December 02, 1994 at 05:00 AM EST

Julia Robert’s career

As goes Julia Roberts, so goes what it means to be a genuine movie star in contemporary Hollywood. While latter-day devotees of Dietrich, Garbo, Monroe, and Hepburn(s) generally gag at the notion that the 27-year-old Roberts is in their idols’ league, it’s undeniable that by today’s meager standards, Roberts has got a certain something (not to mention a personal life that provides constant fodder for the scandal sheets). Which makes the current state of her career damn perplexing.

In fact, the course of stardom has never run conventionally for Roberts. The movie that made her name, Pretty Woman, is probably the first Cinderella story in which one of the heroine’s key charms is a proficiency at oral sex. While critics were justifiably appalled by the movie’s sugarcoated depiction of prostitution, some made the mistake of selling short Roberts’ spunky, sparkly appeal, which seemed to transcend all ethical, moral, and ideological concerns. As twisted as this romance was, the sight of Roberts laughing with delighted surprise at a gorgeous necklace proffered by costar Richard Gere made viewers forget the movie’s essentially venal premise.

Strangely enough, no one has since seen fit to cast Roberts in a role that plays to her bubbly comedic strengths so fully. After Woman she got to relive childhood trauma in the Brat Pack Mach II ensemble piece Flatliners, in which she was part of a group of medical students exploring the possibilities of life after death — in confronting her own personal demons, she brought back a repressed memory of witnessing her father commit suicide. Her next star turn also cashed in on her doe-eyed vulnerability. She played an abused wife who fakes her own death to get away from a sadistic husband in Sleeping With the Enemy. The climax of that movie, in which she was called on to dispatch the persistent pest, showcased the steely nerve behind that vulnerability, and the pastoral scenes depicting how she finds love in her new identity gave her a welcome opportunity to charm. It was her most wide-ranging performance, and it pretty much made the film; even given its fairly taut direction by Joseph Ruben, without Roberts, Enemy would have been merely routine.

Dying Young was director Joel Schumacher’s stab at an old-fashioned tearjerker — and something of an embarrassment all around. The blatantly manipulative and sanitized tale of Roberts’ involvement with the terminal leukemia patient she’s tending to not only failed with the critics, it didn’t get much box office either (nor was it ”rediscovered” by video or cable audiences), which should have suggested to moviemakers that audiences want to see Roberts in a more effervescent atmosphere than what this gender — reversed Dark Victory provided.

So casting her to play Tinkerbell in Hook certainly must have seemed to make some sense. While prerelease rumors (fueled by her last-minute cancellation of impending nuptials to Kiefer Sutherland) depicted Roberts as too flaky to regularly show up on the set, she provided Steven Spielberg’s misbegotten updating of Peter Pan with its only bright moments. In fact, the one scene where she assumes human dimensions is the best thing in this otherwise sodden film.

After that came a two-year layoff (aside from a cameo as herself in 1992’s The Player), marriage to Lyle Lovett, and a much bruited ”comeback” in two movies that have been severe disappointments. If The Pelican Brief was a bona fide hit, that had little to do with Roberts’ participation; she merely goes around looking dowdy and harried for a few hours, only flashing her trademark grin at the very end. In Brief‘s case, it’s John Grisham, the author of the novel on which the movie is based, who’s the main attraction.

In a textbook case of giving-with-one-hand-and-taking-away-with-the-other, Brief paired Roberts with another extremely charismatic star, Denzel Washington, and then refused to let them so much as exchange pregnant glances. (Washington is African-American, you know.) And while the plot twists of Grisham’s legal thriller (in which Roberts’ law student figures out who’s behind the assassinations of two Supreme Court justices and has to flee for her life while exposing the villains) are so obvious as to verge on ridiculous, Alan J. Pakula directs with a heavy-handedness that suggests he’s remaking All the President’s Men. Watching this, you’d never get the idea that thrillers could be fun.

Some insiders attribute the box office failure of last summer’s I Love Trouble, the latest Roberts picture on home video, to the seemingly inauspicious romantic pairing of Roberts and Nick Nolte. But the duo, playing competing reporters on a big story that lands them in hot water and (surprise) each others’ arms, aren’t the trouble here — it’s the people behind the scenes. Cowriter Nancy Meyers and director Charles Shyer plainly intended to cross-breed His Girl Friday with North by Northwest, but their attempts to emulate their cinematic betters are hopelessly vulgar, prolix, and sometimes downright incompetent; in one scene, they imbue Roberts with Superman’s hearing, enabling her to catch every word of a conversation taking place about a hundred yards from her. Their idea of witty banter is to have Nolte respond to a Roberts put-down with, ”Where did you say you were from — Bitchville?” Mr. Hecht, meet Beavis, your new writing partner.

Once Roberts’ earnest rookie character starts lightening up, her scenes with Nolte are pretty appealing, but it’s too little too late. The glow that set off fireworks in the hearts of moviegoing Americans in Pretty Woman is beginning to look just a little bit softer. Pretty Woman: C+ Flatliners: C- Sleeping With the Enemy: B- Hook: C- The Pelican Brief: C- I Love Trouble: C-

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