In this debonair but ever-so-slight romantic comedy, things just happen. Never mind how or why. In its opening scene, Maggie Carpenter (Roberts) is shown galloping briskly over hill and dale in a wedding dress while U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" plays on the soundtrack. Given the film's title, we're able to surmise that she is escaping from yet another marriage ceremony (and not, say, fox hunting), but where that might be, or why, is unknown.
We do learn that Ike Graham (Gere), a New York City newspaper columnist of the most desperate sort, is nearing his deadline and is still without an idea. Naturally, he heads for the nearest bar, mind you not to drink but to bounce ideas off the willing and only partly drunk clientele. After a few dry holes, one helpful chap does manage to tweak his interest with an item about a young Maryland woman who, it seems, has made a hobby of getting engaged and then leaving the grooms standing, devastated and confused, at the altar. Knowing a good yarn when he hears one, Ike uses the story for his column, making the uncertain bride come off as the female equivalent of Jack the Ripper. As might be expected, this makes tongues wag all over Maggie's hometown of Hale, Maryland, and Maggie is furious. Armed with pen, paper and the facts -- which, unfortunately, Ike had neglected to check -- Maggie rips out a letter to the editor that causes Ike to lose his job. (That a star columnist for USA Today would be fired for a few minor inaccuracies may be the movie's most laughable gaff.)
But Ike won't give up. The indefatigable Maggie is already engaged to be married for a fourth time, and Ike heads south to write a story for GQ about her cold feet.
Even judged against other substanceless Hollywood confections, the setup here seems especially lame. But if it allows the stars to make their magic, perhaps no one will care. This is primarily why movie studios hire stars (and pay them their exorbitant salaries): to make sure no one notices just how God-awful the screenplay really is. In this case, however, all the stars in heaven couldn't provide the distraction we need.
What Ike discovers when he arrives in Hale is that no one appears particularly disturbed by Maggie's behavior. They all go on about their business, including Maggie, who runs a hardware store when she isn't off breaking hearts. Ike's first task is to interview the victims, but they turn out to be so uniformly unperturbed that you begin to wonder if the entire town isn't monkeying around with the jilted men's serotonin levels. One salient detail from his investigation does stand out, though. In all Maggie's relationships with the grooms-to-be, the men reported that she liked her eggs the same way they did. What's strange, though, is that each groom liked his eggs prepared a different way. Makes you want to yell voilà, doesn't it?
At this late moment in the millennium, Julia Roberts is the most bankable -- and the highest paid -- female star in the movies. And it was her performance in this team's initial pairing that gave audiences their first real sense of what she could do. Runaway Bride, unfortunately, gives her little opportunity to strut her stuff. In fact, Maggie -- who seems totally unfazed by her behavior -- may be the most unpleasant, off-putting character in Roberts' career. Nor does she seem even the slightest bit attracted to her co-star until the crucial moment when they simultaneously discover that they are smitten. At that point, when jilted groom number four (a likable, lightweight Christopher Meloni) asks how long Maggie and Ike's attraction has existed, Maggie glibly answers, "About a minute." (Ike's answer: "For me, a little longer.") All this does is make the star's signature smile and gamine charm seem premeditated and manipulative. She likes this little game of breaking men's hearts and, seemingly, has no intention of changing her ways.
Strangely enough, it's Gere, usually laid-back in his romantic roles, who's the more energetic of the two stars. As Ike, Gere is more animated than he has been for some time and pulls it off, uncharacteristically, without seeming antic or strained. (Think of his manic performances in Breathless, or Looking for Mr. Goodbar, or Mr. Jones.) Nor is there a trace of the smugness and self-satisfaction that tarnishes so much of his work. His performance here is easygoing and balanced and one of his most appealing. Too bad it all goes to waste in a movie that is on the verge of collapse from the opening frame.
When the film finally does fall completely apart, it seems little more than a foregone conclusion. Ike and Maggie get together for one reason and one reason only -- because they have to, that's why. Perish the thought that Marshall, who gave us, among other things, Laverne & Shirley, might play upon our expectations and attempt something original. Everything about Runaway Bride -- the sitcom pacing, the unvaried shot selection, the clichéd music -- is perfectly ordinary. Marshall is the very definition of a hack; his one and only desire is to play to the lowest common denominator. This is the secret of his success: He aspires to mediocrity. With Runaway Bride, he has scored another bull's eye.