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The Dish

MRQE Top Critic

Operation Condor

Jackie Chan meets Indiana Jones —Andrea Birgers (review...)

Chan borrows from Raiders

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My Best Friend’s Wedding is not what I expected. The previews made it look like a fluffy romantic comedy that follows formula exactly. After the opening title sequence, I was certain the movie would be trite and airheaded.

In fact, the movie is not shallow and it breaks from formula in interesting ways. It was surprising to see that the movie had a soul.

Julianne (Julia Roberts) gets a call from her long-time bachelor friend Michael (Dermot Mulroney), three weeks before her 28th birthday. They had agreed to marry each other if they were both still single by 28, so Julianne is expecting “the question.” If you’ve seen the previews, you know that Michael has called to tell her that he’s engaged to someone else, and that Julianne decides that she wants to marry Michael, and she wants to do it now. Meanwhile Kimmy (Cameron Diaz), Michael’s fiancé, wants to make Julianne her new best friend, both from Michael’s flattering descriptions and as an alternative to jealousy.

It’s easy to picture such a plot degenerating into a cheesy sitcom: Julia Roberts concocting zany schemes to break up the wedding, creating truckloads of wacky hilarity. P.J. Hogan’s direction, Ronald Bass’s insightful script and the performances of all the main characters never allowed that to be a real possibility. The movie is imbued with human qualities — honesty, kindness, humanity — that most sitcoms — most movies — never even consider.

The movie treats all of its characters well. Nobody is evil. Nobody is “the bad guy” in the disposable villain sort of way. When Julianne springs a trap on Kimmy, we don’t cheer the cruelty because Kimmy is not a 2-dimensional punching doll. Even the pair of man-hungry sisters (Rachel Griffiths and Carrie Preston), who are in the movie mainly as comic relief, are given self-awareness and self-respect. Other family members may put them down, but the movie itself never condescends.

My Best Friend’s Wedding is effective — some might say manipulative — at winning you over to its side. For example, Julianne claims to be cynical about big traditional weddings. But when she sees that her best friend is going to have one without her, it turns out to be exactly what she — and we, by our association with her as the hero — wants. Kimmy confides to Julianne that she is just as sentimental as all the flighty nitwits she’s always pitied at weddings. Her heartfelt confession puts her on our level and makes it okay for us to open our sentimental sides to the movie. Even the trailers are effective(/manipulative) by making the movie look much more simple than it is. I went to the movie “knowing” exactly how it would play out based on the previews. As I said above, I was pleasantly surprised by its depth and complexity (though perhaps only relative to what I expected).

There is one scene, however, that really won me over and made me love this movie as much as I did. One of Julianne’s schemes is to make Michael jealous by claiming her handsome gay friend George (charmingly played by Rupert Everett) is her fiancé.

There is a scene where George spontaneously starts singing shamelessly in a restaurant. One by one, the other people at the table shed their inhibitions and join in. Soon the whole big extended family is singing boldly (and not too badly). After one chorus, the restaurant gives them a round of applause. Not wanting the moment to end, someone from the restaurant jumps on the piano and introduces another chorus, and now the whole restaurant joins in. Everyone in the restaurant becomes one huge family joined together to sing a love song for the young “couple,” (and each to remember their own first love).

The scene is a modern parallel of a whole tribe joining together at a feast to celebrate a marriage. What makes it even better is that everyone in the room wants to join in, but modern barriers of politeness among strangers keep them from doing so. One by one, the people join in anyway until the whole room is included. They collectively agree, for a wonderful moment, to be family, not strangers.

Not only is this a great moment, but it also adds to the whole of the movie. During this scene, the only person not singing is Julianne. Her guilty conscience is starting to haunt her and she can’t really participate in the sincere expression of joy that everyone else in the restaurant feels.

Twice I thought the movie’s heart was in the wrong place. During the credit sequence, the movie appears to be about how to win a man. The notion of treating men as marriage objects seems as shallow and wrong as treating women as sex objects. Later, Julianne insists that her motives in chasing Michael are 100% pure love (and not jealousy or “winning”). Both times I winced with disappointment at the movie’s vapidity. Both times, the movie came back to show that the characters themselves, and not the movie, were wrong.

Hogan’s only other notable experience is his direction of Muriel’s Wedding, which is another great movie that takes the romantic comedy and adds a difficult twist. One wonders if he will be as good in another genre, or if it’s necessary that he even try. For the meantime, though, he has found his niche: directing comedies with “Wedding” in the title.