Monday, July 6, 2009

DVD Views: Pretty Woman (1990)

Pretty Woman ***
Directed by:
Garry Marshall.
Written By: J.F. Lawton.
Starring: Richard Gere (Edward Lewis), Julia Roberts (Vivian Ward), Ralph Bellamy (James Morse), Jason Alexander (Philip Stuckey), Laura San Giacomo (Kit De Luca), Alex Hyde-White (David Morse), Amy Yasbeck (Elizabeth Stuckey), Elinor Donahue (Bridget), Hector Elizondo (Barney Thompson).

Pretty Woman is one of those movies that everyone in the world has seen that I somehow managed to avoid up until now. For years, I did not watch it because I was not a fan of Julia Roberts. Then even when I got over my hatred for her – still not a huge fan, but I have to admit, what she does, she does well, perhaps better than anyone else – I still did not have much of an urge to catch up with this film. Yet the day after my wedding, when me and beautiful wife did not feel like doing anything, she decided she wanted to watch Pretty Woman, so that’s what we did. I cannot say that it is the classic movie that many people seem to think it is, but it is not as bad as I feared. For a comic fantasy, it’s not actually that bad.

Yes, the story of an apparently streetwise prostitute who is picked up by a good looking yet single billionaire and turned into a princess in less than a week is not exactly steeper in realism, but that’s not what director Garry Marshall is going for. Street walking prostitutes don’t look much like Julia Roberts, or her snappy best friend played by Laura San Giacomo, and at the risk of damning everyone in the profession, I don’t think that they are as sassy or have such a high opinion of themselves as Julia Roberts’ Vivian does in this movie. In the recent Steven Soderbergh movie, The Girlfriend Experience, Sasha Grey plays a high priced call girl who is sexy and smart and sophisticated and is really just a businesswoman, whose business is sex. But the high priced call girls and the street walking ones are as different as night and day. So while I believed Grey in The Girlfriend Experience, I did not really believe Roberts as a prostitute here.

But while I didn’t believe Roberts as a prostitute, I have to say I still enjoyed her performance. This may seem like I’m insulting her, but I’m really not, but I do think Roberts excels at these types of roles – roles where she doesn’t really have to play realistic people. She is a movie star, and when she is in full movie star mode, playing whip smart women, she is better than practically anyone else working right now. She is a throwback to the movie stars of yesterday, who did not so much act, as perfect a screen persona, that they used to their advantage in movie after movie. Here, she may be playing the kindest, most cuddly prostitute in screen history, but you fall for her right along with Richard Gere.

Gere himself is pretty damn good in this role as well. I have often felt that Gere is underrated as an actor, because he makes everything so natural and easy. But the guy role in romantic comedies is neither, but Gere pulls it off effortlessly. It helps the movie that the supporting cast, while full of clich├ęd roles, is played to perfection. Jason Alexander as Gere’s asshole lawyer, Ralph Bellamy as the old man trying to hold onto his company, Hector Eliazondo as the helpful hotel manager who transforms Roberts from the hooker to the princess and Laura San Giacomo as the wisecracking best friend. Yes, we have seen all of these characters in movies before, and since, but rarely have they been played so well.

Perhaps had I seen Pretty Woman years ago, I would have liked it more. It has become pretty much the prototypical romantic comedy, and has been copied so many times since, that the effect the movie perhaps once had has diminished. It is certainly still better than just about any straight romantic comedy I have seen in the last few years, but that’s damning the movie with faint praise, as most romantic comedies these days are really not very good at all. Pretty Woman is a reminder that when done right, romantic comedies can be enjoyable. Maybe not absolute masterpieces, but an enjoyable bit of fantasy, perfect for curling up on the couch and watching with someone you love.

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