By Owen Gleiberman
Updated July 30, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

Runaway Bride, a screwball comedy so genial it’s downright cautious, reunites Julia Roberts and Richard Gere with Garry Marshall, the director of ”Pretty Woman.” Roberts plays Maggie Carpenter, a hardware-store clerk who lives in one of those rustic modern-movie small towns that look like Bedford Falls by way of ”The Truman Show.” Maggie has become notorious for ditching her fiancés (three so far) at the altar. As soon as the moment arrives for her to tie the knot, a look of dazed panic crosses her face, and she scurries from the church, or gallops away on horseback.

Silly? Insane? Yes, but in a very homespun, neo-traditional way. It’s easy to imagine, say, Carole Lombard playing this sort of mad-dash heroine; she’d have been prancing out that church door in a grand neurotic tizzy. But what, exactly, sends Maggie running? In ”Runaway Bride,” her itch to flee is presented not as a daffy whim but as the movie’s (thin) mystery — a desperate tic of self-actualization. It draws the attention of Ike Graham (Gere), a New York-based, macho-caveman-shtick USA Today columnist who does a speculative story on Maggie and gets fired for exaggerating her predicament (though from what we can see, he pretty much nails it). He then shows up in town to save his career by doing a freelance magazine profile of this new-style female commitment-phobe.

In ”Runaway Bride,” Roberts and Gere flirt and spar with a kind of insouciant talk-show aplomb, beaming at each other’s perfect skin. The performers have chemistry, all right, but it’s almost too smooth, too foregone; there’s no acid-and-base combustion. If we sensed that Maggie were secretly happy that Ike had teased out her wedding fears, there might be some sexy tension between them. Maggie’s matrimonial craziness, though, funny as it is when it’s showcased in video clips, seems to have very little connection to the Julia Roberts who strolls through the rest of the movie, tranquil, velvety in her confidence, preternaturally poised. Maggie and Ike draw together, and what we see is a pair of characters who seem made for each other because they’re the only two people in town who carry themselves like world-famous Hollywood celebrities.

The difference between ”Pretty Woman” and ”Runaway Bride” is that we can no longer buy Roberts in her tearful romantic-melancholy mode. It seems vaguely patronizing now, as it did in ”Notting Hill” when she played a star who claimed to be ” just a girl.” ”Bride” never comes close to chick-flick heaven, but its timid, meandering pleasantness does allow it to tap into one fantasy. The real romance isn’t between Roberts and Gere but between Roberts and the trappings of matrimony itself. The movie isn’t a love story, exactly — it’s pure, sweet wedding porn.