After 18 years, Janet Evanovich makes it to the big screen

“One for the Money” opened Friday with two big strikes against it — the distribution company’s decision not to press-screen the film in advance of its premiere and the presence of Katherine Heigl in the starring role.

The absence of critics’ screenings before a movie debuts — particularly something that “opens wide” as “One for the Money” did on more than 2,000 screens — gives a film an aura of damaged goods that usually becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy among annoyed reviewers.

Katherine Heigl is an actress with talent and considerable camera appeal who has developed one of the most poisonous reputations in show business — deserved or not.

She broke a cardinal rule of her industry by publicly criticizing aspects of two major projects — the series that launched her career, “Grey’s Anatomy,” and the film that made her — for a time — a movie star, “Knocked Up.”

What Heigl said about both vehicles was true, but nevertheless gave her the reputation of being “difficult” and “diva-like” and…you fill in the negative adjectives. She is hated by people within the TV and movie industries and that contempt has filtered down to the press that covers and reviews movies.

You might piss off some very powerful people with a negative review for a highly touted Meryl Streep or George Clooney picture, but no one is going to get hostile feedback in 2012 for blasting Heigl.

The actress has been further damaged by appearing in several ill-advised — to say the least — movie vehicles that have given her critics lots of ammunition and weakened her box office clout.

The reviews that began appearing over the weekend for “One for the Money” were, predictably, bad, but the film got a B- rating from exit polling of moviegoers and came in at number three in the box-office rankings with a gross of over $11 million (as Hollywood pundit Nikki Finke put it, “It came on stronger than the disaster which Hollywood thought it would be”).

What’s sad about all of this bad marketing and bad buzz is that “One for the Money” is faithful to the best-selling 1994 novel by Janet Evanovich about a young Trenton woman — Stephanie Plum — who reluctantly takes a job at her cousin’s bail bond company.

Stephanie surprises her family and friends by becoming good at “skip tracing” (bringing in people who haven’t paid their bail and have failed to show up for their first court date).

Evanovich has gone on to write 15 more novels about Stephanie and the people in her personal life and her dangerous career — the books have been huge bestsellers and inspired many other women writers to break out of the confines of “cozy” mysteries in favor of much sexier, funnier material.

Series mystery fiction about women seems to scare off Hollywood, however.

Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta books have been in various stages of “development” for more than 20 years (when I interviewed Demi Moore for “A Few Good Men” in 1992 she spent much of the time talking excitedly about her company producing the first Scarpetta book as a film).

The genre took a huge hit in 1991 with the release of “V.I.Warshawski” based on the great Chicago detective character created by Sara Paretsky in a series of wonderful books. The movie mashed together the plots of several Paretsky stories, featured a woefully miscast Kathleen Turner in the lead, and horrified fans of the novels who watched a would-be franchise go down in flames.

You can debate Heigl as Stephanie — I thought she was convincing enough as a working-class New Jersey woman. But what really impressed me about the movie was the loving care that went into the casting of all the people around Stephanie (who could have stepped right out of the pages of Evanovich’s first novel) and the way that the working class characters and settings were presented without a trace of condescension (which is also true of the book).

We are so used to Hollywood telling us that the only life worth living is a deluxe one that it’s refreshing to see a film that recognizes the value in the lives of the other 99 percent.

The movie Stephanie lives in precisely the sort of apartment Evanovich’s character could really afford, dresses the way that pretty, stylish working class women do, and has made up in street smarts for what she might lack in conventional education.

“One for the Money” sticks close to the plot of the original novel and respects the characters a very funny and very talented writer created, and for that it deserves to be saluted.