In the summer of 1999, Julia Roberts starred in two romantic comedies that used the press as plot points. In Notting Hill, she’s an American movie star who’s cruelly hounded by the media and eventually finds love with the sweet British everyman who offers her safe haven during the invasion of privacy. In Runaway Bride, she’s a regular small-town gal who’s cruelly hounded by a misogynist newspaper columnist and eventually finds love with… the misogynistic newspaper columnist! In a genre that tends to bring out the worst in its journalist protagonists (like Meg Ryan stalking Tom Hanks in Sleepless In Seattle) Richard Gere’s Ike Graham might just take the cake. Which is one of the many elements that keeps Runaway Bride from being a truly satisfying romantic comedy, despite the much-hyped reunion at its center.
From Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant to Drew Barrymore and Adam Sandler, the rom-com genre has always thrived on the meta comfort of seeing actors paired together on multiple projects. And reuniting Roberts and Gere for the first time since Pretty Woman was a major coup for Runway Bride—one that ratcheted the film’s budget up to $70 million. The duo’s 1990 Cinderella story about a sex worker and her corporate raider Prince Charming wasn’t just a huge blockbuster hit: It was also a cultural phenomenon that reset the romantic comedy genre and established Roberts as one of its brightest stars. Nine years later, Runaway Bride gave Roberts and Gere a chance to bring the genre’s defining decade to a close with a wedding-centric battle of the sexes.
The film stars Gere as preposterously famous USA Today columnist Ike Graham, who’s known for his “bitter diatribes about women.” Desperate for an idea for his upcoming column, he winds up taking a tip from a drunk and writes a hit piece about a vicious small town “man-eater” named Maggie Carpenter (Roberts) who’s dumped seven men at the altar. When it turns out Ike exaggerated the facts (Maggie’s only ditched three weddings, for instance), he’s fired from his job. So he decides to head to Hale, Maryland to learn the real story of the “Runaway Bride,” and salvage his career with a big GQ cover story about her upcoming wedding. Ike is determined to prove that even if the accuracy of his initial reporting was wrong, the spirit of his “vengeful woman” takedown was correct. Until, of course, he starts to fall for the skittish bride himself.
Gere was the lynchpin for making Runaway Bride happen. The script had been floating around Hollywood for a decade, with everyone from Geena Davis and Harrison Ford to Ben Affleck and Sandra Bullock attached to star at one point or another. But the project—based on an idea by two Paramount executives and scripted by Sara Parriott and Josann McGibbon—could never quite make it to the finish line. “The picture had the same commitment problems that the character in the story has,” producer Scott Kroopf explained. “We could get actors to the altar, but then they’d suddenly start having second thoughts and disappear on us.” When a reworked version of the script wound up in Gere’s lap, he agreed to do it if the studio could get Roberts onboard as well. Once she was, the A-listers made a joint call to their Pretty Woman director Garry Marshall to convince him to postpone a family vacation to helm the film instead.
“If you ask the inner circle of the people who made it, they look at Runaway Bride as the sequel,” Jason Alexander explained earlier this year when asked if there would ever be a Pretty Woman follow-up. “Even though it’s not the same story, they feel like that is the follow-up to Pretty Woman because it’s the same group of people, for the most part.” But while Pretty Woman is iconic, Runaway Bride is mostly just forgettable. I remember it largely from the trailer that would play endlessly on TNT, which is probably the best way to enjoy the film—get the fun bridal iconography and the great FedEx joke without all the plot messiness. Though Runaway Bride has some charming performances and a classic cozy Marshall aesthetic ported to a quirky Stars Hollow-esque small town, the storytelling is choppy and uneven. That’s probably because the script was reworked by so many different people over the years, including Marshall himself, the former TV writer and Happy Days creator who’d transition to big-screen success with films like Beaches and Overboard.
Runaway Bride’s most interesting contributions seem to have come from uncredited writer Audrey Wells (Under The Tuscan Sun), who decided to dig into the psychology of why Maggie leaves so many men at the altar. Wells came up with the idea that Maggie has no internal sense of self and instead simply adopts her boyfriends’ interests, right down to the way they like their eggs. Ike’s nosey investigation eventually helps Maggie reexamine her life and mend fences with the people she’s unintentionally hurt over the years. In the film’s best scene, an apologetic Maggie brings her burgeoning self-reckoning to her lifelong best friend Peggy (Joan Cusack, low-key one of When Romance Met Comedy’s most discussed actresses). Peggy acknowledges that, yeah, Maggie flirts with her husband sometimes, and, yeah, it kind of bothers her. But she also understands that it comes from a place of thoughtlessness, not malice. It’s a believable look at conflict in long-time friendship, one that ends with Maggie making amends by agreeing to do her goofy duck-billed platypus impression.
While Pretty Woman was bursting with the youthful vigor of its 21-year-old star, Runaway Bride tries to inject a little more maturity into its rom-com template. The film has a refreshing optimism about people’s ability to talk through their problems and stay friends through strife. Ike is a divorcé who has a sweet relationship with his ex-wife (Rita Wilson) and her new husband (Marshall’s go-to good luck charm, Héctor Elizondo). Maggie, too, is mostly on good terms with her exes, who include a Grateful Dead-loving mechanic (Yul Vazquez) and a guy who went on to become a Catholic priest (Donal Logue). Even Maggie’s current fiancé—a sports metaphor-loving gym teacher played by a funny Christopher Meloni—takes it pretty well when she eventually leaves him for Ike. As Gere put it in a 1999 interview, “There’s a lot of mean movies out there, but Garry’s a very romantic guy, a family guy, a loving guy. He loves the idea of people being nice to one another.”
Which is why it’s so strange that the opening of Runaway Bride takes such pains to establish that Ike is a slanderous asshole. Why not just make him a journalist assigned to cover the human-interest story of Maggie’s latest wedding, rather than the unscrupulous writer who turned her dating history into a national news story? “You got me fired, lady. You destroyed my reputation,” Ike yells at Maggie during their first meeting, as if his dilemma weren’t entirely of his own making. Later, once he’s had a change of heart, Ike proves his worth by heroically defending Maggie when her engagement party turns into a comedy roast. But considering he did the same thing in a national newspaper, he hardly seems like a fitting knight in shining armor.
When Runaway Bride works, it’s largely due to Roberts, who, if anything, doesn’t get enough credit for how great she is in the rom-com genre. Though she isn’t a showily transformative actor, her biggest rom-com roles are distinct from one another and well-realized in their own right. There’s feisty, impulsive Vivian Ward in Pretty Woman; vivacious, self-centered Julianne Potter in My Best Friend’s Wedding; and elegant, closed-off Anna Scott in Notting Hill. In Runaway Bride, Roberts blends flirty “cool girl” charm with down-to-earth naturalism and just a touch of fairy princess elegance. There’s a scene where Maggie shows off the way her wedding dress swishes like a bell that’s pure, guileless Roberts magic. When Marshall cuts to a little girl watching in awe, it’s a totally believable reaction shot. Maggie isn’t the most cohesive character, but thanks to Roberts’ performance, you completely understand why people keep falling for her and then forgiving her.
There’s enough to like in Runaway Bride that it isn’t a slog to watch. It just doesn’t sing either. There are subplots that go nowhere, including a dark and weirdly unresolved one about Maggie’s alcoholic dad (Paul Dooley). And though Runaway Bride ostensibly gives Maggie an arc about figuring out who she actually is separate from the men she dates, the fact that she ultimately ends up proposing to Ike by quoting his own words back to him feels particularly ill-considered. Even Gere himself has since admitted that the movie missed the mark: “While there’s some wonderful stuff in the movie, it certainly didn’t have the magic of the first one. The expectation that it was going to have that same kind of delicious magic was irresponsible. It was a different movie, it was a different time, she was in a different place, I was in a different place.”
While Roberts and Gere kicked off the ’90s rom-com renaissance with a film that felt fresh and new, they ended it with one that felt old and stale. It’s a metaphor for the arc of the genre itself, which was heading into increasingly choppy waters—creatively, if not financially—during the aughts. Though Runaway Bride landed with a critical thud, it went on to earn a whopping $152 million domestically, making it one of the highest grossers for Roberts, Gere, and Marshall. Yet it also marked the end of an era too. After one last go of it as a romantic lead in 2001’s America’s Sweethearts, Roberts mostly steered clear of the genre, save for reuniting with Marshall for his ensemble romances Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day (films that required her to shoot for just a handful of days). For his part, Marshall would have better luck recapturing Pretty Woman’s fairytale spirit in The Princess Diaries, a teenage take on the Pygmalion formula that downplays the romance angle for a self-empowerment one instead.
That means Runaway Bride stands as something of a curio in the rom-com canon. It’s a blockbuster that stirs up nostalgic fondness for those who saw it at the right age, but one that hasn’t really had much creative impact on the genre. The better Roberts/Gere collaborations is Pretty Woman, and the better 1999 Roberts rom-com is Notting Hill. When it comes to the history of romantic comedies, Runaway Bride is little more than a blip—proof that you need more than just a splashy reunion to make a film work. When it comes to the history of unethical rom-com journalists, however, it might just be an all-timer.
Next time: April showers mean it’s time to open The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg.