If Diane Keaton were an up-and-comer in 2008, she'd likely be stuck in romantic comedies cooked up in movie studio test kitchens. No Godfather for her. No Annie Hall, no Shoot the Moon, no Reds. Filmmakers who now use Katherine Heigl as their go-to girl would be flummoxed by the willowy radiance Keaton still so easily emits — the wry shiksa grin, those bright saucer eyes, that offhand laugh that suggests she's the smartest person in any room even when playing a dumb blonde. Keaton's worst films have come only in the last 10 to 15 years — forgettable, lamentable, treacly, preachy paychecks like Hanging Up, Town & Country, Plan B, The Family Stone, and last year's Because I Said So, perhaps the worst of all. What is it Norma Desmond said about actresses and their inability to age gracefully? Ah, yes: "I am big. It's the pictures that got small."
Small like Callie Khouri's new Mad Money, which is actually a remake of a 2001 BBC television production titled Hot Money, about women who clean the Bank of England and smuggle out in their underpants thousands of pounds destined for destruction. Dumped into the January-release burial grounds, Mad Money bears the stench of a discounted pickup turned leftover: It was financed by the same company putting two Jessica Simpson movies on video store shelves near you. Released with almost no promotional push, it will likely die a quick, quiet death. And that would be a minor shame, because, truth is, it's not without its estimable charms — Keaton chief among them.
She plays the pampered Bridget Cardigan, a name so indefensible you'd be forgiven for reading no further. She and her husband Don (Ted Danson) live in a sprawling Midwestern manse — though when we first meet the couple, Don is shredding dollar bills and flushing them down the commode, while Bridget is skedaddling out the back door with a bag full of filthy lucre and the cops on her tail. Their story is told in flashback: Don, once a six-figure exec, has been downsized and is drowning in debt, and Bridget is ill equipped to do anything but spend money. Rather than detouring into cash-strapped Fun with Dick and Jane territory, the filmmakers take little time to get Bridget a new job: cleaning the toilets at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, where she meets the ditzy Jackie Truman (Katie Holmes, who is apparently let out of the house alone on occasion) and the bored-outta-her-brains Nina Brewster (Queen Latifah).
It's Nina's job to destroy worn-out currency, and Bridget figures, hell, might as well steal the bills before they're destroyed. So the women stuff the bounty in their panties and walk out the door, a few times too many — which is no spoiler, as the narrative is often interrupted by scenes of the stars explaining to the feds precisely how the heist worked.
And while it's all so breezy and zippy and Girl Power–peppy — Khouri, after all, wrote the Thelma and Louise screenplay — it's Keaton who makes Mad Money worth a few bucks. Bridget is a smart, stubborn woman who can't stop stealing. For her, it's a necessity and a kick, a way to pay the bills and score some thrills. And Keaton, who has always played drama like comedy and vice versa, nails it, imbuing the reined-in slapshtick with a real sense of purpose. (Plus, the last few minutes of the film are essential Keaton: Even when busted, she's cockier than any cop.)
Katherine Heigl, who suffered through minor parts in major dreck during the '90s, is sort of a Diane Keaton starter kit, if you consider that Knocked Up was sort of the dirty-talk version of Annie Hall — nebbishy Jew inexplicably lands hot, tall, no-shit shiksa. But her new 27 Dresses, directed by Anne Fletcher, is precisely the kind of movie Keaton avoided early on — the forgettable, formulaic comedy so predictable that seeing it and skipping it are the exact same thing. Fox sneak-previewed the movie during the holidays, between the Christmas buzz and New Year's hangover. But like everything else consumed and digested in that time period, 27 Dresses was little more than empty, leaden, stomach-aching calories all but already forgotten; and it starred ... ? Oh, yes, wait. Katherine Heigl. Right.
She's plain Jane, the bridesmaid who is never the bride, in love with her sportswear-making boss (Ed Burns, seemingly in every bad movie this January), who only has eyes for Jane's sister, Tess (Malin Akerman). Through circumstances slight and silly, Jane meets Kevin (James Marsden, still singing), a wedding columnist for a New York Times knockoff who is as creepy as he is charming. The guy is one Post-It note away from stalking, though movies like this play that kind of boorish behavior as lovey-dovey cute. Ultimately, Jane betrays Tess, Kevin betrays Jane, everything falls apart until everyone comes together — and if you think that's spoiling anything, you should see your first movie in the near future. Make it one from the 1970s, starring Diane Keaton.