MORE

Pretty Vacant

Photo by Ron BatzdorffIN THE SOAPY ROMANTIC COMEDY RUNAWAY BRIDE, Richard Gere plays a man whose venomous regard for women is rewarded with one of the second sex's most glittering prizes -- played, of course, by Julia Roberts. What did he do to deserve her? If Josann McGibbon and Sara Parriott's script is to be believed, he just let the pretty woman be herself. Roberts is Maggie Carpenter, a diamond in the rough from a town called Hale, where old men actually harmonize in public and no one throws beer cans at them. Maggie runs the local hardware store, one of those pre­Home Depot figments where antique porcelain taps are sold next to the socket wrenches. The dutiful daughter lives with her father and grandma, and manages to look just like a movie star even in overalls and no makeup. She's a can-do girl with one exception -- she can't say "I do." The joke of the film, and its hook, is that Maggie's fled the altar three times. In the great opening shot, she's wearing a wedding dress and a halo of lace and riding a horse as hard as she can; instead of a crop, she's whipping the animal with a bouquet.

Gere's Ike Graham, an unusually expressive, even prolix columnist for USA Today, hears about Maggie and writes a scurrilous piece about the falsity of women, using the runaway bride as a spur for his rancor. One thing leads to another, and it's not long before the columnist is trolling around Hale, whistling the theme to Mayberry RFD and lubing everyone but Maggie with his urban sophistication. Since the final chapter of this alleged fairy tale was preordained by the marketing executives, and by Roberts and Gere's box-office success with 1990's mammoth hit Pretty Woman, the only novelty is in watching how the characters drift to their foregone conclusion. Garry Marshall is credited as the director on both films, which means there's nothing to say about the directing here, save that it seems somehow more deliberate. Perhaps the only other noteworthy point is that in Pretty Woman Roberts played a tough whore with a soft heart. Here, she's a business owner whose sense of self is so tenuous she doesn't even know how she likes her eggs done.

Maggie is a classic masochistic fantasy -- she's the kind of woman who's great in film but unbearable in life. Trained as an industrial engineer, she's sacrificed happiness, and a career, in order to take care of her unfunny drunk of a father. Even so, she's got it fairly good: a doting fiancé (Christopher Meloni, in the movie's most thankless role), a loving-enough family and a gang of supportive, wisecracking girlfriends, one of whom happens to be played by Joan Cusack. As Peggy, owner of the Curl Up and Dye hair salon, Cusack is allowed to be more human than in many of her roles, including the recent Arlington Road, in which she plays a creepy, goggle-eyed wife. She's a wife here too, but she's also a person, a woman who's grown up in the shadow of a gorgeous best friend without bitterness. Peggy is real -- in the film's lingo, she's grounded, like an electrical outlet -- and by far the movie's most sympathetic female character. She's the only woman who doesn't feel like a self-help cliché, including the put-upon heroine.

Runaway Bride could easily be titled Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Hunger. In '30s Hollywood, screwball comedies made the war of the sexes into the most erotic kind of struggle -- characters battled each other with words as barbed as Cupid's arrows -- but in the best of these films, women were the equal of men. Although her sparkle now feels as if it's applied with spirit gum, Roberts is thoroughly winning as Maggie. But while the actress charms us, she never manages a similarly convincing feat with her intended love interest. As she widens her eyes, occasionally stopping hearts with that smile and bumping charmingly into the scenery, Roberts brings to mind Tinkerbell fluttering around Peter Pan. No one plays beautiful narcissists better than Gere, but here his character isn't just self-involved, he's shut off. When Ike looks at Maggie, never once do we see her reflected in his eyes. That's because not once have the filmmakers bothered to see her, either.

RUNAWAY BRIDE | Written by JOSANN McGIBBON and SARA PARRIOTT | Directed by GARRY MARSHALL | Produced by TED FIELD, TOM ROSENBERG, SCOTT KROOPF and ROBERT CORT | Released by Paramount | Citywide