Some Kind of Wonderful

Julia Roberts’ warm glow thaws even Richard Gere in Runaway Bride.

Runaway Bride

Directed by Garry Marshall
Paramount Pictures

My Life So Far

Directed by Hugh Hudson
Miramax Films

In repose, Julia Roberts is plainly gorgeous, but she’s even more so when she fastens those huge eyes on some lucky co-star. She’s the anti-Garbo: She doesn’t vant to be alone. For an “object of beauty,” Roberts has an astounding amount of chemistry with other actors. She managed to penetrate Rupert Everett’s languid self-regard in My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997) and made the brilliant but remote Denzel Washington almost puppyish in The Pelican Brief (1993). In the past, Hugh Grant has mainly had chemistry with Hugh Grant, yet in this summer’s Notting Hill, he focused on something other than his own adorableness. Above all, Roberts warms up Richard Gere. An actor known for a narcissistic blend of preening and Buddha-like self-containment, Gere proved in Pretty Woman (1990) to be a marvel at reflecting her light, like a piece of space debris that in the rays of the sun reveals jewellike facets.

The pair’s reunion, Runaway Bride, is a laborious screwball romance, which, in its first half-hour, had me checking off the details it got wrong about journalism, small-town life, and human relations. Roberts plays Maggie Carpenter, a hardware store clerk (check) and junk sculptor (check) with a tendency to panic and leave her grooms open-mouthed at the altar. Gere is Ike Graham, a New York-based USA Today columnist, who hears about Maggie in a bar and, without even a call to confirm his facts (check), devotes his next piece to an un-PC screed on the inconstancy of all women (check) with this “runaway bride” as Exhibit A. The column makes him instantly (check) unpopular with all those Manhattan USA Today readers (check) who recognize him on the street (check), not to mention the hordes of small-town USA Today readers who wait for the paper’s delivery truck as if it were the Good Humor man (check). After the subject of the column responds with a letter composed on a manual typewriter (check) disputing its facts, his editor and ex-wife (check) (Rita Wilson) promptly (check) fires him (check).

My notebook has about 50 more checks, but once the premise had been established and the leads began to interact, I stopped totting up the inanities and had a good time. The director, Garry Marshall (he did Pretty Woman, too), isn’t especially talented at tying up loose ends or gliding over awkward inconsistencies. His strength is that he loves actors (he’s an amusing one himself). He’ll drop everything for a goofy face, a riff, a flaky bit of business. It doesn’t matter that Joan Cusack as Maggie’s hairdresser pal, or Laurie Metcalf as a busybody baker, or Hector Elizondo as Ike’s ex-wife’s husband and also his best buddy (check) don’t have much in the way of rounded parts. They’re in there improvising and having a blast. Compare these larky turns to the robotic caricatures in Nora Ephron’s 1998 You’ve Got Mail–it’s the difference between a director who thinks she has it all figured out and one who says, “Surprise me, make me laugh.”

Maggie is a great role for Roberts, who can be alternately warm and skittish, promiscuous and clammy. Each of her weddings (Ike gets a videotape) is a terrific slapstick turn. Watch Roberts’ head swivel away from an expectant groom as if anti-magnetized, bearing her out of the church on its own power. Gere, meanwhile, has become exceedingly likable. Perhaps it’s all the Zen meditation, which has mellowed his showy Method edges. His enviably thick hair has gone from salt-and-pepper to just salt, and those tiny, Slavic eyes have acquired a worldly glint. Alternately mocking Maggie and enjoying her hugely, he’s like a happy, laid-back stalker.

I n the event I ever teach a filmmaking class, I’m going to have a special unit on “The Work of Hugh Hudson: What Not To Do.” The riotously inept Revolution (1985) will be the ur-text, but I might find a place for the genteel My Life So Far. It’s not that it’s bad, it’s that on a dramatic level it barely exists. I’ve never read the source text, a memoir by Sir Denis Forman about his affluent Scottish childhood, but another Forman book, A Night at the Opera, is one of my bibles–a cheeky guide to the genre by a former deputy chairman of London’s Royal Opera House. This movie is supposed to be about the way the arrival of his uncle’s dishy young French wife (Irène Jacob) throws the estate into a libidinous chaos, but Hudson’s camera is always in the right place to catch the rolling hills and splendid staircases and in the wrong place to catch the actors’ expressions. The loss is especially vexing since the actors (Colin Firth, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Rosemary Harris, Malcolm McDowell) might be giving fine performances, and Robbie Norman as the boy might be extraordinary. The script might even be good. We’ll just never know.