Has Katherine Heigl killed her image?

After making the jump from “Grey’s Anatomy” to a starring role in Judd Apatow’s “Knocked Up,” Katherine Heigl was considered the next big leading lady. She was perfect in that hit comedy, partly for her performance, but largely in bringing in a female audience to an otherwise dude-centric comedy. Even I became a fan of the blonde starlet despite instantly despising her “Grey’s Anatomy” character, Izzie Stevens, the very first time I watched that show (for the record, one of few times).

But career suicide might not be a stretch to describe Heigl’s career since 2007. She’s managed to usurp Jennifer Aniston as the face of formulaic “collision of the sexes” romantic comedy. Sure, maybe the paycheck she commands would indicate the exact opposite career direction, but critically speaking, her presence in a film these days serves as a tremendously large red flag. Needless to say, there’s little hope for her new comedy/drama “Life As We Know It,” which comes out tomorrow.

Heigl’s follow-up to “Knocked Up” began the rom-com train wreck with “27 Dresses” co-starrin James Marsden. The film took in a pretty solid $23 million its first weekend considering it was released in January 2008 and went on to gross $160 million worldwide. Heigl was still reeling off the success of “Knocked Up” and her starring role on “Grey’s,” so her stock continued to rise. Reviews were, at the least, not deriding.

A whole year and a half later, Heigl’s next film, “The Ugly Truth” with Gerard Butler, was the rom-com centerpiece of the summer season. Ironically, the ugly truth became clear: Heigl appeared to have no interest in moving toward dramatic roles or at least into genres viewed in a better light. Nevertheless, the film made $27 million when it opened in July and more than $200 million worldwide, only improving her bankable status despite increasingly worse reviews. While “Dresses” had a 40% on Rotten Tomatoes, “Ugly Truth” earned a 14%, with critics remarking how off-putting the film’s take on male/female political correctness was.

That brings us to 2010. Heigl starred with Aston Kutcher this past June in the romantic action comedy “Killers.” Considering this genre is even more formulaic and repetitive, Heigl’s choice to do it was all the more disappointing. She plays a neurotic woman who falls for Kutcher’s character who it turns out has license to kill. As you’d imagine, 12% on Rotten Tomatoes, but the real kicker was that “Killers” failed at the box office: $15 million its first weekend and below $100 million worldwide — in June.

Tomorrow, Heigl and co-star Josh Duhamel (wow, she goes from leading man to leading man like a black widow) take on “Life As We Know It,” a film that from the trailer, can’t decide if it’s a touching drama or a comedy. Heigl and Duhamel play acquaintances with mutual friends who are married with a little baby girl. When their friends die in a car accident, it turns out they gave the two of them joint custody of their child (awkward). The two go from hating each other to … that’s right, you know what happens.

I’d like to say there’s light at the end of the tunnel for Heigl, but her next credit will be next summer’s “One for the Money” based on the first of several Janet Evanovich novels in which Heigl plays Stephanie Plum, an unemployed lingerie buyer (she’s running out of urban single-woman self-starter  jobs in her films) who turns to being a bounty hunter to make ends meet. The film also stars character actor John Leguizamo and Irishman Jason O’Mara. Maybe because this is established material it won’t be awful, but there’s not much reason for optimism.

I certainly think Heigl has the chops for drama or to at least move up the leading lady chain and co-star in some blockbuster action films, but maybe she has an aversion to danger and challenges. That, or she really, really likes money and would rather stay in her rom-com comfort zone. Interesting, considering this is the woman who withdrew her name from Emmy consideration because she wasn’t happy with the “Grey’s” storylines.

My fear is if she goes any further down the dark tunnel of greed that is handcuffing yourself to movies that aren’t taken seriously, she’ll end up an annoyance, which is what Jennifer Aniston is more than half the time she appears in a film.

If “Life As We Know It” tanks (for an October film), then what happened with “Killers” will be more telling for Heigl. If it succeeds, she’ll stay on her course most likely, but maybe a flop would give her the wake-up call to find better material.


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