I worry about Julia Roberts. I know I don’t need to but still, I feel like I can’t help it. It’s not because she’s a particularly convincing performer on or off screen, though she does look distressed or vulnerable much of the time. It’s not because the promoters for her latest movie, Runaway Bride, have been running ads with the creepiest stalker song ever made, the Police’s “Every Breath You Take.” And it’s not because she’s in need of my or anyone else’s concern: everyone knows she has more money than god, splendiferous popularity and unusual industry clout. And yet, when I see her on the cover of the Globe or unable to avoid the cameras on Access Hollywood, I find myself thinking, poor Julia. I find myself wanting her to stay friends with Lyle Lovest, to find true happiness with Benjamin Bratt, maybe even to make a movie that’s different from the schlock romantic comedy that she’s so obviously born to make.
No doubt, being the Pretty Woman forever and ever has its upsides. But it must get tiring too, like she’s a singer always asked to do the way-too-famous One Hit, no matter how many other hits or better songs she might eventually have in her repertoire. Poor Julia may never escape this sweet imprisonment. She’s tried already, but when she deviates from formula (as when she takes up with the slimy John Malkovich or has to work too hard with a very strained, screwball-action plot, like I Love Trouble), she hears about it, but quick.
And so, likely at the behest of her handlers and friends, she returns to what she does best, that one song always pays off, first this summer with Notting Hill, opposite the eternally apologetic Hugh Grant, and now with Runaway Bride, in which she gets to apologize. While it might look like a grown-up movie, it’s really a ten-years-later reunion project for the Pretty Woman team (namely, co-star Richard Gere and director Garry Marshall).
“Catch her if you can.” Imagine being in a movie for which this is the best tag line that your profits-minded studio can come up with? In Runaway Bride Julia plays the tediously named Maggie Carpenter, the hardware store owner and fix-it person in the impossibly quaint and precious small town Hale, Maryland (I spotted one black person in this idyllic place, a police chief who has time to play jazz with the mayor and friends on street corners). Maggie has a bad reputation despite the fact that she’s so painfully adorable in her overalls and baseball caps. She’s left three husbands at the altar (each wedding shown in home video mode, mostly to show the evolving gown fashions, I think).
Arcadian as the setting seems, the story wends its way up to that robust bastion of sinners and redemption-seekers, NYC, when one of the jiltees complains (not the one who’s since become a priest, proving that her spell is absolute) to Ike Graham (Gere), a cocky USA Today columnist renowned for his “diatribes against women” (one of the film’s running sight gags involves old ladies bopping him on the head with their purses), who uses Maggie as one more easy target (just so you know he’s right, “Man-eater’’ comes on the soundtrack to support his judgment of Maggie). Clearly, this girl is in need of rehabilitation, so she can fit in with her stereotypically fearful small town friends (played by people who are in fact more interesting than Julia Roberts, like Joan Cusack and Laurie Metcalf).
You know what happens next: the city boy comes to town, assigned by a big deal magazine to do a story on Maggie’s upcoming fourth attempt to get married (to a high school coach named Bob, played by scary Christopher Meloni, best known for his work as a psycho-Nazi inmate in Oz). At first Ike pesters Maggie, smarming his way into the good graces of all her family and neighbors; she agrees to let him follow her around, so he’ll get the story “right,” and he proceeds to convince her that she needs psychological help, or, barring that, a stunningly self-involved man like himself. The townspeople tend to agree with Ike because her running away threatens their own sense of no-options (in this town, you get married and you’re happy, but if you don’t, there’s something wrong with you). Everyone wants Maggie to grow up and settle down, including her father (the great Paul Dooley, wasted here as a sad, mad alcoholic used only to explain Maggie’s reluctance to commit).
The script is precise and irritating. Written by Josann McGibbon and Sara Parriott, also responsible for the bottom-scraping sequel Three Men and a Little Lady), it’s full of delightful (i.e., audience-pleasing) jokes about Maggie’s contrariness and Ike’s “tight butt,” but its premise is the very formula that makes me worry so about Julia, that is, the idea that, however pleasant she appears to be as the wild child, she must be tamed, she must be married off to this guy old enough to be her father because he’s sophisticated and smooth and the film’s designated Proper Love Object.
As I’m sitting in the movie theater, watching all this non-plot unfold at a properly perky pace, I’m starting to squirm a bit. This whole business makes me feel weird, especially when I find myself laughing at a joke or feeling even the slightest bit of warmth when Julia lights up the screen with that exalted gigawatt smile. It’s like I’m listening to Britney Spears: I know she’s foofy and overproduced and has breast implants, but her songs (excluding her cover of “The Beat Goes On,” which is flat out terrible) can make me nod my head to the beat. So here’s Julia, going through the motions, her eyes tearing up, her lip quivering, the music swelling. It’s too much and I resent it, but it makes me worry.
I’m certainly not worrying that the plot will not go exactly how I know it will go. I worry, instead, that it will go that way. I worry that she’ll stop running, that she’ll move to New York to be with Her Man, that she’ll say she’s sorry for whatever shortcomings she might have displayed during their brief and apparently enchanting courtship, that she’ll change herself to fit his idea of what she should be. She has to do it and I know she will. But it still makes me sad, knowing that she has to do this to make everyone else feel secure again and again, in movie after movie that they’re also making the proper apologies and the right choices, because any other choices are unimaginable for Pretty Women and their gonnabe mates.