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''My Best Friend's Wedding'' blues

The film has a retro anti-woman message at its core with the fighting of the two heroines over a man

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Sisterhood isn’t worth much at the movies. Not this summer, anyway, judging from the box office success of My Best Friend’s Wedding, the season’s only big-studio ”chick flick” so far.

Consider the lose-lose premise: Julia Roberts plays Julianne, a successful journalist (she’s a New York restaurant critic, an effete — and encodedly bitchy — occupational touch) who has never committed to any man before, but who realizes only when her sportswriting former boyfriend, Michael (her best friend of the title), announces his impending marriage that she loves the guy and wants him, really wants him. And so she sets out to bust up the nuptials. Julianne is a flitty dazzler with a lot of inventively nasty tricks up her sleeve, but her competitor is formidably likable: Kimmy (Cameron Diaz) is dainty, friendly, well connected (Daddy owns a baseball team), and so devotedly in love with Michael that she is willing to drop out of college and set aside her own aspirations as an architect to support his career.

And thus do two pre-Ms. magazine stereotypes go at each other: One’s a scheming, driven Career Gal (and, MBFW takes pains to point out, a neurotic New Yorker) willing to fight dirty to steal another woman’s fiance. The other’s a too-young wifey-to-be in pearls, willing to sacrifice her identity for her guy.

Now, I realize that a world of women-driven romantic comedies and dramas filled with nothing but Thelmas and Louises would be an extremely tedious universe indeed — all those empowered females bonding all over the place, no one ever stooping to talk about cramps or crushes or how difficult it is to find nude-colored hosiery that really looks nude. But the blithely antifeminist protagonists of MBFW are dubious antidotes to political correctness. They’re infuriating in their blitheness — the products, I’m figuring, of postfeminist moviemakers exhausted by adulthood or light-headed from too many foul cigars. And I can’t fathom why more irritated sisters (and the men who love them) aren’t rising up from their Lilith Fair concert venues, suiting up in Indigo Girls T-shirts, marching en masse to the local multiplex, and shouting This movie exploits women!

Except, perhaps, that once again, P.J. Hogan — the Australian director who, in Muriel’s Wedding, mined amusement from the romantic fantasies of an unhappy woman in the guise of championing her — has managed to disguise situations of humiliation as entertainment. And this time he manages to distract Julia Roberts lovers and Cameron Diaz fans (and who isn’t?) from the inherent meanness of the setup with winning Burt Bacharach songs (ABBA did the work in Muriel’s) and frequent shots of Roberts tossing the luxurious bedroom hair that made her such a fetching hooker in Pretty Woman.

Meanwhile, by the way, the heterosexual in question, as played by Dermot Mulroney, exhibits all the charisma of a baseball bat; these women are fighting over a guy with no discernible personality and the chutzpah to demand total domestic accommodation.

This is the candidate Julianne decides is the only man for her? One questions her character judgment. Then again, following the woman’s weirdly aggressive antics (tampering with her ex’s job, embarrassing her rival in the presence of a phallic karaoke microphone), one fears for her psychological stability. Hers is not the work of a resourceful screwball-comedy-type dame; it’s the tragedy of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown — which is, MBFW suggests, what’s in store for women who won’t settle down. (That, and a lifetime of dancing with gay men at other girls’ weddings.) Kimmy, MBFW hints, may be a malleable blob of Play-Doh, but at least she wins a man to hug her.

Oh, sister. Clearly Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Elaine was right, as usual, in the season finale of Seinfeld last May: Men, and evidently women too, love few things better than watching a good catfight. My Best Friend’s Wedding obliges, and makes a bundle. To quote Elaine’s leering male colleagues, Reeeer.