Saturday 9 May 2015

Movie Review: Pretty Woman (1990)

A landmark fantasy romance, Pretty Woman borrows from Cinderella and Pygmalion and constructs an irresistible story of impossible love across the social divide. In the process, Julia Roberts becomes one the brightest movie stars on the planet.

In Los Angeles, Vivian (Roberts) is a prostitute working on Hollywood Boulevard with her friend and roommate Kit (Laura San Giacomo). New York-based businessman Edward Lewis (Richard Gere) is a handsome corporate raider who specializes in buying underperforming companies, breaking them up and selling them off for huge profits with the help of his ruthless lawyer Phillip Stuckey (Jason Alexander). In town to complete the takeover of the shipyard company owned by James Morse (Ralph Bellamy), Edward takes a wrong turn one night and stops to ask Vivian for directions. She helps him find his swanky Beverly Hills hotel, he spots something in her, and asks her to stay the night.

Edward offers Vivian $3,000 to be his companion for the week, and she accepts. He also gives her the funds to go on a shopping spree and remake her image from prostitute to stunning social companion. As the takeover negotiations start to stumble, Edward and Vivian develop feelings for each other beyond their business deal. Phillip notices a change in Edward, and uncovers the truth about his mysterious new companion, causing a rift to develop between Edward and Phillip. As the week draws to an end, Edward has to face his feelings both in his personal life and in his approach to business.

With a soundtrack featuring King of Wishful Thinking, It Must Have Been Love and of course Roy Orbison's Oh, Pretty Woman, this is a classic romance where girlhood fantasies do come true, hookers don't do drugs, don't drink alcohol, don't have pimps and do indeed have hearts of gold, and cutthroat businessmen just need love to melt their cold soul. But Pretty Woman is a sharply written, glossy and surprisingly rich feel-good romance sprinkled with comic moments. It's easy to fall in love with the movie and cheer for Vivian and Edward. This is a celebration of the power of love to not only conquer all, but to also change for the better the destiny of two people from opposite sides of the social spectrum.

While many romances go for the cheap emotions or cheaper laughs, Pretty Woman selects the much more satisfying human-centred path. Directed by Garry Marshall, the film succeeds by developing two characters who are superficially from different worlds but essentially trapped in the same vortex. Both Edward and Vivian are making money by selling assets and contributing little else to their own well-being, and both fell into their professions by pursuing the wrong relationships and misguided motives. They soon see themselves in each other and realize that they can be so much better.

Despite the focus on people rather than situations, Pretty Woman still manages to inject memorable set-pieces. Vivian's shopping escapades on Rodeo Drive have entered the lore of cinematic legend, while her interactions with hotel manager Thompson (H├ęctor Elizondo) reveal the thin line between authority and humanity. Elizondo's subtle performance hints at an understanding of the instinctive desire to rise above that Thompson could only have derived from personal experience.

Julia Roberts had Mystic Pizza and Steel Magnolias already under her belt, but Pretty Woman catapulted her into superstardom as the new "it" girl of romance and comedy. Her performance is slightly exaggerated throughout for effect, but she nails the clumsy deer-in-the-social-headlights stance, as Vivian frequently slips into prostitute mannerisms but also demonstrates the nascent ability to be so much better. At 40 years old Richard Gere reaches the absolute peak of his magnetic screen presence, wealth, looks and heart coming together to create in Edward Lewis the dream knight in a shining Lotus Esprit. Pretty Woman may be a fairytale, but it is, after all, the start of the 1990s.

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