(1990) Romantic Comedy (Touchstone) Julia Roberts, Richard Gere, Ralph Bellamy, Jason Alexander, Alex Hyde-White, Hector Elizondo, Laura San Giacomo, Amy Yasbeck, Elinor Donahue, Judith Baldwin, Jason Randall, Bill Applebaum, Tracy Bjork, Gary Greene, William Gallo, Abdul Salaam El Razzac, Hank Azaria, Larry Hankin, Jacqueline Woolsey. Directed by Garry Marshall
In my day, most little girls dreamed of being princesses swept away by a handsome prince and taken to a life of wealth and pampering. Little girls still have those dreams but sometimes the definition of “princess” and “prince” change a little.
Vivian Ward (Roberts) is a lady of the evening. Not her first choice in professions, but a necessity that will help her earn the cash she needs. Her best friend and roommate Kit De Luca (San Giacomo) is also a hooker. The two work the red light district of Hollywood.
Edward Lewis (Gere) is a ruthless corporate raider from New York, in Los Angeles for meetings to purchase a shipping company from James Morse (Bellamy). Lewis, not familiar with Los Angeles, gets hopelessly lost on his way to the Beverly Wilshire Hotel and ends up on Vivian’s corner. He asks her for directions; she asks for money. Edward, having trouble driving the stick shift on the Lotus Esprit, agrees to pay her to drive him to the hotel.
Once there, intrigued by her wit and her intelligence, he decides to hire her for the profession she has chosen for $300. They have strawberries and champagne (when she flosses the seeds out of her teeth he is amused) and watch reruns of I Love Lucy until they end up having sex.
Edward needs a date to several social events during the week and having hit it off with her, hires her to be with him for the entire week for $3,000. He also gives her a credit card and tells her to purchase some elegant dresses to wear. She goes to a shop on Rodeo Drive and is humiliated by snooty salesgirls who make fun at her overtly sexual appearance and her apparent non-sophistication.
She returns to the hotel completely devastated and snooty manager Barney Thompson (Elizondo) who at first felt disdain at the prostitute, sees her as a human being and a young girl. He helps her purchase a dress, then coaches her on etiquette. Edward returns from work and is amazed at the transformation. However, the business dinner he takes Vivian to with Morse and his son David (Hyde-White) doesn’t end well when Edward admits his intention is to break up the company and sell the land which is worth far more on the open market than it is with the shipping company on it. The Morses leave the table in disgust.
As the week continues, Edward begins to fall for the lively Vivian and she finds herself falling for Edward who is more vulnerable than he admits to being. His lawyer and business partner Philip Stuckey (Alexander) doesn’t approve of the changes he sees in Edward and blames Vivian for it which leads to a heated confrontation among the three of them.
In the meantime, Vivian is swept up in Edward’s world, flying up to San Francisco to see La Traviata at the San Francisco opera which transports her (it doesn’t hurt that the opera is about a wealthy man falling for a prostitute). He, on the other hand, is beginning to see just how empty his life has been without Vivian. Can their two worlds truly be compatible? Will she stay with him beyond the week he paid for?
This movie, along with When Harry Met Sally is credited with the resurgence of romantic comedies which popular in the 50s and 60s had declined to the point where not a single one was produced by a major studio during the 70s. The film is a frothy mix that benefits from Roberts’ bubbly personality and of course that amazing smile which lights up the screen. This would be her second Oscar nomination (she’d already received one for supporting actress in Mystic Pizza) and first for leading actress. It would also make her a genuine star and one of the biggest female box office attractions to this day.
There are those who look at this as anti-feminist and degrading to women, as Vivian seems to need to be “rescued” by a man from a life of exploitation by other men. I don’t agree with that assessment. Vivian is strong and yes, she’s being exploited but she wants more and is on the road to achieve it without Edward’s help (she even refuses it). That she ends up with her knight in shining armor is because she changed him, not because she needed him to save her.
That aside, this is one of those movies that is a Valentine’s Day go-to. For many women, this is a favorite and for a lot of men as well – not just as a romantic comedy but as a movie. There’s something about it that appeals to people, the idea of being plucked out of your mundane existence and into a life of wealth. Who wouldn’t want that?
Roberts, who is amazing here, isn’t alone. Elizondo has always been one of my favorite character actors and this is the performance that made him that for me. Bellamy and Hyde-White are sympathetic, and San Giacomo, who I had a bit of a movie crush on at the time, is gorgeous and feisty, a perfect foil for Roberts. Even Alexander, who would go on to play more bumbling comedic roles, does a terrific job as the truly nasty Philip.
There is a warmth here that is quite frankly a hallmark of Garry Marshall films. In many ways, this is the movie he’ll be remembered for (although there are those that insist that the TV show Happy Days will be his artistic nadir) and if so, not a bad legacy to leave behind. It’s a modernization of the Cinderella fable that resonates with all of us as to the trasnformative power of love, something that is so powerful it changes our lives for the better. There’s no doubt that for most couples, this is a Valentine’s Day movie that you can’t go wrong with.
WHY RENT THIS: Roberts at her very best. One of the most romantic movies of all time. Nice supporting performances by Elizondo, Bellamy and San Giacomo.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some are uncomfortable with Vivian’s performance.
FAMILY VALUES: Some sexual situations and adult themes to go with a smattering of foul language here and there.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This would be Bellamy’s final film.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The 15th Anniversary DVD edition is loaded with ’em; a Natalie Cole music video, footage from the wrap party (in which we get to see Gere, Roberts and Marshall warble “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” to an appreciative audience, a tour of the locations that the production filmed at in 1990 with Marshall as your tour guide and a blooper reel.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $463.4M on a $14M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental), Amazon (buy/rent), Vudu (buy/rent), iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (not available), Target Ticket (not available)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cinderella
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: Still Alice