Runaway Bride

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Running on Empty JuliaRoberts now chooses material that seems designed to play off her public image,and that's not a bad thing. It shows she's done some serious thinkingabout her image and wants to play around with it; she's turning into themovie star equivalent of Madonna, in that every new project is both a stand-alonepiece of entertainment and a commentary on her own life and how it's perceivedby the media and the public. If only the material was better than half-baked,or even a quarter-baked. Notting Hill had a fine premise?visitingYankee movie star falls for anonymous British man, public relations frenzy ensues?butit didn't fully exploit the "What's It Like to Be Famous?"angle, preferring instead to reflect back quaint public notions of what it'slike to be famous (a famous person will tell you the two are quite different).Nor did the film give Roberts much to do besides lean on her own name and face.Like Andie MacDowell in Four Weddings and a Funeral, which NottingHill was built to resemble, she had an essentially reactive role; when hercharacter wasn't being worshipped like a visiting royal, she was stuckgazing at the hero and acting pleasantly surprised that the guy was charming. Runaway Bride, thesecond Roberts movie in two months, is just as lightweight and a lot less oddand beguiling. Is this because Hugh Grant isn't in it? Or maybe it'sthat the director is Garry Marshall, a sitcom whiz who never quite left sitcomsbehind and still stages scenes as if anticipating yuks from a live studio audience.(Often his actors deliver amusing lines, then wait a beat for a laugh, noddingin a faintly self-satisfied way, as if to say, "So there! I sold the helloutta that joke, didn't I, folks?") Marshall is the kind of directorwho conveys the idea of "burgeoning affection" by showing us yet anotherboring dating montage?one that includes a brief shot of the lovers playingcards, bursting into laughter and falling all over the couch, hugging and ticklingand laughing. Eleven years ago, The Naked Gun parodied this kind of lazyfilmmaking so viciously that I excitedly told friends that perhaps we'dseen the last of it. What was I thinking? The tale itself, about asmall-town Maryland woman (Roberts) who routinely flees weddings just beforethey happen and the journalist (Gere) who falls for her, isn't much towrite home about, either. I won't complain that the plot is predictable,because that's a stupid thing to complain about; in most genre films, especiallyromantic comedies, the whole point is to satisfy the boy-meets-girl-etc. conventions.But it would have been nice if screenwriters Josann McGibbon and Sara Parriotthad come at the material from a fresh angle, as Four Weddings and evenNotting Hill did?or if they had provided a single character whowasn't pulled right from the romantic comedy starter kit, from the blustering,supportive best gal pal (Joan Cusack, natch) to the saucy, gimlet-eyed grandmawho waxes rhapsodic about the hero's "tight buns" and warns theheroine not to be scared of the "one-eyed wonder snake." Roberts' character,Maggie Carpenter, at first seems an original creation?a self-sufficientmodern woman who is both irresistibly drawn to matrimony and terrified of it.But the few embellishments are unconvincing, like Maggie's kickboxing andher supposed handiness with tools. (Roberts, who sells herself as an accessibleglamourpuss but never was accessible and never will be, holds hammers and wrenchesthe way a blueblood sorority girl might hold a large trout. Sandra Bullock Icould see in this part; she's a bluejeans-and-tank-top movie star. Robertsalways seems to be wearing an invisible tiara.) Gere's columnist, IkeGraham?who visits Maggie's hometown hoping to write an article thatwill redeem the career he lost when he fabricated a column about her?isappropriately wry, bemused and self-satisfied, as quite a few columnists are.But I didn't buy his Bugs Bunny-like ability to be everywhere at once.Nor could I swallow the idea of Richard Gere as a guy so effortlessly charmingthat he could go to the hometown of a woman he vilified as a "man-eater"in print and win nearly everyone over with little more than a wink and a handshake.Gere's never convincing when he's supposed to be outgoing and likable.An intense, self-enclosed performer, he seems a persuasive leader-type onlywhen he's playing rich men, violent men or men with animalistic sex drives?inother words, men whose power resides in their ability to coerce or manipulaterather than persuade. Together, Gere and Robertsdon't strike Pretty Woman-style sparks, and that's becausethe film is weaker all the way around. Pretty Woman was dumb and retro-misogynistand completely unrealistic. But it also worked from start to finish; it workedbecause the rich guy-poor girl gimmick is so appealing you have to work overtimeto screw it up (Marshall nearly managed it), and because Gere's soft-spokenyuppie shark routine was hilarious when juxtaposed against Roberts' grinningunflappability; an irresistible force met an immovable object and had to bend.You understood why they would be drawn to each other and even why they mightend up together. In the cheerful but anemic and inept Runaway Bride,the hero and heroine are drawn to each other and end up together because they'reRichard Gere and Julia Roberts, and they got together in their last movie. Beyondthat, there ain't nothin' goin' on but the rent. Optimist that I am, I waslooking forward to a featherweight but smart movie that both played off Roberts'image as a woman who goes through men like tissues (she seems to have datedevery handsome guy in the entertainment industry at some point) and also saidinteresting things about the lure of marriage in the postfeminist age. That'snot as tall an order as it sounds; Runaway Bride could have done allthose things and more if it was connected to the world, however tentatively,and if it had precision and wit and an exuberant love of showmanship and surprise,as My Best Friend's Wedding often did. Instead, it's set ina brain-dead fantasyland where people walk about reading newspaper stories outloud to themselves, the small town contains no chain stores of any kind andthe hero's acerbic, first-person column runs on the extreme left hand sideof the editorial page, in the spot where unsigned staff editorials about theday's most important subjects typically go. In the credit department,Hector Elizondo shows up in a small role, as he always does in Garry Marshallmovies, this time as a jovial colleague of Ike's and the new husband ofIke's ex-wife and ex-boss (Rita Wilson). I imagine Elizondo adores Marshalland is grateful that he provides steady employment in top-of-the-line blockbustermovies. But I can't help thinking his presence only underlines the material'sweaknesses?and Marshall's general inability to compensate for them.Elizondo looks crisp and handsome in his playboy Manhattan journalist clothes,and he's so game and charming even when delivering bum dialogue that Iwondered what the film would have been like if he'd played Gere'spart. The guy is funny and dashing and looks great in suits, and unlike Gere,he's a giving actor?a must for romantic comedies. Won't somefilmmaker give this great screen comic the romantic leading role he deserves? The Haunting directedby Jan De Bont [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="236" caption="(photo courtesy of Wiki)"][/caption] It's not tough to makean audience jump. All you have to do is show a character moving through theframe, looking for the source of a mysterious and troubling noise, then either1) make a mysterious creature or apparition materialize unexpectedly in themurky background or 2) have a eager friend, stray cat or other false alarm leapinto the frame from somewhere behind the character. If the arrangement of peopleand objects in the frame doesn't creep out the audience, a good, loud musiccue usually will?a flurry of shrieking violins, for example, or a singleboom of a bass drum. A sudden and unmotivated shift in camera angles will dothe trick as well?for example, a medium shot following the character downa dark hallway that cuts to a reverse angle of the clueless person being snuckup on by an ax-wielding maniac. It's Pavlovian, this bag of tricks. A droolingidiot could combine a couple of them and produce a fair-to-middling horror moviejolt. But a drooling idiot?or for that matter, a merely competent filmmaker?can'tcreate a sense of dread, or understand the difference between terror, whichis visceral and technical (don't open that door!) and horror, which ispsychological, mythological, spooky, and derives its power more from withheldinformation than from spectacle. (The Blair Witch Project, which I'lltalk about in more detail next week, is a horror movie in the classic sense;it's all about suggestion and the threat of violence, a record of atrocitiesthat are mostly anticipated and feared rather than witnessed.) Drooling idiot: see also,"Jan De Bont." The fiery Dutchman's latest summer blockbuster,The Haunting, contains a couple of good jolts, but they're nothinga monkey couldn't have managed if you showed him a Friday the 13th filmand outfitted him with a very small Steadicam. The film is jolting in the waythat a bumper-car ride is jolting. Its occasionally startling moments come fromthe film's brute force and vulgarity, not from anything resembling clevernessor grace. It's enough to make you wonder if the first Speed wasn'ta fluke?or if screenwriter Graham Yost or uncredited rewriter Joss Whedonweren't responsible for the lean, compact storyline, the clever gags andthe swooningly adolescent, "The world's-coming-to-an-end-so-hold-on-tight-baby"vibe. If De Bont were a stereo, he would only go to 11; just as the Speedfilms were basically nonstop, feature-length chase sequences and Twisterwas a feature-length tornado video game, The Haunting is a feature-lengthamusement park ride, with digitized gargoyles and baby ghosts and spectral handslunging at the audience every 10 minutes. If Jan De Bont himself visited individualtheaters showing other people's movies and periodically jumped up frombehind empty seats and yelled, "Boo!" he'd produce the same effect.It works, I guess, but I wouldn't call it good. (Neither would the audienceI saw it with at the Sony Lincoln Square theater late last Thursday night. Theylaughed all the way through. One young mother brought her child along and sethim in the aisle in a stroller. That kind of thing offends me as a moviegoerand as a father, but my urge to say something subsided when I realized the kidwasn't the least bit disturbed by all the clomping and roaring and spookingup there onscreen and rarely raised his voice, much less cried. He might aswell have been watching tropical fish in a tank. When you can't scare atoddler, it's time to hang it up, wouldn't you say?) Liam Neeson plays Dr. Marrow(ooooh?scary!), a specialist in fear research (a degree offered at What'samattaU.) who is running a highly questionable experiment in a gigantic gothic mansionthat's rumored to be haunted. His subjects include Lili Taylor, a sensitivesoul; Catherine Zeta-Jones, a lithe, randy bisexual with a different fabulousoutfit for every scene (my favorite is a lavender sweater vest with furry, paddedshoulders); and Owen Wilson, the talented cowriter of Bottle Rocket andRushmore who appears to be subsidizing his career as an original andliterate storyteller by playing cannon fodder in Hollywood blockbusters. Hewas savagely beaten by Jim Carrey in The Cable Guy, strangled by thesnake in Anaconda and perished on an asteroid in Armageddon. Hetops himself here, meeting a fate at the hands of a huge stone lion's headso preposterous and grisly that it is likely to be mimicked on the front stepsof the New York Public Library for years to come. The dialogue is screaminglybad even by the standards of Jan De Bont films. The script's idea of amusingand agreeable chitchat is an only-in-Hollywood conversation about which womanis on which prescription medication. Wilson pegs Zeta-Jones as a Xanax addict,and Neeson defuses the impending fight by intoning, "All right, you two,enough about pharmaceuticals. We've got work to do." Later, afterTaylor witnesses a spectral apparition and seizes up, Neeson declares, "She'sgone into a fugue state. Let's get her to the couch." Neeson was doubtlessvery well paid for this assignment, but you still feel for the guy?especiallywhen he's trying to open a fireplace grate that hides the remains of amurdered person, then pauses, looks right into the camera and asks, "Whatam I doing?"

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