You’d have to be blind or crazy, or maybe just hormonally dead, not to see that Julia Roberts, the star of the plastic screwball soap opera Pretty Woman, is dazzlingly beautiful. At the same time, she’s not beautiful in the way that movie stars are. Despite her one distinctive feature — the wide, wax-lips smile she shares with her brother Eric — her face has a Vogue-cover-model anonymity. And so does her acting.
In Pretty Woman, she plays a Hollywood prostitute who agrees to spend an entire week with a corporate raider (Richard Gere). The two tease, taunt, and circle each other, trying to decide whether they have a relationship or a business transaction. By the end, she has taught the cold-hearted takeover king that some things — like, you know, feelings — just can’t be bought. And he has shown her a thing or two about ”class.” These are the kinds of characters who exist nowhere but in the minds of callowly manipulative Hollywood screenwriters.
Pretty Woman starts out as a neo-Pygmalion comedy, but the film is slow, earnest, and rhythmless. Everything in it has an air of glum desperation — from that let’s-cash-in-on-the-Roy-Orbison-revival title to the way director Garry Marshall (Beaches), who once showed some talent, now stages each moment as though it were poignantly funny and life-affirming.
And yet the movie may catch on. With its tough-hooker heroine, it can work as a feminist version of an upscale princess fantasy. Pretty Woman pretends to be about how love transcends money, but, like Paula Abdul’s ”The Way That You Love Me” video, the film is really obsessed with status symbols. It’s saying Roberts’ character becomes a better person when she lands a rich guy and learns to cry at the opera.
At one point, Roberts wanders into a Rodeo Drive boutique still clad in her hooker garb. The store ladies gaze in shock and refuse to help her, as though here, in the hedonistic center of Beverly Hills, they’d never encountered a flagrantly exposed midriff before. To get revenge, Roberts returns to the store a few scenes later — only this time, she’s wearing a more restrained sundress, and she proudly announces that she’s going to do her buying elsewhere. In today’s Hollywood, this passes for integrity. D