Welcome back to the Hairpin Rom Com Club! It’s just like a book club, but you don’t have to go easy on the white wine if you don’t want to. This week’s movie is one that many, many people cite as one of their all-time favorites: My Best Friend’s Wedding. Released in 1997 when Julia Roberts was at the height of her rom com powers, this movie is bonkers. I mean it. I have seen it a dozen times and I’m a few months shy of having a PhD in rom coms, and I cannot for the life of me figure this movie out. From the very first shot of the opening credits, which feature a blonde bride and her three back-up singer bridesmaids wearing gowns that look like they were borrowed from a local ballet school production of The Nutcracker, lip syncing to “Wishin’ & Hopin’” which is the world’s least feminist song after “Blurred Lines” and “Area Codes,” but which is inexplicably sung by Ani Difranco, this movie promises to be totally and completely nuts. And it keeps that promise, hard.
A quick plot summary for the three of you who haven’t seen this movie yet: Julianne (Julia Roberts) is a feared New York City food critic who has also written a book about which we never learn a damn thing is single, because she’s emotionally unavailable and doesn’t like all that girly gooey shit (she also goes by “Jules” because she’s basically a dude, you see). She’s tight with her editor, George (Rupert Everett), who is both gay and British because they had a diversity quota to fill. One night she gets a call from her best friend, Michael (Dermot Mulroney), with whom she once had a fling and who, it appears, has been in love with her for almost a decade while she was busy being emotionally unavailable and not a real woman, and he announces that he’s getting married in, like, a day. Best friends, indeed. She flies to Chicago to break off his marriage to perky, perfect Kimberly (Cameron Diaz), who is very wealthy and friendly and goes by “Kimmy” because she’s very feminine, you see. Jules does everything she can to break them up, including committing electronic mail fraud, while George is trying to make her act like a human and not like a goddamn rom com heroine (it’s almost as if gay people are capable of understanding the sanctity of marriage, sometimes more than straight people do). Michael chooses Kimmy, they get married, and the end of the movie finds Jules sad, but dancing with George to a happy song. She is a terrible person, but she’s going to be just fine.
I have so many questions about this movie. First of all: Jules and Michael made a pledge that if they were still unmarried at 28, they would marry each other? That is the average age of first marriage for American men right now. I’m a woman, so I’m not great at maths, but I’m pretty sure “average” means that lots of people – lots! – get married well after 28. Because maybe this is just my unwed 26-year-old denial talking, but 28 is not that old. Did they make that pledge to each other while living in a Jane Austen novel, in which 28 was considered irredeemably over the hill? I have jokingly made pledges like that, but the deal is that we settle for each other when we’re forty-five, not TWENTY-EIGHT. Secondly: Jules and Michael have been best friends since they were in college (which was a decade ago because they are now 28 and therefore basically ready to check in to a nursing home), but he doesn’t tell her that he’s getting married until about 72 hours beforehand? There’s no handbook for how to be a best friend, but if there were, I’m pretty sure there’d be a chapter called Give Your Best Friend More Than Three Days’ Notice If You Decide To Get Hitched On The Other Side Of The Country. Sure is lucky that Jules has a rom com job, and not a real job, so she can just hop on a plane at a moment’s notice for some dress fittings and hilarious highjinks (a rom com job is one in which you do almost no work but still make a salary that allows you to live an upper middle class lifestyle and go to all sorts of fancy work events where men have the opportunity to stage grand gestures in order to win your love. See also: magazine journalist, party planner. Rom com jobs are not equal opportunity employers, as only women characters seem to have them).
I don’t know what to do with this movie. Is this a nineties feminist parody of a rom com? Is it a nineties anti-feminist backlash rom com? Why is there so much singing in this movie? I mean it: why is there a goddamn musical number in the middle of this romantic comedy, and why are all the patrons of the Barry the Cuda seafood restaurant (that’s really what it’s called) totally fine with this table full of preppy white people belting out Dionne Warwick in the middle of the lunch service?
And, when it comes to gender roles, I’m of two minds about My Best Friend’s Wedding. On one hand, it’s got some pretty obvious anti-feminist, backlash-y kind of stuff going on. Jules has been too focused on her career for all these years, and too caught up being a feminist, to realize that she’s in love with Michael, or to let herself be vulnerable to admit it. This is Kimmy’s description of Jules, based only on what Michael has told her: “You hate weddings, you never go. You’re not up for anything conventional or anything that’s assumed to be a female priority, including marriage, romance, or even…” “Love?” Jules finishes. Ugh, those feminists, always resisting tradition and ending up crazy and alone as a result, while the blonde sorority sisters who are juniors in college and marrying 28-year-olds (what?) steal the men of their dreams. In one scene, after Kimmy and Jules have conspired to try to get Michael to quit his sports writing job and stay put in Chicago, so Kimmy doesn’t have to, you know, drop out of school in order to be with him, Michael loses his shit and yells at Kimmy in the middle of a restaurant (great conflict resolution skills, dude. Solid foundation for a marriage). He’s upset because Kimmy doesn’t seem to think his job is good enough for her and her rich family, and she bursts into tears, partly because, again, he has flown off the handle and is yelling at her in the middle of a restaurant. He accuses her of making him look like a “sexist, insensitive asshole” because he wants to keep travelling and she wants to keep going to college, and she is reduced to a quivering, sobbing, begging, pleading, pink twinset and pearls wearing mess, and they kiss and makeup and everything’s fine, except it’s not, because she really wants to finish college and have a life of her own. She paraphrases Virginia freaking Woolf, for god’s sake. The question of his job is never resolved, which means that the question of her staying in college is never resolved. We never get to find out if Kimmy finishes college and pursues her dream of becoming an architect. But she is super happy about marrying him, so who really cares? We barely know anything about Jules’s career, so what does it matter if Kimmy ever even has one?
On the other hand, this movie is, in many ways, radical. It’s an anti-rom com. Jules spends much of it running around like a crazed rom com heroine, pulling ridiculous stunts and operating under the assumption that you can lie, trick, and manipulate a person into falling out of love with their fiancée and into love with you. It doesn’t work, and George, who is half walking gay stereotype and half The Only Sensible Person in This Movie tells her on multiple occasions to give it up and act like a grown up. She is, after all, TWENTY-EIGHT. The result is that the movie ends “unhappily” – that is, the heroine doesn’t get the man she wants, despite lots of grand gestures and a lot of clumsy falling down (Julia Roberts falls over at least four times in this movie).
The ending is, instead, bittersweet: Jules doesn’t get the man, but she does get to dance with George. “Maybe there won’t be marriage. Maybe there won’t be sex. But by god, there’ll be dancing,” he says, in one of the more famous lines of the movie. But the line I find more telling is what he tells her while she’s still chasing Michael through the streets of Chicago in a stolen truck while talking on a cell phone. “You’re not the one,” he says. You’re not the one. These four words fly in the face of almost every rom com ever made, because the central premise of the genre is that the heroine is the one: the one woman who can get the ungettable guy, who can turn the beast back into a prince, who is worth traveling through time for, whatever. The One. Jules is not the one. She doesn’t get the guy. She does terrible things to try to get him, to try to “win” him. She follows all the laws of rom com world, but the laws don’t apply here. Kimmy calls her two-faced and Michael calls her pond scum, and though they ultimately forgive her, those assessments are correct. She’s not the one, so she can’t get away with acting like two-faced pond scum. No happy ending for her. It’s a pretty radical thing to do to your mainstream Hollywood rom com heroine. And it’s so rare. In big budget rom coms, that kind of ending has not happened since My Best Friend’s Wedding was released almost 15 years ago.
Then again, Kimmy, the compliant, perky, blonde bride gets her happy ending. The foul-mouthed, career-driven feminist does not. But Kimmy is secretly more feminist than she lets on. And, you really do get the sense, at the end, that Jules is going to be just fine.
It’s complicated, kind of like real life, which is why, I think, so many people rank this rom com among their favorites. It’s not a predictable, paint-by-numbers story. If you haven’t seen it before, you can’t tell from the first scene how it’s going to end. It turns out that when you challenge viewers a little – yes, even girly women who watch chick flicks – they like it. They love it.
And they’ll look the other way while you insert utterly inexplicable musical numbers into the middle of your screenplay.