As with blood-soaked action movies, the pleasure in watching a contrivance-laden romantic comedy is derived from the unspooling of the plot. No one watching “Taken” thinks Liam Neeson will leave his daughter’s kidnapping to the proper authorities or that Kristen Wiig’s is going to dump Chris O’Dowd’s sweetheart cop to give things another shot with Jon Hamm’s self-centered hunk at the of “Bridesmaids.” That joy lies in the precise execution of age-old genre tropes, clever direction and nuanced performances. Case in point, Sean Garrity’s new film “After the Ball,” which opens in theaters across the country on April 24. It’s full of plot twists you can see coming a mile away, but it’s still a lot of fun.
The film is a Cinderella story wherein aspiring fashion designer Kate (Portia Doubleday, “Her”) creates a gender-swapped alter ego called Nate to become chief designer of her father, Lee’s (Chris Noth, “The Good Wife”) once mighty, now denigrated fashion house Kassell after her wicked stepmother Elise (Lauren Holly, “NCIS”) and evil and stupid stepsisters (Natalie Krill and Anna Hopkins) successfully maneuver her out of the family business. There is of course a hunky prince-type (Marc-André Grondin, “Goon”) working at Kassell, a kindly stepmother and a raft of wholly improbably coincidences. Still, once the film gets going, its charm outshines its overreliance on clichés.
First off, Portia Doubleday is great. She doesn’t really pull off the two personas thing, but you can tell she’s not really trying to, like how Christopher Reeves made Clark Kent a little too much of a stiff to be a real person. She sells Kate’s insecure ambition well and makes the character’s pain visceral enough that you can’t help but root for her in the end, even though you know things are going to go her way from the jump. The supporting cast is also really good with Chris Noth burying his casual menace underneath a patina of corroded failure. He comes off like an older Don Draper which makes sense as Noth was Jon Hamm before Jon Hamm was Jon Hamm.
Natalie Krill and Anna Hopkins are a ton of fun too, because they stretch out and intensify their one note characterization in the same way Mariah Carey holds the final note of “We Belong Together,” beyond a certain point, all you can do is surrender. Lauren Holly isn’t an actress that stood out to me before watching this film as her work in anodyne procedurals like “Rookie Blue” and “Alphas” left something to be desired, but she’s enjoyable in here. She has a bright future ahead of her as a vainglorious supervillain.
As a film set in the fashion industry, “After the Ball” ran the risk of falling into the same pitfall many films exploring an artistic craft fall into; depicting a work that is stunning in the world of the film, but is utterly uninspiring to the viewer. Fortunately, the film doesn’t have that issue as its producers enlisted the fine people at Le Château and designer Mario Davignon to create the clothing in the film. So, all the characters who work in a fashion house look like they work in fashion house and the featured looks are Fashion Week ready. That level of verisimilitude gives the film a level a credibility that its script, written by Kate Melville and Jason Sherman, doesn’t quite achieve.
Sean Garrity and cinematographer Pierre Gill do a fine job making all the professionally beautiful look especially gorgeous. The way Noth and Holly look is excellent reminder that the demands of a television production schedule are not always flattering to actors. An overhearing-a-secret scene late in the film suggests that Garrity could do something special with espionage picture. And aside from a few melodramatic orchestral stabs, the soundtrack is eminently listenable, with Canadian indie stalwarts Stars and Tokyo Police Club gives the film a unique sense of time and place. This is a film set in Montréal, not some vague North American city.
Anyone looking to “After the Ball” for a wholly original cinematic experience will be disappointed. But for anybody who wants to see a thoroughly pleasant, low stakes rom-com, this movie is for you. It won’t change your life, but it will almost certainly make your day a lot more fun. Sometimes that’s all a movie needs to be, a brief reminder that the world’s isn’t always a terrible place and that love is possible even when every other aspect of your personal life seems to be falling apart. After all, that’s what fairy tales are for.
Tickets to Cleveland area showings of “After the Ball” can be purchased here.