Julia Roberts, Richard Gere and director Garry Marshall score again with "Runaway Bride." An ultracommercial mainstream romantic comedy that delivers all the laughs and smiles it intends to, this Par release can hardly miss at the B.O., even though some have questioned opening it so close to "Notting Hill."

Having waited nine years before following up their 1990 smash “Pretty Woman,” Julia Roberts, Richard Gere and director Garry Marshall score again with “Runaway Bride.” An ultracommercial mainstream romantic comedy that delivers all the laughs and smiles it intends to, this Par release can hardly miss at the B.O., even though some have questioned opening it so close to Roberts’ early summer hit, “Notting Hill.” But what are fans of the biggest female star in the world going to do — not see this one after having seen, and liked, her last picture? Not likely.

Even though the film has all the earmarks of a highly tailored package — two studios, 10 producers, roles molded specifically for major stars — all that matters in the end is that the central idea is quite clever and appealing, and that the charm meter is turned up all the way. Men and women should be equally diverted by the allure of the thesps and the that’s-the-way-America-ought-to-be small-town setting, and PG-rated pic could easily draw out old-timers and infrequent moviegoers who feel they don’t make ‘em like this anymore.

After opening with the startling sight of Roberts in a wedding gown fleeing across an autumnal landscape on a galloping horse, action turns to New York, where, in a scene that real-life journalists will find shocking, USA Today columnist Ike Graham (Gere) deals with his imminent deadline by hanging out in a bar. Fortunately, a young man tells him a good story about a Maryland woman with the chronic habit of leaving fiances at the altar. Unfortunately, the resulting column is so riddled with errors that his boss (and ex-wife), Ellie (Rita Wilson), fires him.

Given a shot at vindication via a freelance magazine piece if he can get the full and real story about this woman, Ike heads for Hale, Md., a town so folksy and idyllic that Ike says, “I think I’m in Mayberry.” Approaching her fourth attempted wedding, to local high school sports coach Bob (Christopher Meloni) the following Sunday, Maggie Carpenter (Roberts), who runs a hardware store, is none too happy to have Ike lurking around town and cozying up to her father (Paul Dooley), who thinks nothing of showing the curious visitor the (quite funny) videotaped highlights of his daughter’s three abortive ceremonies.

Ike gets around, interviewing everyone about Maggie, especially her first two jilted beaux, now a rock ‘n’ roll garage mechanic and a Catholic priest. Ike also points out to Maggie’s best friend, Peggy (Joan Cusack), that Maggie is being quite flirtatious with Peggy’s husband, and when the truth of her unthinking behavior, man-eater reputation and notoriety as a one-woman spectator sport sinks in, Maggie — at pic’s halfway point — sobers up and agrees to cooperate with the writer.

This, of course, leads to prolonged proximity, which in turn leads to the unavoidable recognition of mutual attraction. These second-half developments could have been coy and cloying, but screenwriters Josann McGibbon and Sara Parriott undercut their predictability with some shrewd, adept moves, notably in a scene in which Coach Bob’s attempt to get Maggie to “visualize” her wedding via a church rehearsal backfires when Ike stands in for the groom.

By the time Maggie’s fourth wedding actually begins, her phobia has become so famous that the ceremony is a media event, with all eyes on her every gesture to glean an answer to the question, “Will she or won’t she?” Speaking of gestures: Roberts delivers some magical ones here — a scene in which the sweating bride keeps herself cool by moving along with a revolving fan is lovely, and the actress’s gradually widening, lopsided half-smile and her pregnant hesitation while walking down the aisle are indelible star moments for her. A tale like this can end only one way, but it takes an agreeably circuitous route getting there.

Roberts has a perfect role in Maggie, an open, lovable, slightly neurotic but capable girl-next-door — she even knows what’s wrong with her man’s car when it breaks down — and she’s perfect in it. Her face and feelings are accessible without being obvious, she can be goofy, sporty or amorous with ease, and she’s radiant almost regardless of circumstances.

Working with Roberts has a positive effect on Gere; perhaps realizing that she’s prettier than he is, the actor completely drops the preening, posing, self-satisfied air he affects when he’s the biggest star in a picture. He delivers a loose, disarming, quite appealing portrait of a man who’s made a number of mistakes and looks to be an underachiever as he enters middle age.

Cusack, Wilson and Hector Elizondo, the latter as Ellie’s husband, are excellent in colorful supporting roles, while Meloni gets plenty of comic mileage out of his part as the big jock in town.

Director Marshall’s timing and sense of fun are in full evidence. Technically, pic looks immaculate on the widescreen, with Mark Friedberg’s production design augmenting the locations provided by Berlin, a town on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, all smoothly captured by lenser Stuart Dryburgh.

Runaway Bride

Production

A Paramount release of a Paramount and Touchstone Pictures presentation of an Interscope Communications production in association with Lakeshore Entertainment. Produced by Ted Field, Tom Rosenberg, Scott Kroopf, Robert Cort. Executive producers, Ted Tannebaum, David Madden, Gary Lucchesi. Co-producers, Karen Stirgwolt, Richard Wright, Ellen H. Schwartz. Directed by Garry Marshall. Screenplay, Josann McGibbon, Sara Parriott.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, Panavision wide-screen), Stuart Dryburgh; editor, Bruce Green; music, James Newton Howard; music supervisor, Kathy Nelson; pro-duction designer, Mark Friedberg; art director, Wray Steven Graham; set designers, Thomas Minton, Charles McCarry; set decorator, Stephanie Carroll; costume designer, Albert Wolsky; sound (DTS/Dolby Digital), Keith A. Wester; su-pervising sound editor, Robert L. Sephton; assistant director, Ellen H. Schwartz; second unit director, Scott Marshall; second unit camera, Ian Fox; casting, Gretchen Rennell Court. Reviewed at Paramount studios, L.A., July 22, 1999. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 116 MIN.

With

Maggie Carpenter - Julia Roberts Ike Graham - Richard Gere Peggy Flemming - Joan Cusack Fisher - Hector Elizondo Ellie - Rita Wilson Walter - Paul Dooley Coach Bob - Christopher Meloni Priest Bob - Donal Logue George Bug Guy - Reg Rogers Dead Head Gill - Yul Vasquez Mrs. Pressman - Jane Morris Elaine From Manhattan - Lisa Roberts Gillan Cousin Cindy - Kathleen Marshall Grandma - Jean Schertler
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