Film Review: One for the Money (2012)

30 January 2012

One for the Money has a big fundamental problem: it’s a lazy film. The studio knew that Janet Evanovich’s loyal fans would show up to see their favorite unintended bounty hunter Stephanie Plum come to life onscreen, so they aimed for the cheapest product they could. From inexperienced screenwriters to a one keyboard score, it feels like no money was put into the film beyond securing a recognizable cast of film and TV actors.

All of that is a shame. Say what you will about Evanovich’s writing. The story of Stephanie Plum should have made a fun popcorn mystery/thriller without much struggle. Stephanie Plum loses her job as a lingerie manager in Newark, NJ. After being unemployed for six months, her car is towed and her eviction notice is served. She is forced to take on the only job available to her: working as a bond recovery agent for her cousin. Stephanie stumbles into a big bounty by accident. Her ex-boyfriend skipped out on a $500,000 bond on charges of murder. She becomes obsessed with taking in the highly trained police officer who manipulates her into investigating the actual circumstances of his arrest.

One for the Money

Stephanie Plum is after bond jumper Morelli in One for the Money

Now tell me how, in a series of books where all non-A-plot detours can be skipped over without losing the story, the screenwriting team of Stacy Sherman, Karen Ray, and Liz Brixius managed to skip over any character development or logical thought process in solving a crime? The scenes where the writers actually put the story of One for the Money into the hands of the actors work. From Stephanie Plum getting intelligence from a pair of hookers to wanted murderer Morelli breaking into Plum’s apartment to push her in the right direction, these narrative scenes actually come alive.

The problem is that these scenes seem to pop up randomly with no rhythm or purpose. Moments of character growth and development–such as Plum learning how to pick a lock for the first time–are glossed over in favor of lingering glances at a hamster in a cage and long stretches of Plum sinking down in her car seat as a suspect slowly walks by.

There is no excitement in the early phases of the investigation as Plum is never in danger. By the time you learn that she really is in over her head, it’s hard to believe anything bad can happen to her. The previous bad encounters were total non-events. Why should you care when people suddenly wind up dead and cars start exploding?

Director Julie Ann Robinson does a poor job of bringing any life into One for the Money. You can’t just blame the screenwriters for big gun/chase sequences falling totally flat in a mystery/thriller film. It takes a special kind of director to decide that a tense confrontation between two characters–professional fighter Ramirez has Stephanie Plum in a choke-hold in a cage-fighting ring–needs to be interrupted as soon as contact occurs by close-ups of mirrors exploding under gunfire. The focus is not on the gunfire itself, nor Plum’s escape, but a ring of mirrors blowing up one by one.

One for the Money

One for the Money Poster

Robinson’s experience is mostly in television, which shines through whenever One for the Money focuses on two characters talking. Those quiet dialogue scenes have a natural rhythm to them that is appealing even in the consistent overuse of camera cuts to separate lines. As soon as the characters start moving and talking, it falls apart.

Unfortunately, One for the Money is a film that has to travel all over Trenton, NJ to get its point across. For every scene where two characters interact in believable way, there are at least two scenes involving cars, guns, or other props that are totally fumbled. It’s frustrating to watch the film focus on inconsequential traveling when it does the one-on-one investigation elements much better.

No matter what you can say about the writing and direction, you cannot fault the ensemble cast of actors for the failings of One for the Money. Katherine Heigl is an engaging Stephanie Plum. It’s easily one of her best onscreen performances to date and you can’t help but like her character in spite of her, shall we say, prickly exterior. You find me another movie where you cheer on the psycho ex-girlfriend who hopped a curve to run over her ex-boyfriend’s leg for taking her virginity.

The film was obviously cast with the seventeen (soon to be eighteen) possible sequels in mind. They cast Sherri Shepherd as wise-cracking hooker with a big heart Lula, Debbie Reynold’s as Plum’s death-obsessed gun-crazy grandmother, Jason O’Mara as hard-edged ex-boyfriend/bond jumper Morelli, and Daniel Sunjata as overly-protective private security agent Ranger. Throughout the series, these characters play bigger and bigger roles in Plum’s bounty hunting and the four actors are perfectly cast. Shepherd and O’Mara have the most to work with in One for the Money and they both shine.

The problem with One for the Money is greed. The studio wanted an origin film in what is essentially an anthology mystery/thriller series with a comedic edge. However, they introduced the main cast for later films at the expense of not telling a solid story in the first film.

Had the production and creative team trusted the source novel as a guide, One for the Money could have been a fun and fast-paced mystery film for adults. Instead, it’s a limp, inconsistent, lazy 106 minute introduction to a franchise that might never be continued if audiences don’t show up for the poor first entry.

Rating: 3/10

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