Twenty years ago today, P.J. Hogan’s My Best Friend’s Wedding hit theaters. It would eventually become the ninth-highest grossing film of 1997—oddly sandwiched between the Special Edition of Star Wars (#8) and Tomorrow Never Dies (#10)—and one of the highest-grossing romantic comedies of all time. But in the pantheon of classic romcoms, this tale about a woman trying to woo the groom away from his fiancée on the weekend of his wedding is more than just one of the biggest moneymakers. My Best Friend’s Wedding stands as one of the genre’s most impeccably made and brilliantly scripted entries. It’s also one of the best.
In the first half of the ‘90s, some of the most successful and (ultimately) memorable romcoms were shamelessly starry-eyed fairy tales with a contemporary twist. There was the down-on-her-luck prostitute who is yanked into a life of plenty by a client who falls in love with her, the unhinged New Yorker who falls in love with Seattle resident simply by hearing his voice on the radio, the good-guy cop who split his lottery ticket (and later fell in love with) a kind waitress, and the civilian who starts began dating the president. There’s even a gender-swapped version of Sleeping Beauty where the slumbering man ends up being far less appealing than his wide awake brother. In all those examples—odd as they may sound in summary—the protagonists find love at first sight (or listen) and end up in the same place: teetering on the edge of happily ever after.
So when a new Julia Roberts movie called My Best Friend’s Wedding is released in the heyday of the late-90s, you expect her to win her best friend back by the end. She is, after all, the woman who nabbed Richard Gere in his prime! But My Best Friend’s Wedding subverted the big-budget romantic comedy in ways that are easily masked by its abundance of the genre’s tropes. All the familiar elements are there—America’s existing sweetheart, America’s future sweetheart, a dashing but sort of dull male lead, classic love songs (occasionally sung by the actors!), and more than one scene of one lover chasing after another—but buried beneath that sparkling, multiplex-ready exterior (not to mention a perfect title and poster) is a bleak, brutal humanity that blockbusters in the genre so rarely explore.
Few of the most popular romcoms have presented heterosexuality and traditional monogamous courtship with such dazed, conflicted wonder. Sure—in Kimmy (played to bubbly perfection by Cameron Diaz) and Michael we have the glistening rags-to-riches romance that ends with a big, beautiful wedding and the belief that love can conquer all. But in Julianne, we have a woman for whom sexuality and the desire for romance are chronic diseases both ruinously self-inflicted and undeniably the product of cultural pressures.
Her obsession with ruining Michael’s four-day wedding becomes more inexplicable—and fascinating—with every viewing. Not only did the man not tell his “best friend” about his wedding until the week it was happening (his excuse, that she wasn’t answering her calls, doesn’t really hold water), he doesn’t seem to find it odd that his fiancée is willing to drop out of college to travel the country with him as he writes about sports, he is completely oblivious to the desire dripping from Julianne’s pores, and—oh right!—he cut Julianne’s finger open seven years prior and made her take a blood oath that they would marry each other if the two of them were single at 28. That he is the polar opposite of a “catch” renders Julianne’s behavior as even more deranged—and adds an extra layer of melancholy to the entire thing. This is the man a successful woman is embarrassing herself over? This is the future she, a successful author and food critic (at 27!) wants?
The feeling you get while watching the bulk of My Best Friend’s Wedding—that their relationship (or perhaps love in general) is more than a little fucked up—is familiar territory for its director, P.J. Hogan. The Australian was given the gig after the success of Muriel’s Wedding, the hit 1994 dramedy (also about a self-destructive hopeless romantic) he wrote and directed. Both Hogan and Ronald Bass, MBFW’s screenwriter, have an acute understanding of romance’s hideous posterior. They know that Meg Ryan’s obsession with Tom Hanks in Sleepless In Seattle was actually sort of horrifying, and that it wasn’t at all Capraesque for the President to start openly fucking an environmental lobbyist. In Julianne they created a romcom heroine we love to hate, but reluctantly relate to on our worst days. She is our redheaded Id in tiny sunglasses—the woman who chain smokes in non-smoking businesses, snoops inside a stranger’s email account, tells big lies to cover up smaller ones, and asks for things she wants at precisely the wrong time (“Choose me,” she tells Michael on the day of his wedding). It is perhaps Roberts’s most meticulous and nuanced comedic performance—one that requires her to juggle slapstick and moments of reluctant tenderness—and a role that could have been disastrous in the hands of someone less inherently charming.
In the film’s original ending, Julianne meets a wedding guest played by John Corbett. Sparks fly, they dance together, and we fade to black with the suggestion that she has finally found true love. But, as Hogan revealed earlier this year, test audiences absolutely despised the fact that a protagonist who had just spent two hours engaging in devious and downright cruel behavior would be rewarded for her actions. So they changed it to the perfectly bittersweet ending we know today, in which Julianne—alone at a wedding reception table—receives a phone call from George (the delightful Rupert Everett). He surprises her by flying to Chicago and joining her in her hour of need. “Maybe there won’t be marriage,” he assures her upon arriving. “Maybe there won’t be sex. But by god, there will be dancing.” As the camera pulls back to the film’s second instance of “I Say a Little Prayer,” we reach the film’s radical conclusion: a celebration of friendship, not romance.
In what might be the My Best Friend’s Wedding’s most famous line, Julianne’s other best friend asks her to undergo a bit of self-examination after she’s stolen a delivery truck to flag down Michael’s car. Michael, he calmly notes, is chasing Kimmy, she’s chasing Michael, but no one is chasing her. “Get it?” he asks. And she finally does. Here is a movie that understands how nutty the pressures of finding love (or merely existing in this world) can make us, how miserable it can be to celebrate others when your life is series of self-imposed disasters, and that a happy ending doesn’t have to mean a walk down the aisle. Here is a movie that knows a perfect romantic comedy doesn’t have to be both of those things at the same time.