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The lively trailer for My Best Friend’s Wedding promises a much-needed antidote to this summer’s harebrained blockbusters. Briskly edited snippets of P.J. Hogan’s romantic comedy offer glimpses of an attractive, high-spirited cast frolicking through a maze of amorous entanglements. Disappointingly, the preview contains nearly all of the film’s enjoyable moments. The rest is limp, sluggish padding.

The protagonists of writer/co-producer Ronald Bass’ screenplay are ex-lover yuppies, Manhattan restaurant reviewer Julianne (Julia Roberts) and peripatetic sportswriter Michael (Dermot Mulroney). To Michael’s dismay, commitment-shy Julianne ended their monthlong affair during their college days, but the pair have remained best friends, vowing to wed if they turn 28 without finding suitable mates. When Michael phones to tell Julianne he’s about to marry rich, beautiful Kimmy (Cameron Diaz), she realizes that she wants him for herself and flies to Chicago with only four days to sabotage the impending nuptials.

The title sequence—four women in white wedding gowns lip-syncing Ani DiFranco’s ironic remake of the Dusty Springfield hit “Wishin’ and Hopin’”—sets viewers up for an edgy, contemporary screwball comedy. But a blob of overlooked brownish debris littering the number’s magenta backdrop foreshadows the carelessness evident throughout the film. The undeserved success of Hogan’s Australian feature debut, the coarse, misogynistic Muriel’s Wedding, won him a Hollywood contract, but he’s not ready for major-league filmmaking. His direction lacks sufficient visual resourcefulness and rhythmic variety to keep this bubbly project aloft. Lumberingly paced and punctuated by dead patches, My Best Friend’s Wedding plods when it needs to soar.

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Desperate to recapture her place in Michael’s heart, Julianne asserts, “I’ve changed. I’m not the girl I once was.” The same holds true for Roberts. She’s lost the star-making radiance she displayed in Mystic Pizza and Pretty Woman. Pale and drawn, she exudes a deeper, darker desperation than her role requires. The pressures of unrelenting celebrity appear to have furrowed her face and spirit. Intermittent flashes of her erstwhile vibrancy remain, but most of the time she seems emotionally detached and dispirited. (Her composure is hardly abetted by a screenplay that requires her to fall on her head as often as Jack Lemmon in Under the Yum Yum Tree).

Effective in Longtime Companion, Where the Day Takes You, and other ensemble pieces, Mulroney is stumped by the vapid, underwritten role of Michael, whose sole function is to inspire possessive combat between his female co-stars. All the part requires of Mulroney is to appear desirable. A miniaturized Rock Hudson with traces of a Stallone sneer, he barely gets by. One of the few models-turned-movie-stars with acting potential, Diaz is similarly unchallenged as the idealized Kimmy, who is alleged to be intelligent, loving, and selfless, but whose behavior is restricted to airheaded gushing, shrieking, weeping, and toneless braying in a karaoke bar.

An experienced comedy director, even a middling craftsman like Carl Reiner, would have sufficient know-how to enliven set pieces like Kimmy’s daredevil freeway driving and Julianne’s stalled-elevator claustrophobia. Hogan hasn’t a clue about how to stage these sequences, or when to stop a joke before it turns sour. (It may be funny to hear about a sluttish bridesmaid whose tongue becomes attached to the crotch of an ice sculpture of Michelangelo’s David, but Hogan kills the enjoyment by subsequently visually depicting the unfortunate fellatrix’s plight.) Whenever possible, he attempts to transform the film into a musical, plundering the Bacharach-David songbook here as he did the ABBA catalog in Muriel’s Wedding. His big number—an impromptu wedding-luncheon choral rendition of “I Say a Little Prayer”—stops the picture cold in its tracks, and dragging in the Kern-Fields standard “The Way You Look Tonight” as Julianne and Michael’s “song” serves only to remind us how drastically screen romance has declined since the heyday of Astaire and Rogers. Hogan even fails at glamorizing his photogenic players. Laszlo Kovacs’ camerawork and Noriko Watanabe’s makeup perversely emphasize the cast’s physical flaws—Diaz’s facial bumps, Roberts’ sharp jaw, the scar on Mulroney’s upper lip.

The only person to emerge triumphant from My Best Friend’s Wedding is Rupert Everett, cast as Julianne’s gay publisher and confidant. The sole featured player with stage experience—he has acted with London’s Royal Shakespeare Company—Everett is crafty enough to put a witty spin on the flattest dialogue and construct an engaging character from a handful of clichés. Limited to brief appearances at the film’s opening, midpoint, and climax, he alone displays the style and charisma required to make Hogan’s comedy an affair to remember.

In a hospital room, a young father comforts his 4-year-old daughter, who has just survived a car crash. He explains that her mother, the car’s driver, has been critically wounded, but the child, sucking the thumb of her cast-encased broken arm, cannot quite comprehend what he’s saying. Later, on a summery hillside, the distraught father reveals that the mother is dead and implores his daughter to vow that she will never die. Although too young to understand what death means, she senses that something irreparable has occurred and tries to comfort her father.

These rueful opening scenes of Jacques Doillon’s Ponette are unlike anything I’ve seen on film. Preschooler Victoire Thivisol’s performance as the title character (her name means “she-pony”) is unguardedly intense; her anguish, seemingly impossible for a child to feign, leads one to suspect that she’s expressing actual rather than scripted sorrow. In fact, director Doillon videotaped kindergarten students throughout France, selected his cast, and conducted six months of workshops before writing the screenplay, using dialogue the children improvised in skits. Discovered at a Lyon preschool, little Thivisol, then 3-and-a-half, was chosen for the title role, which deservedly earned her the Best Actress Award at last year’s Venice Film Festival.

Keeping his camera at child’s-eye level and framing his youthful cast in long-held close-ups, Doillon takes us deeper into the experience of childhood than any filmmaker I can recall, including his countrymen René Clément (Forbidden Games) and François Truffaut (Small Change.) Steadfastly refusing to accept her mother’s death, Ponette exasperates her grieving father, who sends her to live with her aunt and two young cousins. The aunt’s well-meaning religious consolations about Christ and resurrection merely confuse the girl, and her cousins’ and classmates’ alternately compassionate and cruel efforts to snap her out of her despondency are equally ineffective. Just as Ponette is about to abandon her will to live, a cloying magic-realism visitation puts her loss in perspective and helps her begin to heal.

The opening scenes of Ponette are so powerfully rendered that what follows seems redundant and anticlimactic. The child’s single-minded denial of death is numbingly reiterated in a variety of situations, none of which offers additional development of, or insight into, her psyche. In Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov writes of his French governess, “What bothers me is that a sense of misery, and nothing else, is not enough to make a permanent soul.” It’s not enough to make a fictional character either, and that’s why Ponette ultimately is, despite Thivisol’s extraordinary efforts, a wearisome protagonist. A child of unrelenting woe, she’s a one-dimensional creature whose abject melancholy is unconvincingly alleviated by the movie’s muted feel-good ending.

As Ponette drags on, one begins to wonder how Doillon managed to coerce such unleavened wretchedness from his star. Her dolor, capped by a harrowingly hysterical crying scene, isn’t something that a child can turn on when the camera rolls. How did he reduce her to such a pathetic state? Is Thivisol really giving a performance, or are we witnessing child abuse in the service of art? After 90 minutes of sharing her depression, one wants to liberate the poor girl from her role, buy her a popsicle, and send her out to romp with her peers.CP