Screwball comedies reached their apotheosis in the 1930s with
such gems as IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT and TWENTIETH CENTURY
(both 1934), MY MAN GODFREY (1936), BRINGING UP BABY (1938)
and HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1939). An outgrowth of the influx of Broadway
writers, this genre incorporated standard elements: generally antagonistic
couples thrown together by Fate, sharp, quick dialogue and a subtext
of class warfare or class differences.
The heroines were usually rich and spoiled and the heroes were
working stiffs. The conflict came not only from their differing world
views but also from the differences in the sexes. One could almost
argue that the genre could trace its routes back to Shakespeare's
"The Taming of the Shrew" and forward to the comedies of Neil
Simon. But the specific genre of "screwball" gradually gave way to
parody and then faded away. In this post-modern society, it would
seem odd for someone to try to replicate that genre. But attempts
have been made -- mostly with little success. Part of the problem
stems from the social upheavals in the latter half of the 20th Century,
part of it is due to the fact that actors rarely generate that
old-fashioned "star quality" (whether it was manufactured by studios
or not). The glamour and the sense of entering a different, foreign
world rooted in a form of reality has been replaced by futuristic
sagas, animated worlds and a more egalitarian view in cinema.
Some critics have argued that we do have an heir (actually heiress)
to that hey day in the person of Julia Roberts, pointing to
PRETTY WOMAN (1990) and MY BEST FRIEND'S WEDDING (1997).
Certainly those films attempt to work in the vein of a screwball comedy
but key ingredients are missing. And excuse me but Julia Roberts is
no Carole Lombard or Katharine Hepburn. She can sometimes be
an engaging performer, but she lacks a certain quality that the
actresses of another generation possessed. The film RUNAWAY BRIDE
tries to trade on her status as the reigning queen of film comedy.
That the script leaves her and her co-star Richard Gere a bit stranded
is not their fault, though.
Back when the pair were first teamed in PRETTY WOMAN under
Garry Marshall's direction, Roberts was an unproven quantity and
Gere's career was floundering. Somehow they managed to turn the
conceit of a businessman who hires a street hooker for company into
a charming and delightful romantic comedy. Call it chemistry,
happenstance, whatever, audiences embraced the film and made it
one of the year's top-grossers. Naturally the studios wanted to
reteam the actors immediately. In the vagaries of contemporary
Hollywood where the stars now have more control over their careers,
it took almost ten years. The pitch for RUNAWAY BRIDE probably
sounded terrific: "She keeps leaving men at the altar and this
curmudgeonly newspaper man goes to investigate and it's love/hate
at first sight." Sounds promising, perhaps. Somewhere in the execution,
however, something was lost.
There are plot holes large enough for the TITANIC to sail
through -- for example, one complaining letter from a woman who
feels maligned in a newspaper column and the journalist is history.
What? She's never heard of a lawyer? And when did USA Today move
its headquarters to Manhattan and become THE national paper?
(I mean, I HAVE to read it everyday for work but I can't name five
other people who read it.) What ever happened to the old days
when a fake name for a paper would have been used? (Oh yeah,
product placement, synergy and all that.) Anyway -- overlooking
the gaps of logic in the story and the fact that Gere and Roberts
ignite few genuine sparks -- whatever chemistry they had in 1990
has now morphed into a comfortable familiarity. They work well
together but it's the feeling of wearing warm fuzzy slippers not
the potential danger of combustibility.
Despite my misgivings, so help me the piece does work.
Marshall is not the subtlest of directors but he does manage
to keep the pace moving and has surrounded the stars with the
kind of stock company of strong supporting actors that would make
Preston Sturges proud. Joan Cusack once again proves what a delightful
character player she is and Christopher Meloni elicits a few chuckles
as Roberts' fourth fiancé, a gung-ho football coach who treats her
inability to commit as if it could be cured by sports psychology.
Paul Dooley as Roberts' father also contributes to the fun but
Hector Elizondo (in his 10th film under Marshall's direction) and
Rita Wilson suffer from underdeveloped characters. In a role that
has eerie echoes to her own life (Kiefer Sutherland anyone?), Roberts
manages to use her considerable charm to get by. Her performance
struck me as more surface, though. We never got more than a
passing glance at why her character left three men at the altar --
even videos of the events -- flashbacks meant to enlighten the
audience didn't really help, except that the three guys seemed
like losers (a wannabe rock star well-played by Yul Vasquez, a
schlub who becomes a priest essayed by Donal Logue and a
preening scientist who initially tips off Gere to the story acted
by Reg Rogers). As in MY BEST FRIEND'S WEDDING, Roberts
is playing a driven woman who could be unlikable but in her hands,
with her cascade of hair and her overused megawatt smile,
whatever dark side these women may have gets overpowered.
Whether Roberts is unwilling to take the risk of playing an out
and out nasty character or if it is that she lacks the thespian
skills to navigate those aspects, it ultimately doesn't seem
to matter. She flashes that movie star appeal and audiences fall
under her spell.
For me, though, the real enjoyment of the film came from
watching Gere cut loose. In the past, he has often seemed hamstrung
or withholding. He could be interesting to watch but something
intangible was missing. Either Marshall in his direction or Roberts
in her partnering elicits a more playful side to the actor. Gere
has never been more relaxed or charming on screen.
Would I recommend RUNAWAY BRIDE? I guess, with strong
reservations, I suppose I would. Although, in truth, I'd prefer to watch
any other screwball comedy.
|© 2005 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.