The romantic comedy has proved an enduring genre for the silver screen, from the screwball comedy of the 30s to its peak in the 90s, and resurgent popularity in the 2010s. Set The Tape presents Rom-Com Rewind, a series looking at the history of the genre and how it has developed over the course of nearly a hundred years of movie history.
If you were a fan of romantic comedies starring Julia Roberts, then the summer of 1999 had you spoiled. A few weeks after Notting Hill premiered in cinemas, Roberts was back on our screens for another potential rom-com blockbuster, and where Notting Hill saw her join Richard Curtis and Hugh Grant for their long-awaited reunion, the second Julia Roberts smash hit of the year would see the actress in the middle of her own long-awaited reunion.
Opening with U2 singing over the soundtrack as Roberts’ character rides a horse over some picturesque landscape in a wedding dress, it’s a none more iconic image that the genre can offer up. Nine years after the success of Pretty Woman, Runaway Bride would finally reunite its predecessor’s two lead actors, along with several of the supporting cast and the director for another would-be blockbuster. The film was a huge success, but reviews, in the end, would up being very mixed compared to last time, although it was interesting to see a lot of critics bemoan that Runaway Bride was not as good as Pretty Woman, given that the latter also received some mixed responses from reviewers at the time.
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Those naysayers didn’t stop Pretty Woman from becoming a blockbuster hit, paving the way for Roberts to become one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, and truthfully, with the promise of Roberts on-screen again with Richard Gere, in a film directed once again by Garry Marshall, Runaway Bride was too hard to resist and the film made bank at the box office.
As I wrote in my Notting Hill retrospective last week, sequels weren’t always a sure thing with romantic comedies. Sure, they made a lot of money, but sometimes these movies were a hard thing to fashion sequels around, and while there were some direct follow-ups, more often than not Hollywood studios relied less on returning to the same story and instead banked on a new film featuring the same cast and or/creative team with which to bring back audiences in the hope capturing romantic lightning in the bottle a second time. Roberts was reluctant to do a sequel to Pretty Woman, and took a stance of not doing sequels until Ocean’s Twelve in 2004 (and the best of the Soderbergh-directed Ocean’s films, a hill I will die on), which meant that a new film and story was the only option.
The script for Runaway Bride had been doing the rounds for a while and at various points in its journey to the screen, big names such as Demi Moore, Sandra Bullock, Tea Leoni and Geena Davis were attached for the female lead, while Harrison Ford, Michael Douglas and Mel Gibson had all been approached for the male lead. In the end, the film would be the catalyst for bringing back one of the most iconic screen pairings of the decade, and it says something that the 90s would be topped and tailed by a pair of Gere/Roberts/Marshall films on which Hector Elizondo and Larry Miller were both along for the ride in supporting roles.
There is something very comforting about the presence of Elizondo in so many of these films, and when it came to Marshall doing a YA variation (albeit without the problematic elements) of the Pygmalian story for Disney’s The Princess Diaries (arguably one of the greatest teen films of the 2000s), there’s something wonderful in that Elizondo and Miller once again were cast, Elizondo even going as far to play a variation of his Pretty Woman character in that film as well.
Aesthetically, it’s hard not to get swept along with Runaway Bride. It’s got a gentle gloss to it, but also a wonderful evocation of its small-town setting, and is populated with a great supporting cast such as the always welcome addition of Joan Cusack, Christopher Meloni, Rita Wilson and Laurie Metcalf to go with the returning Pretty Woman players, and there is an abundance of gentle folksy humour. Best of all, it features 1999’s second variation of a Julia Roberts character declaring her romantic intentions to the male lead which once again left fifteen-year-old me swooning (I make no apologies for this, none whatsoever), even if in this case it’s nowhere near as good as when Notting Hill did it, and truthfully, the film is not as good as Pretty Woman either.
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The film is fine, for lack of a better term, but it is also a much broader film than Pretty Woman was and feels more like a Hallmark movie script that has been given a massive budget, most of which has ended up being spent on the salaries of its stars and director. Worst of all, there is very little basis in emotional reality here. That’s not necessarily a problem; after all, it’s a romantic comedy and nobody wants gritty realism.
The last time Marshall, Roberts and Gere got together, it was famously a script that started dark and gritty and which then turned into an almost literal fairy tale, even referring to them that way to set up the film’s final scene. You get the sense of the real world dotted throughout Pretty Woman, mostly in its first ten minutes, and there is that nasty moment when Jason Alexander’s character attempts to rape Roberts towards the end, a moment that leaves an increasingly sour taste in the mouth the older the film gets, but there is no realism of any kind in Runaway Bride, and the characters of the film increasingly react to the story in a way that never feels real or earned.
With Bill Pullman by this point a romantic leading man thanks to While You Were Sleeping, a pre-Law and Order: SVU Christopher Meloni takes the mantle of the nice guy who gets ditched for the last act, but his character reacts badly one minute and then shows up for the main wedding between Gere and Roberts’ character at the end anyway as if it’s no big deal and in good humour about it all.
The film also tries to get to grips with the psychology of its main characters and why they behave in the way they do, especially Roberts’ character Maggie, although at times it feels as if the way the town treats her and talks about her has an aura of slut-shaming about it. Even the character of Maggie’s father, played by Paul Dooley, is shown to have a drinking problem, but bar one line of dialogue, it’s never really dealt with because the film wants to throw in more jokes, sometimes at the expense of Maggie, who really need a man to mansplain her issues to her so she can find true love. Or something like it.
Look, it’s not all terrible, and to pinpoint issues with romantic comedies like this is also to acknowledge how the world operated during the period it was released. What is clear here is that the chemistry and spark between Gere and Roberts was still evident, and their scenes do have a lovely sparkle showing that Pretty Woman was no fluke and that there is genuine screen magic there.
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I always feel strange criticising Runaway Bride because it’s a film I do rather enjoy; the way U2’s ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ gently kicks in over the Paramount logo always gets me comfortable for the film ahead and given that Gere’s character is a columnist for USA Today, having a lead character be a journalist feels like another nod and a wink to the many character tropes of the genre where love is frequently found by an inquisitive journalist.
It’s simulatenoiusly a troublesome film that will have you rolling your eyes at the absurdity of it all and yet also have you laughing gently, while being amazed at how it gets as much mileage as it can out of the chemistry of its two leads. Maybe in the end, that’s more than enough.