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Petty Woman

Wedding smothers the romantic comedy -- by embracing it hard

Nothing against My Best Friend's Wedding, but it's a sign of just how vacuous things have become in Hollywood when folks start getting excited about a movie with a handful of partially engaging characters, a fairly intriguing story line and a smattering of clever remarks. Look, that's what movies are expected to have: They're supposed to be competently and carefully crafted! It's been so long since Hollywood has uncorked a really winning romantic comedy that My Best Friend's Wedding seems like the Second Coming. (And it's doubtful Julia Roberts will be pleased with the ads' slobbering blurbmeisters declaring this her best work since Pretty Woman.)

But fair enough -- Roberts, director P.J. Hogan (whose first movie, the Australian comedy Muriel's Wedding, also took a fractured look at modern romance), writer Ronald Bass (whose past credits, including Rain Man, Sleeping with the Enemy and Waiting to Exhale, don't really hint at the souffle-light touch he uses here) and the rest of the cast and crew have fashioned a perfectly entertaining and reasonably intelligent little movie. It boasts just enough disarmingly oddball moments -- beginning with the campy title sequence featuring a perky-smirky girl group lip-syncing Ani DiFranco's cover of Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "Wishin' and Hopin' " -- that it doesn't feel like something you've seen a couple hundred times before. Maybe only 40 or 50.

Roberts stars as Julianne, a twentysomething restaurant critic who goes on a lot of book tours. (It's not explained how books of restaurant reviews travel well from city to city.) Her life goes haywire with the news that her former lover and long-time platonic pal Michael (Dermot Mulroney) is getting married to a lovely young heiress, Kim (Cameron Diaz). In the back of her mind, Julianne has always considered Michael a reliable Plan B in her love life, but, like any good brat, now that she can't have him, she wants him.

Most romantic comedies telegraph their endings by portraying the third party in a love triangle as hopelessly rigid and uptight, or saddling him or her with an easily mockable allergy or harelip or something, just so you know the two most attractive players in the movie will end up together in the final reel. It's this movie's groundbreaking gambit to make Kim, outside of an occasional excess of shiny ebullience, actually sympathetic. Even Julianne concedes, "If I didn't have to hate her, I'd adore her." For her part, Kim accepts that her fiance is still smitten with Julianne, but concludes, "He's got you on a pedestal and me in his arms."

Still, that little mutual admiration society doesn't stop Julianne from trying to muck up the happy couple's wedding plans anyway. Roberts is at her most amusing in scenes where she watches her schemes play out, as Julianne's wide-eyed face struggles to express empathy for poor Kim while subtly betraying her true, far less altruistic feelings.

You almost have to feel sorry for Roberts: Try as she might to establish herself in something other than a romantic comedy, she has consistently foundered in other genres. Her star power dragged The Pelican Brief and Sleeping with the Enemy into hit status, but it's not like anyone believes those are good movies. She tries allegedly interesting projects such as Ready to Wear, Michael Collins and Everyone Says I Love You, and her audience abandons her. The ingrates will return in droves for this one, and Roberts delivers everything expected of her. Her Julianne is misguided and petty -- but, as Roberts plays her, lovably so. She's more addled than mean, and even then an edgier character than the squeaky-clean Hollywood hooker in Pretty Woman.

Mulroney, on the other hand, continues to bring more out of his roles than the scripts suggest (Copycat, How to Make an American Quilt, Point of No Return, Kansas City), though his character still isn't much more than a pretty face. Neither is Diaz's, though she provides moments of goofy humor -- someday, it seems obvious, she'll be headlining movies like this.

But Rupert Everett seems to be having -- and providing -- the most fun as Julianne's editor, George, who comes to his writer's aid whenever meltdown seems imminent. Somehow Everett and the screenplay manage to mock the recent movie convention of "the wisecracking gay buddy" while embracing it fully and allowing George to be the voice of reason amidst all the rampaging heterosexual hormones.

There are a handful of head-scratching plot turns: Why a Saturday business meeting when one on Friday would've made more sense? Why only post-bachelor party scenes? But My Best Friend's Wedding is smart enough not to take the conventions of romantic comedies too seriously, while maintaining a genuine fondness for its characters. And its use of music is inspired -- it coaxes its characters into song far more humorously and inventively than Woody Allen could manage in Everyone Says I Love You. And, acknowledging its release amidst those soulless summer blockbusters, it even manages to throw in a very halfhearted car chase.

My Best Friend's Wedding.
Directed by P.J. Hogan. With Julia Roberts, Dermot Mulroney, Cameron Diaz and Rupert Everett.

Rated PG-13.
105 minutes.

 
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