In My Best Friend’s Wedding, Julia Roberts does a lot of things you never expected to see Julia Roberts do. As Julianne, a lonely restaurant critic who’s trying to stop Michael (Dermot Mulroney), her old college flame — the one she now realizes she’s been in love with for nine years — from heading to the altar with a wide-eyed yupscale princess (Cameron Diaz), she lies, schemes, and hatches cruel, humiliating plots. She coerces her rival into performing at a kara-oke bar (naturally, the poor woman can’t sing), she pretends to be engaged to her gay editor (Rupert Everett), and she forges an E-mail that could well end her beloved’s sportswriting career. Overall, she behaves very, very badly, and when her schemes backfire, she just comes up with more of them.

In screwball comedy, of course, there’s a great tradition of devilish chicanery (think of the way Katharine Hepburn’s dizzying deceptions made Cary Grant’s head spin in Bringing Up Baby). It’s fairly easy to accept Roberts’ disreputable antics in My Best Friend’s Wedding, since she has something here that she hasn’t had in quite a while: her vibrance. She’s got that beam again — not just the gorgeous wax-lips smile but the bedazzled soul behind it, the gaze that requires a lover to reflect its full glory. Roberts is funny and fast and wide-awake in this movie in a way she wasn’t in Everyone Says I Love You or Mary Reilly or Something to Talk About. Still, the true justification for Julianne’s bad behavior has to be something more than ”She’s charming.” We need to feel that her deceptions are the means to a sublime end — that all’s fair in the game of love. And when Roberts is on screen with Dermot Mulroney, we don’t feel romance, or chemistry, or much of anything else. Mulroney seems a frat-house slickster — jerky and smug, all dimples and a perma-tan — and it’s never convincing that a flower like Roberts would be this obsessed with him. My Best Friend’s Wedding tries to carry the audience along with a busy, lurching plot and a few great Burt Bacharach songs, but beneath its bumptious contempo-screwball packaging it fails to convince us that Julia Roberts truly belongs with this guy. It doesn’t convince us because the film, to our dismay, doesn’t believe it either.

The characters in My Best Friend’s Wedding don’t banter, they spout earnest psychobabble. And so we can’t take pleasure in the stylized plot the way we do at the romantic comedies of the pre-therapeutic era. We’re almost pathetically grateful each time Rupert Everett pops up as George, Julianne’s editor and spiritual soul mate. By now, the saintly gay friend is a cliche worthy of retirement, but Everett, pretending to be Roberts’ fiance, underplays his witticisms with such surly panache that he seems to be inventing a new brand of bitch macho. He’s suave, a gay-blade James Bond. The trouble is, his bits are wedged into the movie like hors d’oeuvres; they make you more aware of how little comic nimbleness there is to the rest of the proceedings. And when Everett leads a packed restaurant in a ”spontaneous” sing-along version of ”I Say a Little Prayer,” I watched the scene with a mixture of joy and horror. It’s an exuberant riff on one of the greatest pop songs ever written, and yet, like Meg Ryan’s fake orgasm in When Harry Met Sally, it’s there as a contrived sop to the audience, a feel-good video implanted in the movie.

My Best Friend’s Wedding has the cruddy overbright lighting, the stop-and-go pace, and the patchwork too-many-cooks structure of today’s plastic romantic comedies. Yet the genre itself is far from dead; it has come alive in such recent films as The Truth About Cats & Dogs and the witty and sparkling One Fine Day. Roberts is the right star for it, too: She has that blend of radiance and agility. Once again, though, she’s been left out in the cold. In My Best Friend’s Wedding, she’s game yet saddened, like a walking personal ad that reads: pretty woman in search of movie worthy of her. C+

My Best Friend's Wedding
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