Sly Roberts' 'Wedding' gift Review: She's a dastardly delight in her quest to sabotage an old flame's nuptials.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Any director who turns Burt Bacharach standards into comic weapons deserves respect. As the opening credits roll in "My Best Friend's Wedding," a 1960s bride and her bridesmaids perform a campy version of "Wishin' and Hopin' " against a pink background. Immediately, you are assured of a low schmaltz reading in this romantic comedy. You are also prepared for more Bacharach mischief to come. You are happy.

It is the second nuptials for P. J. Hogan, who made his directorial debut with the refreshing "Muriel's Wedding." In "My Best Friend's Wedding," Hogan isn't exactly making a brave movie, but it is a Hollywood romance that makes unconventional choices. The chief one is that the female heroine isn't all that admirable and doesn't necessarily deserve the happy ending she's after.

She's played by Julia Roberts, who is effervescent in a return to light fare after dour duty in "Mary Reilly" and "Michael Collins." Roberts rightly resists pigeon-holing in her career, but she is one of the few American actresses who can pull off sexy and screwball at the same time.

She plays a New York restaurant critic named Julianne who only realizes what she wants when she can't have it anymore. The "it" here is Michael (Dermot Mulroney), a one-time college lover who has since become her best friend. As Julianne contemplates her lackluster love life one night, Michael calls from Chicago to announce that he's getting married in four days, instantaneously transforming him into the man of her dreams. She rushes to the Windy City bent on sabotage.

Roberts' smile beneath her tumbling chestnut hair is as dazzling as in former days, but never before have her eyes radiated such liveliness, exasperation and intelligence. She is alert to everything happening around her and everything about to happen. In her last film, as Woody Allen's short-term lover in "Everybody Says I Love You," Roberts was rather a wan presence. Here, she is fully engaged, all calculation and neuroses.

She's dastardly, too, improvising schemes to divide Michael from his high-society fiancee, Kimmy (Cameron Diaz), whose billionaire father owns the Chicago White Sox. Julianne arranges for Kimmy to humiliate herself in a karaoke bar and then concocts a plan that makes it appear that Kimmy is trying to deprive Michael of his beloved sportswriting job.

Roberts somehow remains sympathetic despite these deceptions, but that doesn't mean you'll be rooting for her. You won't because of Diaz ("The Mask"), who in a more traditional romance would be an unappealing, spoiled brat. But Diaz makes her adoration for Michael touching and selfless. She's the one who deserves to win.

In the karaoke scene, her winsomeness effects a marvelous transformation. To her great horror and embarrassment, the tone-deaf Kimmy finds herself singing "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself" before a ridiculing audience. But she keeps singing and trying anyway and, before long, she has won over the crowd for being such a good sport. As Roberts watches her scheme backfire, her face changes from triumph to disbelief to grudging respect.

The hollow portion in all this is Mulroney ("How To Make an American Quilt"). He is churlish and sluggish, not at all the sort of person who could spawn an obsession in a spitfire like Julianne. Their scenes together are strained and lifeless.

Rupert Everett is the perfect antidote as Julianne's gay British editor, George, who is her confidant, her conscience, and her reluctant accomplice.

Everett (the Prince of Wales in "The Madness of King George") gives "My Best Friend's Wedding" its most delirious moments. He has a nimble, insouciant charm and somehow can clown while remaining debonair. When he is on the screen, it feels as though the movie has touched off.

Like a baseball manager with a hard-throwing closer, Hogan knows what he has in Everett and so is willing to take risks with him. In the movie's most uproarious sequence, Everett leads a wedding rehearsal luncheon in an exuberant version of Bacharach's "I Say A Little Prayer." You can't see how the scene can possibly work until that sublime moment when you realize that it has.

'My Best Friend's Wedding'

Starring Julia Roberts, Cameron Diaz, Rupert Everett and Dermot Mulroney

Directed by P. J. Hogan

Released by TriStar Pictures

Rated PG-13 (language)

Sun Score: ***

Pub Date: 6/20/97

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