Runaway Bride (1999)
Directed by Garry Marshall
Cast: Richard Gere, Julia Roberts, Joan Cusack, Paul Dooley, Rita Wilson, Hector Elizondo, Christopher Meloni, Jean Schertler, Laurie Metcalf.
1999 116 minutes
Rated: (for mild profanity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, July 31, 1999.
1990's "Pretty Woman" became the most popular romantic comedy of all time not only because of the unmistakable chemistry between Richard Gere and Julia Roberts, but because of the surprising charm and innocence that it also possessed. It may not have been groundbreakingly original (and it wasn't), but it ably carried itself purely on the intelligence of the actors and screenplay. Over nine years have passed now, and although Roberts and Gere are a little bit older, they unfortunately aren't quite as wise in their project choices, as proven by their sophomore reunion with director Garry Marshall. Unlike "Pretty Woman," "Runaway Bride" constantly feels like a phony, artificially manufactured excuse just to get the two actors together once again. Apparently, the importance of the writing and story weren't at the top of everyone's minds when they decided to take on this lackluster endeavor.
Ike Graham (Richard Gere) is a once-divorced columnist for the USA Today who happens to be working for his ex-wife (Rita Wilson). Searching for a revitalizing, interesting story to write about, Ike is told by one of his buddies that there is a young lady in the small rural town of Hale, Maryland, who likes to dump grooms on their wedding day and run away. When the article finally is written, that woman, Maggie Carpenter (Julia Roberts), who doesn't purposefully hurt her fiances as much as she has trouble committing herself for a lifetime with one certain person, is humiliated and outraged. Writing a letter to the editor of the USA Today spotting fifteen--count 'em, 15!--factual errors, Ike is promptly fired for turning the paper into basically a tabloid. Fortunately, his best friend, Fisher (Hector Elizondo), comes up with a sure-fire way to save Ike's job: you see, Maggie is planning to get married in a week or two (her fourth attempt) with Bob (Christopher Meloni), a football coach and fitness nut, and if she once again backs out at the last minute, Ike's theory that he wrote in the paper will be confirmed.
When Ike arrives in Hale ("I think I'm in Mayberry!"), a quaint, old-fashioned kind of town, he gets a room at the motel in the town square and starts to pursue and question Maggie, a misunderstood woman who works at the local hardware store and is the butt of many "harmless" jokes with the townspeople (all of which know each other by name). At first despising the head-strong, determined Ike, she finally agrees for him to follow her around to see what makes her tick--for a sizable fee, of course, which must be a rip-off/ode to "Pretty Woman," where Gere payed Roberts (playing a prostitute) to spend six days with him while in L.A. Since Ike and Maggie are spending all of their time together, they start to get to know one another to the point that marriage with Ike sounds more appealing than marriage with Bob. But even if they go through with it, who is to say Maggie won't run again?
"Runaway Bride" lacks the smarts, wit, and spontaneity that the best romantic comedies have (just recently, the other Julia Roberts-starrer of the summer, "Notting Hill," had this). Simply put, this new film is stuck on auto-pilot, and therefore, comes off as a tiresome excursion into terrain that has been covered too many times to count. For one, you know going in that director Garry Marshall wouldn't dare make a movie with these two actors and not have them get together by the final act, so there is nary an ounce of suspense or interest generated from this major aspect of the story. To shake things up a little, Marshall and screenwriters Josann McGibbon and Sara Parriott should have went a similar route as Roberts' sweet 1997 career-revitalizing hit, "My Best Friend's Wedding," which had an upbeat resolution that was nonetheless more truthful and complicated than by just having the two romantic leads get together. Perhaps Marshall feared that audiences would get upset if Roberts and Gere didn't live happily ever after at the end, but it, no doubt, would have at least added a sprinkle of originality that is hopelessly absent from almost every scene in the overlong 116-minute running time. And that's another thing; the film may actually have worked on a minor level had it concluded with its natural ending, but instead, it proceeds to go on for another unnecessary fifteen minutes.
Once again, Julia Roberts and Richard Gere shine in their latest foray, but the romantic heat between the two that was so tangible in "Pretty Woman" isn't present nearly as much here, most likely because the writing, as mentioned, isn't as satisfying. Their roles of Ike and Maggie also happen to be the least interesting characters in the whole film, which is a glaring flaw that looms overhead most of the picture. No fault of Roberts and Gere, especially, who seems far more loose and care-free than I think I've ever seen him on film, but every time one of the supporting players would appear on-screen, things would brighten up considerably.
Joan Cusack, as always, is a comic delight and standout as Maggie's best friend and hairstylist at the "Curl Up and Dye" Salon (which, yes, garnered a big laugh). Cusack is not really wasted, particularly since she and Roberts have a subtle, honest scene together, but it is rather frustrating to constantly see Cusack, one of America's biggest current acting talents, cast in the "friend" role. Studio heads, take note: Give Cusack the lead in a movie, for once. Believe me, she has proven her worth and is fully capable of holding up a picture on her own. Why don't other people see this?
One compliment that probably should be given to the screenwriters is in the three-dimensional treatment given to the ex-wife character of Gere's, played by Rita Wilson in a memorable, superior performance to anything I've seen her in. Too often overacting or missing the mark (see her disappointing work in 1998's remake of "Psycho"), Wilson is perfect here as a woman who still cares for Gere, despite their divorce and avoidance to what went wrong with their marriage, and is able to have a warm, loving relationship with him. Of the other supporting actors, Hector Elizondo is not used nearly as well or effectively as he was in "Pretty Woman" and is given very little to do, while Laurie Metcalf is hilarious in her too-brief performance as the town baker, as is Jean Schertler as Roberts' lovable, if brazen, granny.
When you go to see a movie that features megastars Julia Roberts and Richard Gere and, yet, you mostly want them to disappear into the background so you can watch the people around them strut their stuff, what exactly does that tell you? In my opinion, it tells you that the screenplay needed an extensive rewrite to strengthen the two lead characters, who aren't nearly as flashy and absorbing as Cusack, Wilson, Metcalf, and Schertler. When Roberts and Gere finally do come together in the last scene, you are happy for them, but left with an uncertain feeling inside. If Roberts' Maggie really does have a lot of personal problems to work out, then how can you be so sure that she and Ike won't be making a trip to divorce court a week later? Or, better yet, and it is this plot contrivance that is the most difficult to swallow, why would Maggie be smitten with Ike in the second half when she thoroughly can't stand him in the former section because of the cruel things he wrote about her, in a country-wide newspaper, no less? Regretfully, "Runaway Bride" too often appears to be so concerned with big box-office receipts that everyone involved forgot about making the film actually good. Sorry, Julia, but don't worry, I still love ya! On second thought, who couldn't?
©1999 by Dustin Putman