Years from now, Hollywood historians may try to pinpoint the precise moment when Julia Roberts became a star. Forget her sexy entrance in Mystic Pizza or her Oscar-nominated martyr act in Steel Magnolias. It’s here, about fifteen minutes into this silly-shallow comedy, when she’s soaking in a tub in a posh hotel, radio earphones on, harmonizing off-key with Prince and oblivious of how she looks to Richard Gere, who’s watching her and losing his heart like the rest of us. The Roberts smile – full-lipped, a mile wide and gleaming – is the closest the movies have yet come to capturing sunshine. Such dazzle should not be taken lightly.
Roberts is Vivian Ward, an L.A. hooker. Gere, saddled with the straight-man role, is Edward Lewis, a Wall Street raider who gets lost on her turf one night and asks directions. Now he’s paying her $3000 to accompany him to dinner, the opera, business outings and bed. Why? Screenwriter J.F. Lawton fails to explain. Roberts told the New York Times that the original script was darker, more emphatic about the parallels between hooking and raiding. But director Garry Marshall (Beaches) soft-pedals the social criticism. New writers were brought in to provide fantasy – every Cinderella story from Pygmalion and Gigi to Moonstruck and The Fabulous Baker Boys is borrowed from – and barrels of jokes. Vivian carries condoms in assorted colors, giggles over Edward’s wealth with her streetwalking friend (an animated Laura San Giacomo), learns table manners and posture from the fastidious hotel manager (the excellent Hector Elizondo) and, in the film’s most memorably funny scene, runs amok shopping on Rodeo Drive with Edward’s credit cards. There isn’t a dry, avaricious eye in the house.
Edward soon learns to care, and Vivian reforms, teaching her tart pals by example. The moral seems to be that shacking up is stupid; hold out for a ring and community property. Marshall has fashioned a venal fairy tale for the Trump era. You’re likely to have a fun night at the movies with Pretty Woman, but you’ll hate yourself in the morning.