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Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Pretty Woman

Garry Marshall died a while back. I was not a fan of his films, although I will give him major props as a TV genius. He created one of the best sit-coms of all time, The Odd Couple (of course using the characters created by Neil Simon) and also was responsible for Happy Days, which was good for a couple of years (until it jumped the shark), Laverne and Shirley, and Mork and Mindy. He knew what people liked to watch.

That tendency to appeal to the lowest common denominator didn't work in films, at least not for me. Marshall believed that people went to movies to forget their troubles, which may be generally true but can end up creating treacle. I look to his most popular film, and the only one I was willing to revisit, Pretty Woman, from 1990.

It was a major hit and it made Julia Roberts a star. It is also, in the final analysis, pretty terrible. If it weren't for Roberts, it would be hard to sit through. I was interested to read all the actresses who either turned it down or weren't cast, from Michelle Pfeiffer to Winona Ryder. Roberts, who did already have an Oscar nomination for Steel Magnolias, stole this movie like a thief in the night. That laugh when Richard Gere snaps closed the jewelry box is worth its weight in gold.

So where does the movie go wrong? The script, originally called $3,000, for the amount Gere pays Roberts to be his "companion" for the week, was originally much darker and more concerned with sex work. The vision of prostitution on Hollywood Boulevard in the finished version seems by way of Disney. I have never picked up a hooker on any street, let alone that one, but I'm willing to bet a lot that none of those ladies look anything like Julia Roberts. In the world of prostitution, she would be navigating the corridors of fancy hotels and servicing the likes of Eliot Spitzer. The script tries to justify it, with her friend (the equally unlikely streetwalker Laura San Giacamo) getting her into it, but I just can't believe it.

I also can't believe almost anything of Gere's character, the billionaire Edward Lewis. So he breaks up with his girlfriend, ends up by mistake in Hollywood, picks up Roberts, is amused and enchanted by her, and basically becomes Henry Higgins to her Eliza Dolittle. Right. When Roberts speaks of fairy tales, she isn't kidding, because that's what this movie is. I would guess it pleased more women than men, because Gere plays sort of a certain kind of romance ideal: he's handsome, he's pretty nonjudgmental, and he's rich.

That last thing is what sinks the movie the most. Roberts' character, who longs for a white knight to save her, is really looking for a father figure who will take care of her. Gere romances her by buying her things, taking her in a private plane to the opera, etc. Supposedly she's humanizing him by making him slow down and enjoy the simple things, but that's never really convincing. We get Jason Alexander, playing a rich proto-Costanza, to represent Gere's darker nature, the one that he literally throws out of his life. But it's as if Alexander was from the earlier script, and doesn't belong in this one.

Certain touches I liked, such as Hector Elizondo's sly performance as the hotel manager. But most of Pretty Woman is candy-coated nonsense. That Roberts was able to make this the cultural touchstone that it is is testament to her star power.

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