The Reunion Is a Bust

Thomas Wolfe was right. You can’t go home again. Praying for lightning to strike twice, Julia Roberts, Richard Gere and director Garry Marshall–the trio responsible for the 1990 phenomenon Pretty Woman –have re-teamed for another romantic comedy called Runaway Bride . Lightning? In your dreams. More like electrocution, maybe. But lightning, never.

This fatuous, unfocused bore is a good example of what happens when A-list names with nothing on their minds but dollar signs get together and knock around a few jokes, then fabricate an asinine movie around them, relying on their charisma to charm the public into buying secondhand. Why buy a used Ford if you can afford a new BMW? Of course, there is the strong possibility that some people would kill to watch Julia Roberts and Richard Gere read Keats in front of an open fire or ride bicycles to songs by J.S. Bach and Billy Joel, which they do plenty of here. Runaway Bride , which should be called Runaway Egos , is targeted for an ossified audience with undemanding tastes panting for any excuse to get into the air-conditioning for a two-hour no-brainer, and no questions asked.

Mr. Gere plays an acerbic columnist for USA Today famous for his diatribes against women. Ms. Roberts plays a woman famous for leaving numerous grooms stranded at the altar on her wedding days. He hears about her in a New York saloon and turns her into the subject of one of his most vitriolic broadsides. Way down yonder in the Maryland hick town where she runs a hardware store, she goes ballistic, claiming he has his facts all wrong (she only jilted three wannabe husbands, not seven) and his editor (Rita Wilson), who is also his ex-wife, fires him. From this preposterous premise, a long, slow and laboriously contrived movie that is never for one minute believable hits the ground limping.

He sets out to get the real story with all the gory details while the soundtrack plays “Maneater” by Daryl Hall and John Oates. He travels all the way to a town so corny it makes Mayberry look like downtown Buenos Aires, convinced if he can prove she’s the flaky “runaway bride” he depicted in his column his reputation will be saved and he’ll get his old job back. The first thing she does is dye his hair orange, purple, green and fuchsia. In the first of a series of sight gags designed to “loosen up” an actor who is as uncomfortable in broad comedy as a porn star visiting a monastery, Mr. Gere grabs a floppy hat from a passing child to cover his new psychedelic hair and nobody laughs. Why should we? He merely looks like Harpo Marx impersonating a banana split.

But as luck (and Hollywood) would have it, nothing can stop this dedicated hack from getting his scoop. (“Journalism is literature in a hurry!”) Not even the theme from The Andy Griffith Show , which he whistles on the street in front of America’s last living barbershop quartet, indicates it’s time to head back to safer harbors, like P.J. Clarke’s. This is inside stuff, y’all, and only a telly-trash veteran like Garry Marshall would find it amusing. But back to the hot skinny.

Seems Ms. Roberts has already dumped a priest, an entomologist studying the mating habits of locusts, and a guitar-playing garage mechanic. Now she’s just days away from her fourth date with the preacher. This time she’s scheduled to exchange vows with a good-natured Muscles McGurk (the excellent Christopher Meloni) who proposed during the seventh-inning stretch of an Orioles game and plans to drag her to the top of a snow-capped mountain in the Himalayas for her honeymoon. For a fee of $650 (and a logical motivation known only to the screenwriters), she agrees to give Mr. Gere exclusive access to her entire screwed-up life story, and somewhere between a tour of her lamp designs from discarded electrical parts and a Hawaiian luau with blender mai-tais in the middle of a Maryland cornfield, they fall in love. There is more, but I will quit while I’m ahead.

Under close analysis, these are characters I wouldn’t want to be alone with in a deserted Starbucks. She’s a spoiled, irritating nitwit; he’s a tiresome cynic. Together they have all of the appeal of two jerks cracking bubble gum in a Christian Science reading room. In a role tailored for someone with a working knowledge of comedy, Mr. Gere gets by on his smugness, exuding an attitude of “I know the material sucks, but, hell, I’m making more moneythantheDalai Lama!” Ms. Roberts has three expressions–petulant exasperation, tremulous sincerity, and gooey wall-to-wall grinning with calibrated lips and teeth like a picketfence–andshe interchanges them so repeatedly and annoyingly you find yourself wishing somebodywouldjust knock her off her balance backward, the way Cary Grant K.O.’d Kate Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story .

I admit there are some funny lines, and one in particular, comparing Julia Roberts to Federal Express, will probably be quoted as often as “I’ll have what she’s having” from When Harry Met Sally . But even those are contrived. They don’t come from the heart or soul. They’re sitcom setups, and whole scenes are dragged in to make room for them. For a director who is supposed to know how comedy works, Garry Marshall is off his mark throughout. There’s no energy, tempo or suspense. Nothing makes you smile because you recognize the roots of humanity, and everything is too lumbering and self-conscious for farce.

Runaway Bride may end up a runaway hit because of the lure of its glam power, but it’s the kind of phony, plastic filmmaking perpetuated by endless reruns of old episodes of Love, American Style .

Beauty Queens Out for Blood

The small minds of small towns in the American heartland and the stupidity of beauty contests are the tired, obvious satirical targets in Drop Dead Gorgeous , an insipid, derivative and mean-spirited little “mockumentary” that never uses a subtle or inventive device to get a laugh when a jackhammer will do.

Owing a lot to the surprise success of Waiting for Guffman and even more to the 1975 beauty pageant sendup Smile , this travesty imagines a television camera crew invading a Minnesota hick town to document the 50th anniversary of a macabre ritual called the American Teen Princess Pageant. The event is masterminded by a nasty, bulbous dragon named Gladys Leeman (Kirstie Alley), who won the contest 30 years ago and is now stuck in a time warp of incurable post-adolescence. She is not only the reigning president of the Lutheran Gun Club (“Jesus loves winners!”) but the pageant organizer who will stop at nothing (including murder) to place this year’s crown on the dopey head of her toothy, bitchy daughter Becky (Denise Williams), who performs for her talent showcase a smarmy love song crooned to a life-size effigy of Jesus.

Becky’s chief rival is Amber (Kirsten Dunst), a sweet, tap-dancing dolt who lives in a trailer park with her sleazy, alcoholic, foul-mouthed, chain-smoking mother (a peroxided Ellen Barkin, who has seen better days and better roles in better films). While Becky rehearses her talent for hair and makeup after school on corpses at the local funeral parlor and dreams of becoming the next Diane Sawyer, her school friends start dying in mysterious circumstances. One contestant explodes on a combine harvester, and Amber’s boyfriend is killed while deer hunting. Amber finally gets the message through her pretty, vacant skull that her life is in danger when a tragic trailer fire leaves her mother with a beer can grafted to her hand. This is supposed to be funny, I kid you not.

The highlight is the spectacularly vulgar pageant itself, where the girls strut their stuff in a trendy celebration of bad taste designed to win over the audience devoted to the Farrelly Brothers. One contestant displays the scars where her German shepherd ripped her flesh off. Another shares family snapshots of her drag-queen brother. A third girl does a dramatic monologue in sign language. All in front of the most grotesque panel of judges this side of a tractor pull. One is a pedophile who masturbates under the judging table; another judge’s obese son is the town retard, pursued by an army of perverted torturers.

No doubt director Michael Patrick Jann, who is making a sophomoric feature-film debut, and writer Lona Williams, whose demoralizing and insulting view of women should earn her a permanent place in every feminist’s Hall of Shame, aim to cash in on the mindless success of trashy movies like There’s Something About Mary and the goofy baiting of folksy hicks like the ones in Fargo . But well-made satire should both amuse and enlighten. There’s no healthy balance between truth and absurdity in Drop Dead Gorgeous , just cheesy ridicules at the expense of amputees, mentally impaired people, inhabitants of mobile homes, victims of substanceabuse,brain-dead teenage girls and their domineering, neurotic mothers, and the entire population of the state of Minnesota, all of whom are depicted as fat, dumb racists. There is nothing amusing about an anorexic former beauty queen in the eating disorders unit of the local hospital who gets wheeled out from time to time to wave at her fans while holding on for dear life to her IV drip. There is nothing cool about a pageant ofteenyboppers spewing a hotel lobby with vomit after eating a buffet of tainted seafood.

Smugwithout sense, Drop Dead Gorgeous could learn a lesson from a movie like Election , which poked fun at small-town foibles without underestimating the intelligence of the audience. Instead, it’s just cruel, vicious and raunchy. The Reunion Is a Bust