Laura San Giacomo
1 Hr., 57 Mins.
Julia Roberts is a movie star. Not a Kate Winslet, a Gwyneth Paltrow, or a Cate Blanchett, mind you — she’s got more in common with the Audrey Hepburns and the Carole Lombards, so ceremoniously radiant in her every move that she is never just embodying a character penned by a lonely screenwriter. She also seems to be putting a little bit of herself into a role, daring us to give our hearts to her — and we, weak in our will against her smile, her inviting manner of speak, her everyday beauty like a high school sweetheart, melt into a puddle of moviedom dust. Roberts is the kind of actress you fall in love with, not just admire.
And so Pretty Woman, the role that solidified her title as America’s Sweetheart, the romantic comedy that made feminine pandering universal instead of gender specific, is a modern classic, flawed but unfeasible to dislike, manipulative in ways that aren’t much apparent until you really think about them. It is filmmaking inviting in the ways Roman Holiday and The Philadelphia Story were — old-fashioned, sly, and hopelessly romantic, funny.
In a role upstaged by the lovable Roberts, Richard Gere portrays Edward Lewis, a businessman who seems to have it all, so long as you consider “all” being good looks and a good job. He is a corporate raider, making obscene amounts of money every year — but missing from his life is a pocket of romantic fire to balance the stream of near sociopathic dealings. Soon after the film opens, we find him breaking up with his longtime love (over the phone, no less) so methodically, so without emotion, that we wouldn’t be surprised if he viewed her as just another job.
Following a bust of a party, he borrows his lawyer’s (Jason Alexander) car in search of Beverly Hills; he needs some time for himself. So rather innocently does he ask a prostitute, the charismatic Vivian (Roberts), for directions (he’s always depended on a driver). This leads to a proposition that ends with Vivian in the car, giving her the role of a driver, not a plaything. Despite their nearly opposite backgrounds, though, Edward and Vivian get along like a couple of old friends; inevitably, she ends up spending the night at Edward’s penthouse suite.
But he’s a nice guy, and, by the next day, he feels guilty letting her go after a single night of pleasure. So he makes her an offer she can’t refuse: for the low price of $3,000, what if she, normally cheap, were to transform from lady of the night to bourgeoisie escort, acting as a week long party companion for tiresome social events? With only a tiny apartment and a sleazy occupation waiting for her back home, Vivian accepts the job. But over the course of the week, it becomes less and less of one, as the two, pessimistic, lost souls, slowly begin to fall for one another.
If you sit and consider Pretty Woman's storyline, it is fairly preposterous; in its predevelopment stages, it was conceived as a gritty drama revealing the brutal truths of sex work, with an ending that promised that Vivian would be thrown back onto the streets like trash, after all. That might have been more potent, but audiences are looking for love, not cautionary tales.
Garry Marshall, an American director who specializes in the fantasies of the female and the escape oriented public (his credits include Beaches and The Princess Diaries), sees the possibility of a fairy tale in Pretty Woman, and is so convincing in his belief that a genuinely good man and a likable hooker can fall in love within a week that we forget how ludicrous of an idea this actually is. And I think that’s why Pretty Woman has prevailed — it is so godforsakenly warm, agreeable, and romantic, combating its sweet nature is a losing fight. We can’t help ourselves.
But as my viewing grows increasingly distant, my questions float away; all I can remember is how much I liked the film, and how much I liked Roberts in it. It's imperfect, but it’s ageless and it’s fetching, and that’s what counts. B