Runner-up Bride

It's not 'Pretty Women' and not quite 'Notting Hil,' but Julia Roberts' made-in-Maryland romantic comedy is good, predictable fun anyway.

July 30, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

Is one Julia Roberts movie a summer enough?

This is just one question raised by "Runaway Bride," a frothy trifle in which Roberts sort-of-almost reprises her role in "Notting Hill," the deserved romantic comedy hit of the summer. Not that the part she plays here has much in common with the glamourpuss she played in the earlier film. But the underlying persona -- a strong, independent woman searching for commitment with just the right unlikely guy -- is exactly the same.

In the Roberts Summer Sweepstakes, "Notting Hill" wins the day for charm, breezy humor and decadent escapism, even though "Runaway Bride" certainly has its moments in all three departments. And the first movie also wins hands-down for most appealing leading man in Hugh Grant, even though "Runaway Bride" admittedly benefits from a gruffly likable performance from Richard Gere. The bottom line? In a summer being ruled by ghosts, gadgets and gross-outs, "Runaway Bride" will appease romance addicts, albeit just barely.

Roberts plays Maggie Carpenter, the hardware doyenne of Hale, Md. (played in the movie by Berlin, Md.). When Maggie -- who has left three men at the altar -- comes to the attention of USA Today columnist Ike Graham (Gere), he immediately chastises her in print, casting Maggie as a Black Widow out to emasculate her prey by leading them on and breaking their hearts at the last minute.

When Ike is fired for including several inaccuracies in the piece, he travels to Hale to catch Maggie in the act for a free-lance story. Luckily, her fourth wedding is just around the corner, so all Ike has to do is hang around, get some juicy background on the bride to be and wait patiently for her to bolt.

That is, of course, if he doesn't marry her himself first.

"Runaway Bride" was directed by Garry Marshall, who also directed Roberts and Gere in the hugely successful "Pretty Woman" and knows his way around a formula. He sets up the right fairy-tale atmosphere right off the bat, with a fanciful opening sequence of Roberts, in full wedding mufti, riding a galloping horse across the Maryland countryside.

Hale is the kind of town where kids ride down main street on ponies, barbershop quartets warble on the village square and someone who looks like Julia Roberts could sell you a ball peen hammer without getting a second glance. Talk about suspension of disbelief!

What's more, Marshall knows exactly how many obstacles to put in Gere and Roberts' way before reaching the conclusion patrons pay $7.50 to see. And he knows precisely how many goofy outfits to put Roberts in (one funny hat and one Hawaiian luau costume); how many wedding dresses, (five); and how many funny faces she should pull (one, not counting some business with bubble gum).

Indeed, the entirety of "Runaway Bride" suffers from the rote, by-the-numbers feeling of a movie that was constructed for some mythical focus group rather than flesh-and-blood filmgoers. And, by its gratuitously scenic, syrupy final scene, at least a few viewers may be sick to death of seeing Roberts draped in yet one more confectionary outfit.

As the movie hits its marks on its way to a conclusion that is never anything but foregone, very little by way of genuine humor seeps through, aside from some well-timed wisecracks from the venerable Jean Schertler (last seen in "Pecker"), who plays Maggie's tartly irrepressible grandmother (do they make any other kind?), and Joan Cusack, who as Maggie's best friend might be the most believable thing here.

As far as the famed Roberts-Gere chemistry, it's still there, although it strains under the more ridiculous situations Marshall sets up. Cute entrances on a garage's hydraulic lift, chases through a Sunday school, tire swings and Yeats references go only so far before they become irritatingly forced.

Luckily Roberts -- the most gorgeous comedienne since Carole Lombard -- glides through the silliness with glowing good will. And Gere seems surprisingly relaxed, given "Runaway Bride's" most ludicrous sequences; this is the warmest, most likable performance he's given in years. As they did in "Pretty Woman," these two have just enough sex appeal and comic smarts to overcome even the flimsiest of premises.

`Runaway Bride'

Starring Julia Roberts, Richard Gere, Joan Cusack

Directed by Garry Marshall

Released by Paramount Pictures

Rated PG (language and some suggestive dialogue)

Running time 111 minutes

Sun score * * 1/2

Pub Date: 7/30/99

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