Here's a riveting Hollywood whodunit: Who killed the ad campaign for the new film One for the Money? An adaptation of the first novel in Janet Evanovich's blockbuster mystery series (17 books and counting), One for the Money stars hate-target Katherine Heigl in a comeback role of sorts as New Jersey salesgirl turned bounty hunter Stephanie Plum. Money should be Heigl's Erin Brockovich, a star-making turn in which a rom com sweetheart reintroduces herself to movie audiences as a blue-collar, tacky-glamorous underdog with a lot of sass and money troubles. Instead, the film's marketing team is squandering its hefty advantages—the built-in audience of Stephanie Plum fans, the perfectly decent trailer, and the easy appeal of an action-comedy in January—by running a barely-there ad campaign and refusing press screenings, forgetting that, as the existence of Human Centipede 2 illustrates, some people will watch pretty much anything.
Of course, Money's biggest marketing challenge is its unpopular star, partially hidden even in her own movie under a thicket of dark, curly hair. The origins of Heigl hate are by now well known. She made a whole lot of enemies very, very quickly by publicly pooping on the writers of Knocked Up and Grey's Anatomy, the two projects that made her a household name. In an interview, she called Knocked Up "a little sexist"—not an unfair criticism, actually—and instantly attracted righteous vitriol from the dudes who had jerked off to her Maxim spread just the night before. Soon after, Heigl withdrew her name from Emmy consideration, declaring that her character on Grey's didn't have interesting enough storylines to warrant an acting award that season. Her rom com career started strong, starring opposite plastic hot-bot James Marsden in the moderate hit 27 Dresses, but even her most loyal fans had trouble defending her decision to star in a string of really bad films—The Ugly Truth, Killers, Life as We Know It, New Year's Eve—none of whose shrewish protagonists are, as the Judd Apatow team rejoined, "uplifting for women." After The Ugly Truth, the hate machine went into hyperdrive with tabloid editors and screeching Internet monkeys alike criticizing anything and everything about her, from her marriage (harpy!) to her cigarettes (smoking harpy!) and even her adoption of a baby girl from Korea (Harpy Dearest!). The backlash against Heigl is partly sexist—the only acceptable conversation topics for up-and-coming actresses these days seem to be fashion, video games, or their boring families, and certainly not the institutional sexism in Hollywood—but given her Sharon Stone-levels of self-grandiosity, the hate is rightly deserved, if unfair in proportion.
Heigl's handlers clearly haven't yet figured out how to work around her image issues, an understandable situation, since Heigl's questionably talented manager is also her mom. Given those issues, then, one would assume she's box office poison, but that's not exactly the case if you think abroad. Heigl is much more popular outside America. She has that gorgeous face, after all, and foreign audiences are probably not as interested in her off-screen hissy fits. The Ugly Truth made back its $70 million budget, with a domestic gross of $90 million and added a whopping international gross of $204 million. Likewise, the $92 million New Year's Eve, in which Heigl had a bit part, earned just $54 million domestically, but drew a profit solely thanks to its $142 million worldwide ticket sales. Yet Killers was a confirmed flop, with not even the worldwide gross ($97 million) making back its colossal budget of $105 million. (For an Ashton Kutcher movie? Seriously?). And Life As We Know It was a minor failure, earning $87 million internationally on a $70 million budget.
None of Heigl's romcoms are massive flops on the scale of, say, Mars Needs Moms, 2011's biggest box office disaster, which made barely a tenth of its $190 million budget. In fact, all of Heigl's films have cracked at least $45 million -- quite strong for an actress, as women tend to be smaller box office draws than men. Indeed, despite critics' unimpressed reactions to these films, none of them might have been considered duds if they hadn't cost such an outrageous amount in the first place. (That studios would hand over a $100 million check to make a movie co-starring Ashton Kutcher only shows how desperate they were to make Heigl the next Julia Roberts or Meg Ryan.) Going forward, Heigl could easily spin herself as a reliable box office lure if she negotiated for smaller budgets on her films-and for the sake of her career longevity, asked for less than her current quote of $13 million.
It's clear that One for the Money—a title that aptly describes Heigl's recent career-is a major step in her current image rehab. (Her Funny or Die video, "I Hate Balls," which advocates the neutering and spaying of pets, is another, with Heigl simultaneously parodying her shrewish persona and showing that she cares about stuff, albeit in a rich, white lady sort of way.) Given the lack of press screenings, it's a safe bet that Money isn't the next Bridesmaids. But Heigl's a capable comedic actress with a Best Supporting Actress Emmy under her belt, so it's reasonable to expect that she'll shine in this self-produced star vehicle. And refreshingly, Money takes place far from the glossy, unreal worlds of art galleries, magazine publishing, and TV journalism that her other characters have occupied, and features instead a girl next door who actually is the girl next door: unemployed, living at home, doing odd jobs to make ends meet. But with the box office projections for One for the Money so low—our magic algorithms project a scant $27 million, the lowest ever for a Heigl film since her career launch in Knocked Up—there doesn't seem to be too many audience members left who are willing to give her a second chance.