They can take a year or more to plan. They can cost absurd, obscene amounts of money. And for all of that, they’re over in a few hours.

Why shouldn’t Hollywood movies love weddings? Hollywood movies are just like weddings — minus the Viennese table and dancing cousin who treads on your toes.

Yet as fond as they are of extravagant nuptials, Hollywood filmmakers rarely see them as the stuff of drama. They prefer it when that walk down the aisle ends with a pratfall; the best best-man toast, they’re sure, is the one delivered over a dribble glass.

So it wasn’t surprising when last summer’s blandly titled My Best Friend’s Wedding, debuting on tape Dec. 9, turned out to be a tulle-trimmed farce, with Julia Roberts gamely taking ungainly falls as a green-with-envy guest. What was surprising was just what a pleasant, professional amusement it turned out to be, deftly reestablishing Roberts as a star and delivering a few clever, unexpected turns.

Of course, it had some well-honored traditions to follow. Like the heroes of many a screwball comedy from the ’30s — another of the film’s inspirations — Roberts and costar Dermot Mulroney are journalists. (The ex-newshounds who wrote those early talkies seemed to believe no other job was worth writing about.) Like almost all those art-deco women, Roberts isn’t very likable either.

Oh, sure, Claudette Colbert was charming when she hitched that ride in It Happened One Night, and she looked adorable in that pair of men’s pajamas. But she was also a spoiled, irresponsible little rich girl, desperately in need of being taken down a notch or two. An impending marriage provided the necessary crisis in that film as well; Clark Gable, Hollywood’s favorite commoner/king, the essential bit of leveling.

There’s no Gable in My Best Friend’s Wedding, but there is Rupert Everett, and he helps deflate Roberts’ exaggerated self-importance just as well as Gable would, although with more attitude. Interestingly enough, he also serves not only as bitchy chorus — the new gay-character cliche, or what used to be known as ”the Eve Arden part” — but also as the film’s moral voice, the check to its heroine’s selfish sprees.

Their relationship gives My Best Friend’s Wedding some depth, as well as its best scenes. (The ”Say a Little Prayer for You” sing-along halfway through is the funniest thing in the movie.) But in addition to offering the old/new appeal of Everett’s character, the movie builds its trousseau with a canny bit of borrowing, picking up its wealthy dysfunctional wedding party from The Philadelphia Story.

That classic marital farce hasn’t aged as well on tape as some other screwball comedies — unlike, say, Howard Hawks, George Cukor had too much good taste to be at ease with wisecracks and slapstick. (The one thing comedies can’t be is polite.) Yet the film’s view of a fabulously rich family reduced to combatants by their own unruly emotions was a wonderful one, and its right-up-to-the-altar climaxes are smartly invoked here.

Not every nuptial movie caught the sense of The Philadelphia Story‘s carefully distant if amused attitude toward its sterling-silver subjects; the very-’80s remake of Father of the Bride, obsessed with specifying the costs of every froufrou frill, became a tribute to wretched excess. But My Best Friend’s Wedding is just as circumspect as Cukor. It treats the rich with informed tolerance and an occasional benign jab — but never dwells longingly on just what Roberts makes at that improbably well-paying newspaper job, or how much those acres of flowers are setting back the father of the bride.

Something old, something new, something borrowed — all helped My Best Friend’s Wedding succeed, but it was something blue that made it stand out. In a time when most romantic comedies end with strangers bursting into applause as the characters kiss, My Best Friend’s Wedding dared to end on a disappointment. While not a tearfully downbeat climax, it was definitely bittersweet — and proof that even in such a time-honored genre, there’s always room for something fresh.

Something real, too. Because just as Julia Roberts’ almost-altared state in the film sounded vaguely reminiscent of her leave-’em-at-the-altar private life, her character’s scene-by-scene humbling — as she goes from pretentious aesthete to realistic woman — seemed like a reconstruction and restoration of the actress herself. Forget those flirtations with heavy period drama. Never mind Hook and Dying Young. My Best Friend’s Wedding was good old Jules again, her wide smile intact, back with the fans who love her best. And till death do them part. My Best Friend’s Wedding: B It Happened One Night: A The Philadelphia Story: B+

The Philadelphia Story
  • Movie
  • 112 minutes