Pretty Woman (Garry Marshall, 1990)


Julia Roberts (Vivian Ward), Richard Gere (Edward Lewis), Laura San Giacomo (Kit De Luca). Screenplay by J. F. Lawton. Directed by Garry Marshall. Rating: 15. Running time: 119 minutes. 

If there’s an unintended message to be found in the infuriating fluff that is Pretty Woman, it’s not that you can ascend from selling sex on grubby street corners to prowling around a penthouse if you work hard enough. It is, rather, that you can do that if you meet the right rich man that only exists in bad movies. Also tangled up in there somewhere is the suggestion that being rich is best, and everyone seems to be under that illusion to such a degree that if you give us Julia Roberts learning the lesson on screen then we’ll feel all lovely and heart-warmed, and we’ll collectively pay half a billion dollars to consent to two hours of brute emotional manipulation as we have that shit shovelled down our throats.

As men, are we really supposed to wish we were Richard Gere? His lifestyle’s so sexed up here that you’d think the director bums him out even more than Leni Riefenstahl did Hitler. In the first five minutes every signal we could possibly be sent that crudely yells ‘LOOK, HE’S LIVING THE DREAM’ is fired our way. There’s a party going on for him that he’s not even attending; a casual phone call to plan a trip to New York from LA by the end of the week; there’s suave suits galore, and jumping in a Lotus instead of the Limo to head down to Beverly Hills, all before a subplot unfolds dominated by his boring business deals with no apparent purpose but to punctuate what would otherwise be a full-blown romcom.

Before we know it he’s picked up Julia the hooker to give directions, then to spend the night with him, then the week, and then the rest of their damn lives in the heaven that is the Hollywood dream factory. You’ve heard it all before (it’s called Cinderella, but don’t worry – the film even reminds us of it just incase we forgot) and we’ll hear it all again, but at every stage of this totally forgettable journey we’re supposed to take pleasure in two things – the rise of Julia, and the romance; or, in less deceitful terms, watching her become bourgeois as prejudices get obliterated by Richard Gere’s wallet, and seeing them move from banal blowjobs to sensual bathing on the road to a final showdown involving roses, a love-drenched soundtrack and lots of kissing on steps as the credits roll up (yes, really).

It’s embarrassing just how often we have to watch other people watching her, and we cringe when we click that we’re supposed to feel – what? something, clearly, every time she gets looked down upon. Anger? Oh Lord. Perhaps. I wouldn’t put it past them. But more likely is that this is meant to be the main source of humour. Granddads at reception, hotel lift attendants, sales assistants or businessmen – you name it, they’re here wondering what the hell a woman dressed as a hooker is doing living the life of a princess, at least until her induction process is over and she starts to look like them. And why the hell not? This is, after all, the woman apparently so uncivilised that she even eats pancakes with her fingers, and everyone is so set on disrupting her happiness that the harder they fight, the better it’s supposed to be when she finally succeeds.

And succeeds she does. Soon she’s eating snails, watching polo, playing chess reading Shakespeare and observing opera (I kept a list), and even by this latter stage of the process the film wants to get us to smile and laugh: we’re supposed to believe that, in a week, a street hooker has become middle class and is crying at the power of theatre, but still decides to say ‘it was so good I nearly peed my pants’ to express herself.

It may be true that in some faraway world a man with money can constitute a fast-track pass from hell to Cloud Nine, and perhaps crass consumerism is bliss for a lot of people. But those messages aren’t nice, and yet Pretty Woman wants them to be exactly that. Julia Roberts did the best she could here with what she had to work with, and fortunately that was enough to ensure we ended up seeing a lot more of her. But there’s nothing else to be thankful for here.

Never mind. It made half a billion dollars.

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