Runaway Bride (1999)
First screened and reviewed in December 1999
When is a romantic comedy neither romantic nor a comedy? When the film is as crass, garish, and blockheaded as Runaway Bride, a picture whose very existence I can only construe as a kindhearted tit-for-tat gesture on Julia Roberts's part to Richard Gere and Garry Marshall, the men who helped ignite her career with Pretty Woman almost a decade ago. Roberts, no matter how you cut it, did not need to make this movie. The actress has her pick of virtually any script she wants, and she already had one sure-fire hit (and resoundingly better film) on her hands with Notting Hill. By contrast, Marshall's The Other Sister died the quiet death last spring, and Gere has been dithering around for years now in tripe like Red Corner and The Jackal.

Sadly, Gere and Marshall return the favor of Roberts's generosity—or must we now call it her recklessness?—by perpetrating a movie which for a good hour and a half does nothing but tar and feather her character. Maggie Carpenter is a small-town girl of suspiciously big-city glamour whose entire community watches as she leaves three consecutive grooms-to-be standing at the altar. She doesn't just get cold feet, she gets fleet ones, leaving in her wake a train of bridesmaids disconsolate at Maggie's inability to get an emotional fix on herself. Her father thinks she's addle-brained and jokes about how he would like to lose her. Maggie even describes herself as "irredeemably screwed-up," or some such phrase, assuring us that even at those rare moments when her neighbors bite their wagging tongues, this girl is willing and able to pathologize herself.

Gere's Ike Graham—a USA Today reporter whose real name is, we are asked to believe, Homer Eisenhower Graham—hears in a barroom of Maggie's not-quite-marital misadventures. The informer, a sauced entomologist who claims to be Maggie's seventh jilted hubby, is in actuality only her third, but Gere runs with the story anyway. He is surprised, however, as indeed I was, to find that USA Today's opinion column editors actually cry foul at factual misrepresentation. Ellie, the editor who cans him, is Ike's ex-wife, and he chooses to understand her professional condemnation as a vindictive maneuver somehow typical of the female sex. An early scene with the ever-wasted Sela Ward has already made clear what a misogynistic jerk Ike is, so the encounter between himself and Ellie adds no new information on that front. The fact, though, that Ellie is played smoothly by Rita Wilson, forever overchallenged in good movies and humbly at ease only in bad ones, is another strong indicator that this Bride isn't running anywhere appealing.

To make matters brief, the rest of Bride's premise runs like this: a friend of Ike's who writes freelance pieces for GQ, that bastion of male pride and entitlement, encourages Ike to relocate to Maggie's hometown of Hale, Maryland. While there, he may gather evidence that his first piece was, if still nigglingly unresearched and inaccurate in its details, at least appropriate in spirit to her ruthless project of emasculation. (Hall & Oates's woman-fearing chestnut "Maneater" appears on the soundtrack to remind us again from which corner of the Dark Ages Ike is coming from.) Ike settles into some predictably bratty banter with Maggie, who decides publicly to humiliate him with a Cyndi Lauper dye job—care of a hair-dresser pal played, mercifully, by the winning Joan Cusack. Maggie also plans to verify her own capacity for commitment by marrying Coach Bob (Christopher Meloni), the lunkheaded gym teacher at Hale High. Now, of course, all that Maggie suggests through these behaviors is that she may in fact be just as vindictive and stupid as Ike imagines; then again, by orbiting around the Hale High cheerleaders and borrowing tapes of Maggie's abortive weddings from her dad, Ike does nothing to acquit himself of being a boor and a scoundrel. "Perfect for each other" in this film implies an equal willingness to follow one's worst instincts.

A bit more happens in Runaway Bride, but not much. In fact, if you've seen Pretty Woman, you've already got most of the scenes under your belt. Remember when those mean, witchy saleswomen wouldn't let Julia-As-Hooker buy the cocktail dress she wanted? If not, don't worry, Marshall is happy to remind you. Did you like that classic exchange when Gere and Roberts debated her retail value? Well, a near-verbatim second serving is on the way! In fact, the filmmakers decide, let's crib the whole Julia oeuvre, and plop in both a scene at a baseball game, la My Best Friend's Wedding, and, before it's even vanished from the theaters, crib from Notting Hill's fence-climbing sequence as well. Maybe they excused themselves for making a terrible Julia Roberts movie by pretending to remake the good ones.

Even through such flagrant plagiarism, Runaway Bride entirely misses the rueful elegance of Notting Hill, the bubble-gum palette and controlled mean streak of My Best Friend's Wedding, and even the humbler accomplishments of Pretty Woman, which narrowly overcame its own gross story structure (in which a yuppy buys a woman, a prostitute who "loves" him) through the exuberant comic flexibility of Roberts's performance and the wise understatement of Gere's. By contrast, or even independently, the shapelessness of Runaway Bride's scenes is astonishing. Several of them end with what seem like improvised set-shenanigans—Gere pretending to run away from snakes, Roberts laughing endlessly after a pratfall in her kitchen—and others, particularly those involving Hector Elizondo as Gere's best buddy or Laurie Metcalf as Hale's deranged pastry-chef, are indecipherable from beginning to end. Comparative rookie Meloni, as Maggie's jockish fiancé, occasionally handles a joke with some pizzazz, but almost always finds time to smirk in self-satisfaction afterward.

Most disconcerting of all the performances are those of the stars, which embody grand desperation of two different varieties. Gere, who clearly seems to know that his future as a leading man hangs on this picture, strains for a Tom Hanks-style boyishness that he cannot make convincing. He wants so much for us to like him, to really, really like him . . . until the second half, when he returns to the familiar silver-haired, red-hearted guru routine we all expect, and which anyone who's ever watched him present an Oscar knows is insufferable. Roberts, meanwhile, is utterly left out to dry, given no direction on how to inhabit her uninhabitable part. She gathers some life in her moments with Cusack (who wouldn't?), and she does find some room for emotional conviction in a scene where she rightly accuses Gere of being just as emotionally lost as she is. Tellingly, though, and through no fault of her own, this moment of sincerity in the actress's work cannot last. Nothing else in the script invites or sustains it, and Roberts instantly deflates back to the flat, impossible aridity of the vehicle.

For all of the reasons I have stated, Runaway Bride fails as a romantic comedy. The movie is carelessly made, performed in bewilderment, and ugly to look at, since the great cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh (The Piano, Lone Star) here inexplicably alternates funereal browns and greys with loud, Hawaiian-print oranges and purples. Still, one might object, every season in Hollywood produces more than a few fairy tales that lack the magic they grasp at so clumsily—but hey, at least no one gets hurt. Here, though, Runaway Bride finally distinguishes itself from the pack, albeit inauspiciously, because this movie fails in ways that actually do bear negative political import. Beyond even the blatant sexism of Gere's character, or the retrograde stereotypes like the lisping, drama-queen news reporter, Runaway Bride's allegedly happy ending reproduces exactly the domination of women that Roberts's character pretends she has left behind her. I cannot really feel guilty for ruining the ending of this movie, which is itself a ruin: Maggie, of course, marries Ike, who at different moments hates, humiliates, patronizes, and embarrasses her. Even assuming that Ike's feelings could possibly represent anything healthy, notice how Maggie proposes to him with words he wrote himself. Their wedding hews perfectly to the aesthetic of simplicity that he espouses early in the film—even if his over-furnished, hi-tech apartment and $100 haircut roundly controvert them. She reads his books now, and listens to his music. She breaks into his apartment, and sets herself to getting comfortable there.

This movie is a big lie. It tells the audience that Maggie has found her perfect man, only to add another to the long series of men whose influence she allows to shape her own identity, to determine her own preferences. Garry Marshall and conspirators have the gall, or else the ignorance, to package and sell this thing like a Cinderella fable, but who exactly thinks this ending is happy? What are we supposed to take away from this story? Pretty Woman tried to pull the wool over our eyes once, and because I am a sucker for Julia in that film, because I have less integrity than I wish I did, and because I was 13 years old, for God's sake, I bought it. So did many, many other people. Please, though, do not buy Runaway Bride, whose most direct prevision in Pretty Woman is the scene where Roberts tells Gere her name is "whatever you want it to be." The new film pretends to amend the messages of its predecessor, but in fact it only repeats them loudly, and more often, and worse. Grade: F

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