Something to brag about

Julia Roberts delivers a relationship comedy that doesn't betray us

As of this writing, there are only three American actresses who've proven to Hollywood they can attract big audiences by name alone--Demi Moore, Meg Ryan, and Julia Roberts.

Moore is by far the worst of the three, a relentless publicity machine whose presence in wretched box-office triumphs like Disclosure proves that ticket-buyers can suspend their disbelief sufficiently to enjoy a movie in the same way they flip through a fashion magazine--with an eye toward pose and appearance, and an understanding that they won't be taken any further by her performances.

As the other offender, the marginally more talented Ryan functions more or less as a Goldie Hawn for the '90s--an easily caricatured comedienne-ditz whose sexual self-awareness masquerades as exquisite comic timing, until she chooses to expose her limitations by forcing a series of "unexpected" career choices on us (her perky descent into alcoholism in When a Man Loves a Woman was the first). Just as fast as you can say "I'd rather produce than star" (Ryan's last modest hit, French Kiss, came from her own company), we'll be adrift in unglamorous Ryan vehicles.

If only by abdication, Julia Roberts should be crowned the great hope for any American commercial film that aspires to offer an intelligent female perspective. Throughout her brief but meteoric career, the 27-year-old star has made mostly inferior movies, yet managed to rise above each one because of the clarity of her performance. From the trivial (Flatliners) to the offensive (Pretty Woman) to the intermittently intriguing (The Pelican Brief), she's powered a diverse series of financial successes, deploying her greatest asset to much effect: her concoction of spontaneous self-doubt and rock-jawed pride. She inspires but doesn't intimidate, like the pretty, smart friend in high school you know could move on to greater things--if only she'd realize her potential.

Perhaps because--unlike Moore and Ryan--Roberts has suffered a recent pair of critical and box-office failures (I Love Trouble, Pret-a-Porter), everyone now anticipates her tabloid disintegration. Her divorce from much-misunderstood musician Lyle Lovett; a disastrous goodwill trip to Haiti (she publicly demanded that a certain photographer be ejected because she recognized him as a paparazzo); an edgy triumph over the predictable ass-kissing treatment served by talk-show queen Oprah Winfrey--all of it has fueled speculation that the much-chronicled Roberts hit her career peak before she ever reached 30.

It's anybody's guess whether her latest vehicle, Something To Talk About, will put her reputation back on track, although this is perhaps the canniest project Roberts has yet signed on to. Take a gander at the other talents who committed--Swedish director-turned-chronicler-of-American-family-angst Lasse Hallstrom (Once Around, What's Eating Gilbert Grape); Sven Nykvist, veteran cinematographer for Ingmar Bergman and Woody Allen; screenwriter Callie Khouri, whose original script for Ridley Scott's Thelma and Louise won her an Oscar; and irreplaceable actor-legends Robert Duvall and Gena Rowlands.

Most viewers of Something To Talk About won't be distracted by the contributions of any of these formidable names, which is the film's greatest achievement--you concentrate on what the characters say and do, until pretty soon you're pondering questions about the fragile nature of romance and commitment and forgetting that the forces behind the picture have woven a tapestry of bitter, but always buoyant, glimpses into the soul of a woman who does the best she can in a world waiting to judge her. The film is being advertised as a romantic comedy, but it's actually a much rarer beast--a comic look at an individual who learns by trial and error to pull herself out of the mire of romance (the idea of being "in love with love") and look at her own world with clear eyes.

Southern good girl Grace (Roberts) has done everything she's been expected to for most of her short life, like working for her rich, old-fashioned parents (Duvall and Rowlands), and marrying the first man in high school who expressed an interest in her (Dennis Quaid), even though, as her potty-mouthed sister Emma Rae (Kyra Sedgwick) reminds her, his nickname was "Hound Dog."

Grace has been speeding through her life at 65 mph on autopilot, until by accident she witnesses her husband kissing another woman on a city street corner. At that moment, our already overworked heroine is pushed over the edge, and begins a series of misadventures with family and friends that're sometimes humiliating, sometimes vindicating, but always unpopular with the people who pretend to know what's best for her.

If any collaborator in this captivating exploration into the consequences of infidelity should be highlighted, it's writer Callie Khouri. Although her story meanders about 15 minutes longer than it should, with a conclusion that yanks us into a clumsy validation of the token independence for which Grace strives, Khouri has bestowed upon her actors the raw, witty dialogue that suggests women struggling beneath the yoke of male-defined expectations. There's no overt male-bashing along the lines of Thelma and Louise, which makes the feminist message of Something To Talk About much more seductive--the male characters in this account are portrayed with greater sympathy (especially Robert Duvall as the red-necked, landowning, constantly disapproving daddy), but they do present tiresome complications for the leading ladies, all of whom just wish to find some measure of peace and satisfaction in the roles they've chosen.

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