Some things, like a perfect bottle of scotch, improve with time. Other things, however, just start to smell bad. You would never have predicted it from the breakout success of "Pretty Woman" nearly a decade ago, but it turns out that the pairing of Richard Gere and Julia Roberts has ripened over the years into something resembling month-old brie.
If "Runaway Bride" fails to replicate the Cinderella hooker story, it's not for lack of trying. It has the same director, the same stars playing the same basic characters (he's jaded and cynical! she's damaged but quirky!) and even a few strikingly familiar scenes. How can anyone who's seen "Pretty Woman" not get a shudder of déjà vu watching Gere and Roberts engage in a rapid fire financial negotiation that culminates in Gere's triumphant "Done!" or seeing an unhelpful shopkeeper treat our poor would-be customer Julia so shabbily? Hell, there's even a Roxette song on the soundtrack, an inclusion that leaves the viewer wondering when the strains of Go West might crop up next.
The basic premise concerns Ike Graham (Gere), a gruff he-man columnist for USA Today, who hears about notorious groom-jilter Maggie Carpenter (Roberts) and turns her into the basis of one of his diatribes against the fair sex. Ike's clearly a graduate of the Mike Barnicle Famous Writer's School, because he tosses off his screed without checking any of the facts, a move that enrages his subject and costs him his job. Bent on revenge and career redemption, he goes in search of the real story on the runaway bride, who happens to be mere days away from her fourth attempt at making it all the way down the aisle. Ike shows up in her quaint Maryland town and starts poking around, and the two take a strong dislike to each other. Then they fall in love, naturally.
The notion of an arrogant tough guy meeting his match in a commitment-phobic woman isn't such a bad one. Unfortunately it's the only thing about the movie that doesn't seem completely ill-advised. Director Garry Marshall and writers Josann McGibbon and Sara Parriott never seem satisfied with their material or their cast, so they compensate with a frantic heap of limping gags and improbable situations. (Sexist Gere is seen repeatedly being smacked by irate women brandishing his newspaper columns, in what appears to be the Marshall equivalent of a kick-in-the-nuts joke.) Roberts and Gere try gamely to look at each other as if there's a scintilla of frisson between them, but often as not they're forced to eschew the drama and go for absurd overacting -- she screwing up her face in a platypus imitation, he bounding clumsily through a snake-filled cow field.
If watching two generally competent actors have to mug so shamelessly is bad, seeing the beleaguered supporting players given nothing else to do is downright painful. Joan Cusack, as Maggie's down-to-earth best pal, is spared from too much gross indignity, but Laurie Metcalf, as the eccentric town baker, has to dance around spastically flailing flour, while Jean Schertler, in the token dotty old lady role, bugs her eyes at shirtless joggers and rhapsodizes over Gere's buns. (It's a little ironic that an old woman admiring his youth is made the butt of a joke in a movie in which the age difference between the 50-ish Gere and 30-ish Roberts is never even mentioned.) Even Paul Dooley, who's given the rather weighty problem of alcoholism, seems to handle his condition with a breezy physicality worthy of Andy Capp.
With its broad characterizations and sweeping generalities, "Runaway Bride" is obviously meant as a fairy tale. Roberts lives in a perfect little town of apple-cheeked triplets and serenading barber shop quartets (no, really) -- a town that looks less like an idyllic outpost of Americana than the gift shop pavilions on Disneyland's Main Street USA. And Gere's Manhattan is a city where unemployed journalists live in huge apartments with private decks (even when they kvetch about not having a fax machine) and banter about getting their creative "jooces flowin'."
Such lack of realism isn't a crime, especially in comedy. But Marshall's world is so zealously cute, so condescendingly trite, there's never any room for the tension and sparks necessary to make the movie work. When Gere and Roberts confront each other about their mutual moral cowardice, their dialogue has the canned perfunctoriness that signals the beginning of the "Why, you really do care!" portion of the film. Everything about them, from their courtship to their character quirks, feels written in shorthand rather than thought out. It's as if the filmmakers figured casting the movie was enough -- why bother actually writing it?
For their part, Gere and Roberts both try to hang on to their dignity -- he shrugs and squints and looks vaguely pissed-off most of the time, she swings her long, I-
Considering the fact that we haven't had an adult romantic comedy this year since, oh, the last Julia Roberts romantic comedy, there's every chance in the world that "Runaway Bride" will make great big piles of money at the box office. That might not be such an awful thing if it didn't suggest the strong possibility of more semi-sequels from Marshall and company. And the chance of any of us ever seeing a real, grown up romantic comedy again seems even less likely. Why should filmmakers bother making intelligent and witty romantic comedies when you can just as easily put two big names on the marquee?