Virginia, they say, is for lovers, but Maryland, its neighbor slightly to the north, seems to be for making movies about lovers.
The state is the home of “Sleepless in Seattle,” one of the best romantic comedies ever made, along with the less classic but cute “Wedding Crashers,” “He Said She Said” and “Failure to Launch.” It’s also the site of the classically terrible “He’s Just Not That Into You,” the suckiness of which I’ve previously written about.
I’d been planning a movie marathon of locally grown rom-coms for a column just in time for Valentine’s Day, but I made the mistake of starting with 1999′s “Runaway Bride,” which transformed Berlin, Maryland, into the fictional picturesque town of Hale. I didn’t love it when it first came out, but 25 years and a lot of common sense later, I kinda hate it on behalf of women, small towns and newspaper columnists.
Lest you think I am a romance-hating thief of joy, know I love this genre and don’t expect it to be high art. It just has to fit into a well-worn template of seemingly mismatched would-be lovers who stumble into a series of smitten meet-cutes and misunderstandings that lead to a happily-ever-after.
But there has to be some reason to believe the potential couple — in this case, cynical USA Today columnist Ike Graham (Richard Gere) and oft-engaged but never married hardware store assistant Maggie Carpenter (Julia Roberts) — should be legally in contact, let alone married. So much of the story triples down on Ike as a mean-spirited loser set on vengeance against a woman who was just minding her own matrimonially iffy business for anyone to root for them to get together. She doesn’t need Ike. She needs therapy and a restraining order.
I believe most of the $309 million that “Runaway Bride” made worldwide was rooted in the goodwill earned as the reunion of “Pretty Woman” stars Roberts and Gere. I had issues with that movie, too; my status as a Black woman from Baltimore never allowed me to completely suspend disbelief that the relationship between a cold rich guy and a sex worker ends anywhere besides a simple transaction or “Dateline.” But as dicey as “Pretty Woman” was, it at least acknowledged the (sanitized) roots of the relationship between a lost guy who literally buys the company of a lost girl, both of whom had a lot of stuff to work out before being open to love.
“Runaway Bride” tried to capture the twice-struck lightning of its leads’ chemistry in a bottle, but it never convinced me these people should trust each other besides the script saying so.
Ike is a past-his-prime New York columnist and proven woman-hating hack, whose editor, his ex-wife (Rita Wilson), seems to keep him around out of a sense of obligation and futile hope he’ll improve. Desperate for a column topic, he runs with an idea proposed by a bloviating stranger in a bar — a woman in tiny Hale has abandoned seven men at the altar, becoming a virtual maneater, an ancient goddess of death. Oh-oh, here she comes! Watch out grooms, she’ll chew you up!
Ike doesn’t bother fact-checking or interviewing anybody but just vomits a story about how he can’t be a misogynist because terrible women like this Maggie exist. In reality, Maggie has left not seven but three grooms and is soon set to marry a fourth, earnest high school football coach Bob (eternal hottie Christopher Meloni).
She responds with a letter to the editor detailing 15 actionable factual errors in the story. Newspapers prefer not being sued, so Ike is fired. But his ex-wife’s current husband (fellow “Pretty Woman star” Hector Elizondo) hires Ike as a freelancer for GQ so he can go to Hale and get the real story in time for Maggie and Bob’s wedding.
Not only does this hack fail up, but he’s basically being paid to stalk the woman he defamed in print. Ike, who has a stereotypical Noo Yawk accent that he drops the minute you’re supposed to like him, shows up at the local beauty parlor pretending to be a random reporter, though she clocks him immediately. Maggie responds by dyeing Ike’s hair a lovely rainbow color, and from then on he’s obsessed with exposing the woman who got him fired — never mind that it’s all his fault. He quickly ingratiates himself with her friends, family and fiancés past and present, to the extent that it’s apparent they’re all not only embarrassed by Maggie but don’t really like her all that much.
Maggie is not in fact a succubus but a young woman in a small town who works for the family business and is searching for an identity not projected onto her by the men she dates. The truth is in the pudding of the wedding videos Ike watches for dirt on her. She becomes the perfect Deadhead hippie bride for her first fiancé, the prim and proper dream girl for her second, the mysterious muse for her third and the outdoorsy adventurer for Bob, her would-be fourth. Ike thinks he’s discovered evidence of a cunning chameleon who adjusts her tastes to that of her prey, when really he’s found a confused woman who has adopted the personality of the men she chooses because she’s terrified she doesn’t have her own.
Because Roberts is a talented, soulful actress who elevates even crappy material, she telegraphs perfectly the moment in each aisle walk when Maggie panics, realizes she cannot live a lie and bolts. She fervently hopes each relationship will make her, and her disappointed family, happy, but her town continues to make her the butt of all jokes. Even the local wedding dress vendor balks at selling Maggie her dream dress for this fourth trip down the aisle because it’s too expensive for “one of your weddings.” You’re such a busybody that you hate money? Ugh.
In the meantime, Ike has begun to champion this woman whose humiliation he’s made a national obsession and pays her $1,000 for her contribution to his story. It’s a journalistic ethics no-no to pay for a story, and even more hideous to develop and pursue feelings for the subject of that story. But the viewer is supposed to be OK with it because they’re both gorgeous and we liked people who looked like them when the dude bought her as a hooker.
Eventually, Ike falls for Maggie, a person he has sworn to destroy, because she stood up to his own slanderous actions, and because Maggie resorts to flirtation as a defense mechanism. I’d forgotten that Maggie’s best friend, the amusingly named Peggy Flemming (Joan Cusack), calls her on it after Ike sees Maggie unthinkingly flirt with Peggy’s husband, whom she dated years ago. Peggy quietly acknowledges that Maggie does this without realizing she hurts people. It’s a powerful moment of what women do to each other, unconsciously, because we don’t have these conversations.
But the movie is less interested in growth than with Ike and Maggie getting together, even if it’s something any good therapist would strongly advise against. Through a series of misadventures, Maggie’s wedding with Bob will now take place with Ike — in the same church and dress. Instead of washing their hands of this woman, the town shows up for the ceremony with national media and T-shirt vendors present.
I’m not going to spoil the end for you, which you can probably guess if you’re ever seen a movie, but I will say that it left the most bitter taste in my mouth. Buried inside is an insightful piece about expectation, identity and the patriarchal drive to choose a future based on a man loving you. But the film just wants to glom onto the nostalgia earned from pairing up its leads without creating a scenario in which this makes any sense.
Again, I love love. I love movies about love. But I don’t like lazy films that sell the idea that it’s a win to be with a person who doesn’t seem to like you outside of saving him from being alone.
“Runaway Bride” shows Maryland at its most beautiful but love at its most hollow and cynical. Our state, you, Cupid and Julia Roberts deserve better.