RUNAWAY BRIDE

Directed by Garry Marshall

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 force of the inevitable. This makes life easy for Garry Marshall, the director responsible for originally bringing Roberts and Gere together way back in 1990, who is now released from having to bother with 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 the 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 can surmise that she is escaping from yet another marriage ceremony, but where that might be, or why, is unknown.

We do learn that Ike Graham (Gere), a New York City newspaper columnist, is nearing his deadline and is still without an idea. Naturally he heads for the nearest bar, not to drink but to bounce ideas off the clientele. One helpful chap tells him about a young Maryland woman who, it seems, has made a hobby of getting engaged and then leaving the grooms at the altar. Ike uses the story for his column, making the 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, Md., and Maggie is furious. Armed with the facts — which Ike neglected to check — Maggie rips out a letter to the editor that causes Ike to lose his job.

But Ike won't give up. Maggie is already engaged to be married for a fourth time, and Ike heads south to write a story for GQ about her cold feet.

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: to make sure no one notices just how god-awful the screenplay really is. In this case, however, all the stars in the heavens couldn't provide the distraction we need.

What Ike discovers when he arrives in Hale is that no one appears disturbed by Maggie's behavior. They all go about their business, including Maggie, who runs a hardware store when she is isn't 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 whether 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, 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?

Julia Roberts is the most bankable 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 may be the most unpleasant, off-putting character of Roberts' career. Nor does she seem even the slightest bit attracted to her co-star until the crucial moment when they simultaneously discover that they are smitten. At that point, when jilted groom No. 4 (a likable, lightweight Christopher Meloni) asks how long Maggie and Ike's attraction has existed, Maggie glibly answers, "About a minute." All this does is make the star's signature smile and gamine charm seem premeditated and manipulative. She 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, or 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's on the verge of collapse from the opening frame.

When the film finally does fall apart, it seems little more than a foregone conclusion. Ike and Maggie get together for one reason only — because they have to. Perish the thought that Marshall might play upon our expectations and attempt something original. Everything about Runaway Bride — the sitcom pacing, the unvaried shot selection, the clichéd music — is perfectly ordinary. Marshall is the very definition of a hack; his only desire is to play to the lowest common denominator. This is the secret of his success: He aspires to mediocrity. With Runaway Bride, he has scored another bull's-eye.

Opens July 30.

 
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