Quick -- run away

Speak now, or forever wish you hadn't wasted eight bucks

Runaway Bride, the reunion of Pretty Woman stars Julia Roberts and Richard Gere, isn't a sequel; it only feels like one. In everything, there is a distinct sense of predestination, of events occurring according to some irresistible force of the inevitable. This makes life especially easy for Garry Marshall, the director who was responsible for originally bringing together Roberts and Gere in 1990, and who now is released altogether from having to mess with such bothersome details as setting up his story or following the rules of narrative logic. In this debonair but ever-so-slight romantic comedy, things just happen. Never mind how or why.

In the movie's opening scene, Maggie Carpenter (Roberts) is shown briskly galloping over hill and dale in a wedding dress, while on the soundtrack we hear U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." Given the film's title, we're able to surmise that she is escaping from yet another marriage ceremony (and not, say, fox-hunting). But where that might be, or why, is unknown.

What we learn next is that Ike Graham (Gere), a USA Today columnist of the most desperate sort, is nearing his deadline and still without an idea. Naturally, he heads for the nearest bar -- not to drink, but to bounce ideas off the willing and only partly drunk clientele. After a few dry holes, one helpful chap does manage to pique his interest with an item about a young Maryland woman who, it seems, has made a hobby of getting engaged and then leaving the grooms standing, devastated and confused, at the altar.

Pretty awful: Richard Gere and Julia Roberts are a match made in the deepest bowels of hell.
Pretty awful: Richard Gere and Julia Roberts are a match made in the deepest bowels of hell.

Details

Directed by Garry Marshall

Written by Josann McGibbon and Sara Parriott

Starring Julia Roberts, Richard Gere, Joan Cusack, and Hector Elizondo

Opens July 30

Official site

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Knowing a good yarn when he hears one, Ike uses the story for his column, making the uncertain bride come off as the female equivalent of Jack the Ripper; cue Hall and Oates' "Maneater." As might be expected, this makes tongues wag all over Maggie's hometown of Hale, Maryland, and Maggie is furious enough to threaten legal action. Armed with pen, paper, and the facts -- which, unfortunately, Ike had neglected to check -- Maggie rips out a letter to the editor that causes Ike to lose his job. He is, of course, fired by his ex-wife (played by Mrs. Tom Hanks, Rita Wilson), who happens to be the editor of USA Today. Of course.

But Ike is not to be defeated. The indefatigable Maggie is already engaged to be married for a fourth time. So Ike sets off to Maryland to write a story for GQ -- on spec, as if -- hoping to land it on the cover if Maggie bails on this wedding. (Like, when is the last time GQ didn't put a celeb on the cover? Uh...never.)

Even judged against other substance-less Hollywood confections, the setup here seems especially vacant. But if it allows the stars to make their magic, then perhaps no one will care. This, in fact, is why movie studios hire such dazzling stars: to make sure no one pays any attention to just how godawful the screenplay for whatever film they're watching really is. In this case, however, all the stars in heaven couldn't provide the distraction we need.

What Ike discovers when he arrives in Hale is that no one appears particularly disturbed by Maggie's behavior. They all go on about their business, including Maggie, who runs the family hardware store when she is isn't off breaking hearts. Ike's first task is to interview her friends, family, and victims, but they turn out to be so uniformly unperturbed that you begin to wonder whether the entire body of townsfolk isn't monkeying around with their serotonin levels. One salient detail from his investigation does stand out, though: In all of her relationships with her grooms-to-be, the men reported that she liked her eggs the same way they did. What's strange, though, is that each groom liked his eggs prepared a different way. Makes you want to yell, "Voila!"

At this late moment in the millennium, Julia Roberts is the most bankable -- and the highest-paid -- female star in the movies. And it was her performance in this team's initial pairing that gave audiences their first real sense of what she could do. Runaway Bride, unfortunately, gives her little opportunity to do anything but smile and shrug. In fact, Maggie, who seems totally unfazed by her neurotic, selfish behavior, may be the most unpleasant, off-putting character in Roberts' career.

Even more unfortunately, she doesn't even seem the slightest bit attracted to Ike until the crucial moment when they simultaneously discover they are smitten. At that point, when jilted groom Number Four (a likable, lightweight Christopher Meloni) asks how long their attraction has been simmering, Maggie glibly answers, "About a minute." (Ike's answer: "For me, a little longer.") This only renders the star's signature smile and gamine charm even more premeditated and manipulative. She likes this little game of breaking men's hearts, and, seemingly, has no intention of changing her ways.

Strangely enough, it's Gere, usually more laid-back in his romantic roles, who's the more energetic of the two stars. As Ike, Gere is more animated than he has been for some time, and pulls it off, uncharacteristically, without seeming antic or strained. (Think of his manic performances in Breathless or Looking for Mr. Goodbar.) Nor is there a trace of the smugness and self-satisfaction that tarnish so much of his work. His performance here is easy-going and balanced, and one of his most appealing. Too bad that it all goes to waste in a movie that is on the verge of collapse from the opening frame.

When the film finally does fall completely apart, it seems little more than a foregone conclusion. Ike and Maggie get together for one reason and one reason only -- because they have to. Perish the thought that Marshall, who gave us, among other things, Laverne & Shirley, might play upon our expectations and attempt something original. Everything about Runaway Bride -- the sitcom pacing, the unvaried shot selection, the 1987 soundtrack -- is perfectly ordinary, like a made-for-Lifetime movie. Marshall is the very definition of a hack; his one and only desire is to play to the lowest common denominator. This is the secret of his success: He aspires to mediocrity. With Runaway Bride, he has scored another bull's-eye.

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