way that J. Lo does it, with Zoe, in one scene, drawing attention to how bootylicious her butt once looked, it’s also a benign piece of voyeuristic theater, a daytime talk-show appearance in movie form, as The Back-up Plan cues us to admire the star for showing off her body in a less than “perfect” light. And even then, of course, she still looks marvelous.
Of course, the Gossip: The Movie school of her-life-is-your-fantasy doesn’t necessarily succeed. Just look at the so-so opening-day grosses for The Back-Up Plan, which indicate that J. Lo may well have stayed away from romcoms for too long – or, perhaps, that audiences don’t necessarily want to turn out in droves to see a light comedy about pregnancy sickness. But one thing’s for sure: This movie’s very DNA has been sprung from the off-screen appeal of the J. Lo brand. And that’s a brand that will almost certainly outlast it.