There Goes the Bride

Runaway Bride

Runaway Bride, the long-anticipated reunion of Pretty Woman-stars Julia Roberts and Richard Gere, isn't a sequel, but it feels like one. In everything there is a distinct sense of predestination, of events occurring according to some irresistible force of the inevitable. This makes life especially easy for Garry Marshall, the director responsible for originally bringing Roberts and Gere together way back in 1990 and who is now released altogether from having to address such bothersome details as setting up his story or following the rules of narrative logic.

In this debonair but ever-so-slight romantic comedy, things just happen. Never mind how or why. In its opening scene Maggie Carpenter (Roberts) is shown galloping briskly over hill and dale in a wedding dress while U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" plays on the soundtrack. Given the film's title, we're able to surmise that she is escaping from yet another marriage ceremony (and not, say, foxhunting), but where that might be, or why, is unknown.

We do learn that Ike Graham (Gere), a New York City newspaper columnist of the most desperate sort, is nearing his deadline and is still without an idea. Naturally he heads for the nearest bar, not to drink, mind you, but to bounce ideas off the willing and only partly drunk clientele. After a few dry holes, one helpful chap does manage to tweak his interest with an item about a young Maryland woman who, it seems, has made a hobby of getting engaged and then leaving the grooms standing, devastated and confused, at the altar. Knowing a good yarn when he hears one, Ike uses the story for his column, making the uncertain bride come off as the female equivalent of Jack the Ripper. As might be expected, this makes tongues wag all over Maggie's hometown of Hale, Maryland (though why everyone in this town reads this particular New York City rag is another of those unexplained details), and Maggie is furious. Armed with pen, paper, and the facts -- which, unfortunately, Ike had neglected to check -- Maggie rips out a letter to the editor that causes Ike to lose his job. (That a star columnist for a New York paper would be fired for a few minor inaccuracies may be the movie's most laughable gaff.)

Ike is given one last chance, though. The indefatigable Maggie is already engaged to be married for a fourth time. According to the deal he strikes with the paper, if Maggie bolts again (which, given her track record, is a pretty good bet) and Ike is there to catch the story, he gets his job back.

Even judged against other substanceless Hollywood confections, the setup here seems especially lame. But if it allows the stars to make their magic, perhaps no one will care. This is primarily why movie studios hire stars (and pay them their exorbitant salaries): to make sure no one notices just how god-awful the screenplay really is for whatever film they're watching. In this case, however, all the stars in heaven couldn't provide the distraction we need.

What Ike discovers when he arrives in Hale is that no one appears particularly disturbed by Maggie's behavior. They all go on about their business, including Maggie, who runs a hardware store when she is isn't off breaking hearts. Ike's first task is to interview the victims, but they turn out to be so uniformly unperturbed that you begin to wonder if the entire town isn't monkeying around with the jilted men's serotonin levels. One salient detail from his investigation does stand out, though. In all her relationships with the grooms-to-be, the men reported that she liked her eggs the same way they did. What's strange, though, is that each groom liked his eggs prepared a different way. Makes you want to yell voilà, doesn't it?

At this late moment in the millennium, Julia Roberts is the most bankable -- and the highest paid -- female star in the movies. And it was her performance in this team's initial pairing that gave audiences their first real sense of what she could do. Runaway Bride, unfortunately, gives her little opportunity to strut her stuff. In fact Maggie, who seems totally unfazed by her own behavior, may be the most unpleasant, off-putting character in Roberts's career. Nor does she seem even the slightest bit attracted to her costar until the crucial moment when they simultaneously discover that they are smitten. At that point, when jilted groom number four (a likable, lightweight Christopher Meloni) asks how long Maggie and Ike's attraction has existed, Maggie glibly answers, "About a minute." (Ike's answer: "For me, a little longer.") All this does is make the star's signature smile and gamine charm seem premeditated and manipulative. Maggie likes this little game of breaking men's hearts and, seemingly, has no intention of changing her ways.

Strangely enough, it's Gere, usually laid-back in his romantic roles, who's the more energetic of the two stars. As Ike, Gere is more animated than he has been for some time and pulls it off, uncharacteristically, without seeming antic or strained. (Think of his manic performances in Breathless, Looking for Mr. Goodbar, or Mr. Jones.) Nor is there a trace of the smugness and self-satisfaction that tarnishes so much of his work. His performance here is easygoing and balanced and one of his most appealing. Too bad it all goes to waste in a movie that is on the verge of collapse from the opening frame.

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