Pretty Woman is a triumph of heart over art. A featherweight entertainment about a Hollywood hooker with a ticker of gold (Julia Roberts) who acquires a fabulously wealthy corporate raider (Richard Gere) in a friendly takeover, the movie was a good bet to recoup its backers’ investment. But nobody expected it to take in $173 million at the box office — certainly not the critics (EW’s Owen Gleiberman among them), who gave it mostly unenthusiastic reviews. Soon after the movie’s blockbuster status became apparent, though, newspapers began running stories attempting to sum up the Pretty Woman phenomenon. Even the august New York Times devoted several pages in its Sunday magazine to an analysis of the delicious mass delirium the movie induced.
Like two previous dark-horse hits, Fatal Attraction and Dirty Dancing, Pretty Woman demonstrates that, despite Hollywood’s increasing focus on big-budget macho fantasies geared to the global male market, starry-eyed romance can still pack astounding commercial wallop. Fatal Attraction dealt with women’s (and men’s) dread of the homewrecking Other Woman, and Dirty Dancing recaptured the spark of first love; but only Pretty Woman hit the romantic fantasy square on the head. AS its heroine put it, ”When I was a little girl and got sent to my room, I used to pretend I was a princess trapped in a tower; and then suddenly a knight would come charging up with his colors flying, and he would climb up the tower and rescue me.”
The $250,000 necklace made of heart-shaped stones that Gere bestows on Roberts is only part of the payoff. The real appeal of the fairy tale is that the shining knight is in need of rescue too: Imprisoned in that stiff business-suit armor, he needs loosening up even more desperately than she needs him. Audiences forgave all of Pretty Woman’s considerable aesthetic sins — the predictable plot, the scenes shamelessly lifted right out of My Fair Lady, Barefoot in the Park, Tom Jones and 48 HRS. — because they were overwhelmed by the primal appeal of a woman subduing a man through the sheer power of emotion.
Richard Gere is perfect for the part. His stiffness, good looks, aura of power and emotional remoteness are just like those of Harlequin romance heroes. Women are free to project the requisite feelings on the blank screen of his face. Julia Roberts, who charmed the pants off America in Mystic Pizza and gave Steel Magnolias a convincing core performance, is excellent in the heroine’s role. She may not be a great actress, but her charm is immense — she’s more folksy than Shirley MacLaine in Irma La Douce and every bit as adorable. When she tells Gere, ”You’re late!” and he answers, ”You’re stunning,” and she replies, ”You’re forgiven,” it ought to sound emptily sitcomic. But thanks to the force of her trademark smile, wide as all outdoors, the scene comes across like window flung open on a dazzling summer day. B+