Just Married

(2003) ** Pg-13
94 min. 20th Century Fox. Director: Shawn Levy. Cast: Ashton Kutcher, Brittany Murphy, Christian M. Kane, Monet Mazur, David Moscow.

Just Married, a time-and-space-inverted rehash of The Out-of-Towners, is the sort of cartoon comedy that--in spite of its lush international settings--takes place strictly in Movieland. Penned by the screenwriter of Rookie of the Year and helmed by the director of last year's Big Fat Liar (both movies for kids), Just Married has a puerile mindset which perhaps should not surprise.

Ashton Kutcher (of That 70s Show and Dude, Where's My Car), plays Tom Leezak, the prototypical Ugly American. A burgeoning Homer Simpson, Tom seems half as real: he works as a 3 a.m. traffic reporter (am I naive in thinking no such job exists?) and, though inordinately self-involved, attracts a lifelong commitment from Sarah McNerney (Brittany Murphy, late of 8 Mile), the scion of a wealthy Beverly Hills family. The story begins with the couple acrimoniously split, then unfolds in a series of Tom's anguished flashbacks to happier times followed by a European honeymoon gone horribly wrong. Finally, the film posits an apparent answer to the magic question: will they live happily ever after?

Screenwriter Sam Harper packs the story full of incident, but the characters never really develop beyond the contrived lesson they must learn in the final reel. What's left is musty upper-crusty humor, old gags about victimized dogs and pre-marital sneaking behind parents' backs, a gross of head-butts and pratfalls, an old boyfriend who's a dastardly rake, an offensive ethnic stereotype (what's a modern comedy without one?), and a smattering of toilet humor. A few isolated gags connect (it's hard to keep a straight face at the absurdly compact European car rental designed for the honeymooners), but the laughs are mostly guilty; there's no cleverness to be found here. Harper means for most of the humor to derive from the culture-clashing couple and their hellish adversity, but such sadism is a delicate brand of comedy. Misfortune is indeed funny, but cruelty can sour a romantic comedy.

Director Shawn Levy finds his biggest assets in his fresh-faced leads. Kutcher has the appeal of someone who's spent a few years on a sitcom: he's appealingly loose and used to getting the job done (the job being making flat material come to life). Murphy has already proved her magnetism, and here carries off a series of mood swings (capped by a surprisingly funny wedding-night meltdown) which nicely contrast her character's usual, even-keel charm.

Just Married is essentially a sweet-hearted, empty-headed date movie jolted by rude humor and aimed at no one older than Generation X.

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