The smile is back
After a run of roles dour enough to do credit to Calvin Coolidge, Julia Roberts in “My Best Friend’s Wedding” returns to the kind of smart romantic comedy she’s especially good at, playing a young woman who decides she’s in love with a great pal only when he announces he’s marrying someone else.
Fortunately for all parties, the director here is Australian P.J. Hogan, whose lightly mocking but sympathetic tone made “Muriel’s Wedding” a major success. Based on a script by Ron Bass, who’s been known to let bathos get the best of him, this “Wedding” benefits from Hogan’s subversive temperament, his skill at leeching out excess sentiment. The director’s ability to approach formula material with a fresh eye keeps this film bright and lively even when it verges on wearing thin.
Hogan’s tartness is on display as early as the gleeful opening credit sequence, when a bride and bridesmaids in full wedding regalia, picture-book pretty but with the devil in their eyes, drolly lip-sync their way through Ani DiFranco’s version of the old standard “Wishin’ and Hopin.’ ” Business as usual this is not.
The same can be said for a winning Roberts, whose relaxed and confident performance is, along with superb supporting work from Rupert Everett, the film’s triumphant cornerstone. But she is not a conventional romantic heroine, and her smiles come noticeably on her own terms. As New York restaurant critic Julianne Potter, Jules to her friends, Roberts manages to play not only the film’s older female character, but a sometimes bad girl as well, someone who uses her smile as a weapon calculated to distract and disarm opposition.
The opposition in this case includes the people she should be rooting hardest for, starting with sportswriter and ex-boyfriend turned best friend Michael O’Neal (Dermot Mulroney at his most handsome). For nine years these two have joked that if they didn’t marry by age 28, they’d wed each other. But when Michael phones on a Wednesday night to announce that he’s marrying someone else in Chicago on Sunday, Jules flies in, determined to use those four days to get him to change his mind and marry her.
Naturally, her main target is Michael’s endearing intended, the well-scrubbed, barely-out-of-her-teens Kimmy Wallace, bright-eyed and beautiful and unspoiled by her wealthy family. It’s an ultimate ingenue role, the kind Roberts herself might have taken in a previous incarnation, and Cameron Diaz, who seems to improve with every role, plays it perfectly.
Since time is short, Jules gets right to work, trying to sow dissension and undermine the relationship any way she can, especially as regards to whether Michael will stay in his “low-paying, zero respect” sportswriting job. Her confidant in this, and the film’s sole voice of reason, is her gay editor, George Downes, superbly played by Everett (the impatient Prince of Wales in “The Madness of King George”), who has all the film’s best lines. “I don’t send you men anymore,” he tells Jules. “You don’t have the faintest idea what to do with them.”
Helped by Hogan’s sharp directing and expert acting all around, these shenanigans are amusing, but “Wedding” really gets into gear when George appears in Chicago to lend moral support. A desperate Jules introduces him to everyone as her fiance, and the comic madness that results, culminating in a wild group sing-along of “I Say a Little Prayer” at an unsuspecting seafood restaurant, enables Everett to well and truly steal the picture from everyone concerned.
As if echoing the script’s description of Jules’ machinations as “a series of underhanded, despicable, not terribly imaginative things,” “My Best Friend’s Wedding” feels repetitive at times, but its star power and willingness to undercut convention come through at the end. With so many good things on its plate, it’s no wonder this picture has what it takes to make Roberts finally smile.
* MPAA rating: PG-13, for one use of sex-related strong language. Times guidelines: Roberts uses the word in a humorous context.
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‘My Best Friend’s Wedding’
Julia Roberts: Julianne Potter
Dermot Mulroney: Michael O’Neal
Cameron Diaz: Kimmy Wallace
Rupert Everett: George Downes
Philip Bosco: Walter Wallace
A Jerry Zucker/Predawn production, released by TriStar Pictures. Director P.J. Hogan. Producers Jerry Zucker, Ronald Bass. Executive producers Gil Netter, Patricia Whitcher. Screenplay Ronald Bass. Cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs. Editor Garth Craven. Costumes Jeffrey Kuland. Music James Newton Howard. Production design Richard Sylbert. Art director Karen Fletcher Trujillo. Set decorator William Kemper Wright. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.
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