During the first week of each month, Francey Russell (Barnard/Columbia) will offer a philosophical reflection on film: a single film, a director, a technique, a genre, an author, etc. Plots will be discussed, hence spoilers. See all of the installments here.
MY BEST FRIEND’S WEDDING (1997),
DIRECTED BY P.J. HOGAN AND WRITTEN BY RONALD BASS
My Best Friend’s Wedding begins conventionally enough: the film opens with Jules (Julia Roberts), a successful, assertive food critic, dining with her gay friend George (Rupert Everett), when she gets a voicemail from her best friend Michael (Dermot Mulroney), telling her to call him immediately. Jules recalls nonchalantly that years earlier she and Michael made a pledge that if they were still single at 28, they would marry each other. George points out that she is about to turn 28. Jules’ fate, it seems, is unfolding; the mechanisms of a romantic comedy have been set in motion.
But Michael, in fact, is calling to invite Jules to his wedding to Kimmy (Cameron Diaz), a dazzlingly sunny, wildly wealthy undergraduate from Chicago. Frantically smoking while George drives her to the airport, Jules announces that she will break up the engagement, and win Michael “back.” If this were a romantic comedy, this is what would happen, and it would in fact happen because it had to happen. But it doesn’t. In the closing moments of the film, Jules looks on as Michael marries Kimmy in a perfect wedding, the perfect ending for a different movie.
* * * * *
Films that build new worlds often engage a recruit figure, a character who begins on the outside of that world and must be inaugurated into it. In science fiction, for instance, such a character is often explicitly told how the world works. In noir, the protagonist begins believing that he inhabits one kind of world—for example a world with straightforward moral boundaries—only to be enclosed within one of vertiginous corruption. Staging this process of initiation is a way for the film to put a world, with its organizing laws and conventions, on display; the recruit allows the foregrounding of what would otherwise recede into background, the staging of the structure itself.
The romantic comedy is also a world-building genre. Here too there is a process of initiation. At the beginning, at least one of the main characters does not inhabit or does not believe in such a world, and yet by the end she has come to inhabit it, precisely by learning to cohabit within it. Of course in the case of romantic comedies, this progression is depicted as though it were simply a matter of a progressing interpersonal relationship, as though the world itself were ordinary and remained constant (mere background). And yet when a couple finally falls in love or admits to love or at last believes in love, the world is no longer the same: clouds part, birds chirp, crowds break into dance or song, fireworks explode as though the sky itself were celebrating.
While this inauguration of the recruit can be analyzed in terms of an individual film’s narrative and character development, this movement can also be conceived as the activation of a genre: the inauguration institutes the recruit in her role as an essential element within a generic structure; when she finally takes up her position, the formal generic structure locks into its proper gear. In the case of the romantic comedy, when the couple falls in love, the individuals assume their position in the structure, and the genre is realized.
What makes My Best Friend’s Wedding interesting in terms of genre is that it engages the genre without inaugurating our protagonist into it. Jules’ world is not that of the romantic comedy, the one where people sing and get married. That world is elsewhere. The film runs as if on two tracks. There is Jules’ world, her increasingly unhinged efforts to destroy Michael’s relationship so that she can have him to herself. And running alongside Jules’ antics, within her sights but not within reach, is a full-blown romantic comedy functioning as it should, with two impossibly beautiful, endearingly ditzy individuals planning their wedding. Jules does not inhabit a romantic comedy, but Kimmy and Michael do. That world is pure magic: people burst into song and crowds join in to sing along. But Jules, significantly, never sings in any of the film’s musical numbers; she is not in that world, not in that movie. While it is common for films to have parallel storylines—an action plot with a romantic subplot, for instance—what’s unusual about My Best Friend’s Wedding is its engagement of the romantic comedy genre as if it were a parallel universe, a possible world just to the side of the protagonist’s own.
In terms of the film’s narrative, Jules is trying to break up a relationship and win Michael back. In terms of genre, it is as if this character were trying to step into a romantic comedy maddeningly playing out in front of her but to which she lacks access. She is thus as unable to intervene in that trajectory as we are; the mechanisms of genre move along, and we can only watch it happen. Achieving the genre at a distance in this way allows the viewer to appreciate the pleasures of the genre without full recruitment. This proximity and distance (in view but out of reach) also makes possible an appreciation of a different form, that is genre, of love. It also suggests that the dominance of romantic conventions will make that love difficult to value as such, difficult perhaps even to recognize as the emotion one is in fact feeling.
Jules is trying to make that romantic comedy her own. She wants to transform her friendship with Michael into something “more.” But the film does not permit this. In this way it suggests that a friendship may already contain all the difficulty, mystery, and unspoken complexity that we tend to attribute only to romantic partnerships; it suggests that a friendship does not need to be transformed into romance for it to be real love; and that a movie about friendship need not become a romance for it to be happy and satisfying. A best friend is, after all, more than just a friend: it is someone you love, someone you want to spend your life with. What philosopher Stanley Cavell says about the romantic couple could just as easily be said about best friends: “What this pair does together is less important than the fact that they do whatever it is together, that they know how to spend time together, even that they would rather waste time together than do anything else—except that no time they are together could be wasted.”
My Best Friend’s Wedding refuses the pretense of the neutrality of deep friendship. Michael loves and will marry Kimmy, but it is clear that he does love Jules; he looks at her, smiling and tearful, full of awareness of the perhaps impossible-to-acknowledge depth of their relationship, their genuine partnership. If we were to speculate about Jules’ psychology, it could well be that she does not really want to marry Michael, but that she has no other resources to express the not-neutral-but-perhaps-not-romantic kind of love and bondedness that she does feel. Michael seems a bit more capable of tolerating that complexity and multi-dimensionality; Jules flails because she cannot, because she believes she can only do justice to her love through the conventions of romance. That the romantic comedy is a genre thus demonstrates cinematically that love is conventional, that we make sense of and experience love by way of conventions. Reading Jules as familiarly, romantically in love with Michael does not do justice to the acute misfit exhibited between her character and the genre as such. Instead what the film suggests is that their form of love—best friends—does not compute within the bounds of that genre.* Their story is not a romantic comedy, not (just) because Jules loves Michael while Michael loves Kimmy, but rather because their story is a friendship.
In the original script, the film ended with Jules meeting some man at the wedding ceremony, thus promising that Jules will be recruited and redeemed, assuring us that even if her romance was not realized in this world, it will be in the next, in a romantic comedy to come. Thankfully, Rupert Everett suggested a re-write, where Jules and George, the other best friends, re-unite. The conventions of romance that constitute the genre—for film and for life—remain intact, but they are kept essentially elsewhere. In activating the genre at a distance, the film participates in romantic conventions without being captured by them, thus the genre never clicks into full gear. In so doing it suggests the limits of such conventions for organizing and making sense of deep and lifelong human relationships. In keeping such a distance, the film puts the ubiquity, power, and genuine attraction of such conventions on display, while indicating the possibility of a different form of story.
* Thanks to Alex King for this phrasing.