|DVD Romantic Comedy|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 25 January 2000|
"Runaway Bride" reunites the stars, Julia Roberts & Richard Gere, and director, Garry Marshall, of the hit romantic comedy "Pretty Woman," and while this isn't up to that level, it's a warm, funny and touching movie in its own right. It got some cranky reviews, partly from people who preferred Roberts' other romantic comedy of 1999, "Notting Hill." But here, the storyline not only hearkens back to the screwball comedies of the 1930s, it almost seems like a remake of a hitherto-unknown Katharine Hepburn/Cary Grant or Katharine Hepburn/Spencer Tracy comedy.
Gere is Ike Graham, a columnist for USA Today, more than a little bitter about his divorce from Ellie (Rita Wilson), who's now married to his photographer friend Fisher (Hector Elizondo). His columns now have more than a whiff of misogyny. (He's used to little old ladies whapping him with rolled-up newspapers.) When a drunk babbles on about Maggie Carpenter, a woman from his home town who has left many grooms literally waiting at the altar, Graham seizes upon the story as the basis for his next column, waxing on about the "devouring bitch goddess" now incarnated as Maggie Carpenter. Do you need a road map from this point on?
Maggie (Roberts), living in a small Maryland town, fires off a letter to USA Today threatening a lawsuit over the many errors in Graham's column, leaving Ellie with little choice but to fire her ex-husband. Fisher has something to do with getting Graham assigned to head for Hale, Maggie's home town -- she's set for her fourth marriage, and Graham wants to be there to see her bolt from the altar again. This, he feels, will vindicate him.
Graham learns that everyone in Hale finds Maggie's propensity as a runaway bride to be pretty funny, even though they like her. Maggie burns with anger at his intrusion, especially when everyone she knows, including her hard-drinking father Walter (Paul Dooley), salty grandmother (Jean Schertler) and best friend Peggy Flemming (Joan Cusack) take to Graham right away.
If this actually had been a Hepburn/Grant or Hepburn/Tracy comedy, there would have been a lot more wisecracks; the script by the usually second-rate Josann McGibbon and Sara Parriott concentrates instead on the characters of Maggie and Ike, which are more fully fleshed-out than usual in a film of this sort. Another movie might have allowed Maggie a series of incidents of cold feet, showing each of her husbands as a jerk in some way, making her fleeing the altar an act of wisdom. Thanks to a convenient videotape that includes each of the aborted wedding ceremonies, we see that Maggie probably "was" right to skip at least some of her weddings. Her various jilted grooms are actually pretty decent guys, although the first is treated as a bit of a joke. The movie tries to analyze why Maggie has been fleeing commitment, which adds a fairly sophisticated, serious level to the comedy.
Initially, we're invited to laugh along with everyone else at Maggie's notoriety as a runaway bride. Even her father has a repeated joke: "Maggie may not be Hale's longest running joke, but she's certainly the fastest." Eventually, we realize that Maggie is very weary of these jokes; they may be affectionate, but they are tinged with a little sadism. And it's even somewhat justified, another fact that the movie doesn't evade: every time Maggie runs out on a groom, she breaks his heart and disappoints the community.
Graham is likable and charming (why not? he's Richard Gere), but there's a layer of sorrow behind his smiling face, along with some self-hatred and bitterness toward women. He's lonely; there's no mention of any current romantic interest for him, and his apartment, though well-placed, seems bleak despite his purring cat. Maggie and Ike don't fall in love just because they're Julia Roberts and Richard Gere, but because their characters mesh, they fill in gaps in the spirit of the other, and it's more than that she has a dog and he has a cat.
Joan Cusack is, as always, excellent, but I wish she'd play something other than the heroine's best friend. Maybe, as Garry Marshall's entertaining commentary track suggests, soon she'll play leads and someone else will play her best friend.
Christopher Meloni, now a tough cop on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, is amusing as Bob Kelly, the current would-be groom. Hector Elizondo, who's in all of Marshall's films, has less to do here than he has in the past, but he's still welcome. Laurie Metcalf, one of the best character actors in her age group, has a few scenes as the local baker, but there's not enough to the character.
Julia Roberts gets more appealing as time goes on; she's always been a pretty woman, but her adolescent gawkiness is fading, and a womanly angularity has taken its place. She still has that killer smile and wonderful laugh, and nobody in movies these days looks better in ANY kind of hat than she does. She's a hard worker, but this IS a star performance. Fortunately, she's the star for it; she's one of those people that most audiences simply adore the minute she appears on screen.
She works very well with Richard Gere, who's almost as pretty as she is. The 18 so years that separate them add a kind of tension which makes their scenes together both edgy and oddly intimate. He's probably a better actor than she is, but he doesn't glow on screen like she does; he has to work a little harder than her to make himself known. But his playing opposite her, both here and in "Pretty Woman," is less mannered than often with him; he seems to have less sense that he's the whole show. I doubt that he's more relaxed, but it comes across that way, and he's thereby more appealing.
Garry Marshall is one of those style-less Hollywood directors; you could watch an entire Marshall movie, and unless you recognize Hector Elizondo, you'd have a hard time telling it from, say, a Ron Howard movie. But style isn't what Marshall is going after; he's interested in how the characters work together, and his leading actors are always both sincere and believable. He doesn't always choose the best stories, but his actors excel. And as the commentary track demonstrates, he's an amusing raconteur, though perhaps not quite as funny as he thinks he is.
The film does have some problems; the displays of Hale's utter Norman Rockwell normalcy become wearisome after a while. Not all the small-town eccentrics are very interesting. The pacing of the film flags after a while, and it "feels" like it should have ended around the time of the scene with the FedEx truck. We're so aware of where the plot is going after that point that we become impatient for it to bloody well get there already. But it's a handsome production with attractive leads, and imaginative in daring to probe "why" the characters in a romantic comedy behave the way they do.
If you liked this movie you might also enjoy; It Happened One Night, Pat and Mike
Notting Hill, Pretty Woman