In 1990, a lot of young women took a special delight in announcing that they’d loved Pretty Woman, but that they didn’t think it was a movie they should like. There’s something uniquely American about that I-know-it’s-bad-for-me-but-I’ll-have-a-piece-anyway enthusiasm. From the outset, the guilty-pleasure aspect of Pretty Woman was the tiara of its appeal. In its candified way, the movie invited female viewers to fantasize about ”roles” as if they were projecting themselves onto an adult Barbie. We’d had rebel-yell feminists, we’d had Madonna the insolent vamp goddess, and now we had Julia Roberts, the girl with the gorgeous wax lips who proved that you could be a feminist, a vamp, and a princess, all at the same time. It’s hardly a surprise that she became the only truly mythic screen idol of the decade.

For me, Pretty Woman was a guilty displeasure. In the sixth issue of this magazine, I panned the quintessential chick flick, and I have never stopped getting razzed about it. For the record, folks, I have seen it again (twice, in fact), and let me confess: I was a grouch. The movie’s a charmer. I actually liked Julia the first time around (hey, I thought she was good in Mystic Pizza), but what I didn’t see was the affection beneath the gruffness in Richard Gere, and the way it enriched Roberts’ glow. She has been a star ever since, but never quite as radiant as in that moment when she was becoming a star.

Runaway Bride, a screwball comedy so genial it’s downright cautious, reunites Roberts and 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 fiances (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 a sense, Maggie, in her wedding escapes, makes a vintage male choice, compulsively lunging for freedom over bondage. Her current betrothed is a sweet but blockish phys-ed teacher (Christopher Meloni) who is dying to take her to Mount Everest. Maggie, for one, looks like she belongs in a much warmer place.

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.” Runaway 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. C+

Runaway Bride
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