Katherine Heigl stars as Stephanie Plum in "One for the Money." (Ron Batzdorff / Lionsgate )
A mercenary pall hangs over the criminally uninspired "One for the Money." Tough economic times force Stephanie Plum, the main character, to take a potentially lucrative assignment as a bounty hunter. Fair enough. Except that the filmmakers have left the creative spark out of the equation. The Katherine Heigl vehicle is an ungainly mix of flat-footed gumshoeing and strained attempts at hilarity, all delivered with an unconvincing Joizy vibe.
As in most Hollywood romantic comedies of recent vintage, the romance and laughs in "Money" are, respectively, wan and nonexistent. Heigl, who also produced, plays Trenton divorcee Stephanie, an unemployed lingerie saleswoman who's behind in her car payments and rent. Just in the nick of time, she becomes a so-called recovery agent for her bail bondsman cousin Vinnie (Patrick Fischler).
A 50-grand payout is Stephanie's if she can bring in bail jumper Joe Morelli (Jason O'Mara), a cop accused of killing an unarmed man. He also happens to be the guy who unceremoniously ditched her back in high school. In an attempt at a running joke, nearly everyone Stephanie encounters recalls that she responded to the rejection by running him over and breaking his leg. Spunky! Everyone also insists that she's still interested in him, and the audience must endure the onetime couple's transparent sparring as they keep crossing paths.
While she tracks her wanted man, Stephanie enjoys the bounty-hunter mentorship of Ranger (Daniel Sunjata), who gallantly buys her a gun because, well, she doesn't have a permit. Heigl, who struggles to bring a gutsy vulnerability to the part, is most convincing when conveying Stephanie's horror, and sense of accomplishment, after she uses that gun in a life-or-death situation. But by that point in the film, after a car bombing has been used as a punch line, life and death are meaningless concepts on the road to the inevitable happy ending.
Plenty of movies have mined laughs from crime and romantic revenge. But in adapting the first installment of novelist Janet Evanovich's long-running mystery series, screenwriters Stacy Sherman, Karen Ray and Liz Brixius achieve neither dark humor nor screwball cheer — unless being handcuffed naked to a shower rod counts as either.
Whatever Stephanie's charms on the page, she's not much of a rooting interest in this incarnation. That director Julie Anne Robinson demonstrates no feel for storytelling tension is underscored by the use of voice-over narration, with Stephanie explaining what's already obvious or trying in vain to drum up the urgency that's missing from the action.
In addition to Fischler (who had a memorable turn as TV star Jimmy Barrett on "Mad Men"), a number of supporting performers register with colorful turns — Sherri Shepherd as a friendly hooker, Adam Paul as a would-be suitor and Fisher Stevens as a rival of sorts. More in keeping with the rote dreariness of the movie is John Leguizamo, on autopilot in a key role, albeit in a plot that matters less with each proceeding scene.
Most depressing is the spectacle of Debbie Reynolds in the de rigueur Betty White role — Hollywood having relegated seniors to the category of adorably "outrageous" while it caricatures single women as desperate updates on romance-novel heroines.