Julia Roberts isn't the kind of girl who commits herself to any old project. Already lighting up the multiplexes this summer in the reasonably charming Notting Hill, don't expect the superstar to ever stoop to a role that doesn't eventually allow her million-watt smile and all-American beauty to save the day. She might be far more interesting in, say, a twisted murder romp directed by Quentin Tarantino or a perverse comedy from the Farrelly brothers -- but we'll never know.
OK, so she rejected "Pretty Woman 2," a proposed sequel to the hooker-meets-businessman romantic comedy that catapulted her to stardom nearly 10 years ago. The important numbers, though, were just right for "Runaway Bride," an affable if soft-brained love story -- once titled "Pretty Bride" -- that reunites the big screen's most familiar female face with the folks responsible for her '90s omnipresence. "Pretty Woman" grossed $178 million, so why not take a cool $17 million to walk down the aisle again with co-star Richard Gere, director Garry Marshall and supporting actors Hector Elizondo and Jane Morris?
So what if the story is weak? Who cares that the acting (especially Gere's) might have been phoned in? Is it so troubling that the characters are mostly clichés with legs? The stars look great together, and the concept is grasped as quickly as anyone can utter the movie's name. Translation: It's gonna be big. Real big.
"Runaway Bride" opens with a blunt, literal visualization of its title, as a beautiful woman in a bridal gown rides a horse across amber waves of grain and through a sun-dappled forest to the strains of U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." The woman is Maggie Carpenter (Roberts), a Maryland girl who's fleeing her own wedding. This is her third attempt.
Immediately, we're off to New York to meet cynical, unlucky-in-love USA Today columnist Ike Graham. (Marshall's slick movie is as much about the conflict between small-town and big-city lifestyles as anything else.) Ike is spending his last two hours before deadline in a colorful neighborhood bar, trolling for story ideas.
A neighboring drunk relates the story of Maggie, who hails from his hometown and has made a sport of saying "yes" to marriage proposals and then ditching the grooms. "The female archetypes are alive and well," Ike subsequently writes (a line that might easily be applied to the most annoying parts of this movie).
Alas, as Maggie points out in a letter to the paper, at least 15 of the column's facts are pure fiction, and Ike is fired on the spot. He's terminated because ... well, because the plot demands it. How else is he going to wind up driving his silver sports car to backwoods Maryland in pursuit of both a magazine story and a one-on-one encounter with the woman responsible for his dismissal?
"Runaway Bride" proceeds to unleash a parade of quirky-enough folks from Maggie's life, most of whom are far more entertaining than either of the leads. Dad (Paul Dooley) is a not-so-secret alcoholic full of barbs about his daughter's reluctance to tie the knot. "Wedding cake freezes, this we know," he quips. Grandma (Jean Schertler) is quietly goofy, but knows more than she lets on. Coach Bob (Christopher Meloni), Maggie's latest fiance, is a dim and dingy P.E. coach given to misplaced bits of sports psychology.
As Maggie's best friend, Peggy Fleming ("not the ice skater"), Joan Cusack consistently steals the movie's heat and light. Every time Ike encounters her, a little voice pipes up inside our heads. "Forget the pretty woman," it says. "Remember what she did to nice guy Lyle Lovett. Beauty fades, but humor, intelligence and kindness last. Hook up with Joan." Sharply cast against type in the recent Arlington Road and so funny in "Working Girl" and "In and Out," Cusack deserves a shot at center stage.
Maggie and Ike get together as "Runaway Bride" winds down to its inevitable conclusion, but Marshall still has time to throw in several stock devices. There's the media free-for-all that greets the couple's first (failed) wedding, a montage skimming over their so-sad separation and a truly limp explanation for why Maggie didn't go all the way to the altar with Ike in their initial attempt.
"You knew the real me," she confesses. "I didn't." According to this flick, having a mind of your own is knowing whether you prefer your eggs scrambled, fried or otherwise, and why. Too bad Ike doesn't get out while he can.