Hello, everyone! If you’ve ever watched an American rom-com, then you would know that weddings play a central role in the majority of them. The race for the diamond engagement ring, white dress, and the status symbol of a luxurious wedding seem almost to take precedent over the marriage itself. Yet for every rom-com that ends in a perfect white wedding, there is also a sort of sister genre, the red-headed cousin of wedding movies: the runaway bride movie. We see the bride heading to the altar, only to be surprised by a last-minute confession of love by her oldest friend, and watch her leave the groom to run away with this lover instead. We see the groom preparing for marriage to a woman who seems to be in every way wrong for him, only to be wooed away by his true love at the last second. We see tentative pre-wedding kisses, hesitant affairs, and emotional confessions of love, all set against the backdrop of feverish wedding planning. For many, jilting one’s future spouse at the altar could be seen as nothing less than the grossest betrayal, and the greatest repudiation of a sacred institution, yet in these movies, the jilters are the celebrated protagonists, and the jiltees are forgotten within moments. Why, in a culture as wedding-obsessed as ours, do we enjoy movies about main characters who ruin their own weddings? To try to answer this, I want to take a brief look at some of the staples of the genre, and see what they tell us about our fascination with runaway brides.
Runaway Bride: The Bible
Quick synopsis: Maggie Carpenter (Julia Roberts) has become infamous for her numerous failed weddings, but when columnist Ike Graham (Richard Gere) writes a snarky piece about the “runaway bride” in a national paper, Maggie writes an angry letter scolding him for the inaccuracies, which causes him to lose his job. Determined to rescue his reputation, he travels to Maggie’s hometown to write an in-depth article about her 4th attempt at marriage, and ends up falling for Maggie in the process.
My thoughts: I call this movie the “bible” because it perfectly symbolizes our culture’s love and disdain for runaway brides. When we first meet Maggie, we see her from an outsider’s point of view; she is portrayed in Ike’s column as a man-eater, someone who seduces men, steals their hearts, and leaves them bereft and broken at the altar. As the movie goes on, however, the movie switches sides, persuading us to see Maggie’s point-of-view. Instead of being a heartless tease, we learn about Maggie’s deep insecurities and her need to please her future spouse by hiding her own identity. She is a victim of the wedding industrial-complex, someone who believes more deeply in marriage for marriage’s sake than marrying for the sake of building an equal romantic partnership. Her repeated jilting of her numerous fiancés are not done out of spite nor selfishness, but out of her sudden realizations, over and over again, that marriage will not make her happy. It’s only when she meets Ike, someone who values her for who she is, that she agrees to be married for real, but not before leaving him at the altar once first.
Uniquely for this genre, Runaway Bride does take some time to show the after-math of Maggie’s feverish flight from the altar. We meet each of her jilted fiancés in turn, and learn about how Maggie’s runaway moment affected them on a deep emotional level. There’s even a nod to the disastrous financial aspect of Maggie’s decisions, as her father refuses to pay for her 4th wedding because he expects it to fail. But even with the perspectives of Maggie’s abandoned lovers and the frustration of her friends and family, Maggie never really has to take responsibility for her actions. Apart from some small self-realizations, she walks away scot-free from her four failed weddings and falls happily into the arms of Ike. It’s not Maggie’s fault, the movie tells us, that she’s led so many men to the altar and left them there, but the fault of her not yet finding “the one.” True love will conquer all, even the selfishness and short-sightedness of someone who would break four people’s hearts without a second thought.
Final consensus: Runaway Bride offers some critique on the genre, but it mostly supports Maggie’s actions and shows them in an amusing light. True love is more important than being honest with one’s partners, or shrewd financial planning, or self-reflection. There is really nothing wrong with a string of failed weddings as long as one of them ends up sticking.
Made of Honor: The Apologist
Quick Synopsis: Tom (Patrick Dempsey) and Hannah (Michelle Monaghan) have been friends since college, ever since playboy Tom accidentally tried to sleep with Hannah instead of her roommate at a frat party. Decades later, Hannah takes a trip to Scotland, and after a whirlwind romance, becomes engaged to Colin, a wealthy Scottish duke. Realizing his feelings for Hannah, Tom becomes depressed, but after Hannah asks him to be her “maid” of honor, Tom decides to use this opportunity to break up the wedding and convince Hannah to marry him instead.
My thoughts: I call this one “the apologist” because of how shamelessly it promotes the idea of trying to sabotage a best friend’s wedding in the name of “true love.” Tom is truly audacious in this film. After resisting marriage for decades, he suddenly decides that the only person he wants to marry is a person who has just become engaged to someone else, and that rather than sharing his feelings in an open and adult manner, he would rather try to ruin his best friend’s relationship. All of his sabotage is of course played for laughs, with such hijinks as Tom accidentally hiring a sex-toy purveyor for Hannah’s formal bridal shower, trying (and failing) to “win” Hannah from Colin during a traditional Scottish festival, and kissing Hannah during her Hen Night games. When Tom finally confesses his love for Hannah, the night before her wedding, Hannah is rightfully angry at him for waiting so long, and sticks with her decision to marry Colin. Only at the very altar, when Tom rides in on a horse and begs her not to marry Colin, does Hannah pull a “runaway bride” moment and leave her husband-to-be at the altar, run back to New York, and marry Tom.
While the jilted fiancés in Runaway Bride got only a few minutes of screen-time, Tom’s rival Colin gets a significant amount of character development, much to the film’s detriment. While Tom is self-centered and snarky, Colin is generous and kind. The film tries its best to show that Tom is Hannah’s soul-mate by showing off all their little inside jokes and quirks, such as how Tom always orders a piece of chocolate cake for Hannah to pick at along with his own, yet it fails at persuading viewers that Tom is ultimately the better match for Hannah. Yes, the wedding is very traditional, and yes, Colin doesn’t want to share his cake (perhaps he likes people who are independent enough to order their own food!), but is that really enough of a reason for Hannah to leave this man at the altar to be hurt and humiliated? From the joyous tones of the final scene, yes, it is. True love, no matter how destructively obtained, is more important than open and honest conversation with a romantic partner. It’s the selfishness of that message that is the most rotten part of the film. Even though Tom and Hannah have great chemistry, and even though they probably should be together, you can’t help but resent them for how their actions harm everyone around them. Movies like this teach people to treat love like a game to win, rather than a goal to achieve together.
Final consensus: Perhaps one of the nastier in the genre, Made of Honor nevertheless shamelessly promotes the “true love at any cost” message at the heart of the “runaway bride” genre. We’re supposed to root for Tom and Hannah’s love story, but it’s difficult to root for two people so self-obsessed that they they would rather play with the feelings of a kind man like Colin than acknowledge their love for each other at a more appropriate time.
Something Borrowed: Cheaters Do Win
Quick Synopsis: Rachel (Ginnifer Goodwin) has always played second-fiddle to her glamorous best friend Darcy (Kate Hudson). When Darcy becomes engaged to Dex (Colin Egglesfield), Rachel’s long-time crush, it seems like the pattern will continue. But when Dex reveals his secret feelings to Rachel, they start a passionate affair, all while planning Darcy and Dex’s upcoming wedding.
My thoughts: Some might say this doesn’t count because there is no actual “runaway bride” scene, but I’m including it because it’s thematically in every way a runaway bride movie except for the part with the altar. You have the pair of true lovers who are too emotionally stunted to express their feelings in a non-destructive way, a fiancée that is comically wrong for the groom (what a wacky engagement!), and lots of “hilarious” scenes of cheating and deception until the two love birds finally get up the courage to be with each other. Wait, no, actually, it’s because Darcy turns out to be a cheater, too, so it’s all very convenient and no one’s actually a bad guy in the end. How wonderful that no characters have to engage in any self-reflection or face any consequences for their actions.
What this movie best exemplifies is the emptiness at the core of the “perfect” wedding. Wedding planning is reduced to a series of events designed to mask the deception of a covert affair and friendly gatherings become a masquerade covering up the underlying tension between the Dex, Darcy, and Rachel. Even the title, “Something Borrowed” mocks the innocent wedding tradition of the bride borrowing a loved one’s special item by comparing it to Rachel “borrowing” Dex from Darcy. Something Borrowed is a cynical movie that derides the very concept of weddings, marriage, and fidelity, which makes the happy ending between Dex and Rachel seem so ridiculous. Despite the popularity of “runaway bride” movies and viewers’ ability to root for other protagonists in this genre, there is a limit for how much selfishness and wedding-related deception the audience can stomach. The line seems to be drawn under outright affairs: covert kisses and longing stares are acceptable, but the soon-to-be married protagonist actually sleeping with their true love under their fiancé’s nose pushes the audience’s tolerance for “amoral” romance too far. One needs only to look at the abysmal Rotten Tomatoes reviews of this film, as well as the many scathing audience reviews on Letterboxd, to see that truth.
Final consensus: Audiences typically love the “runaway bride” film for its upending of wedding movie conventions, but movies like Something Borrowed overlook our need for true love to prevail in a “moral” fashion. We’re fine with our protagonists cheating on their fiancés in mind, but not in deed.
My Best Friend’s Wedding: The Antithesis
Quick synopsis: Jules Potter (Julia Roberts) and Michael O’Neale (Dermot Mulroney) had always promised each other that if they remained unmarried by age 28, they’d get married. When Michael tells Jules that he’s engaged to Kimmy (Cameron Diaz), whose peppiness stands in contrast to Jules’ cynicism, Jules realizes that she loves Michael and wants to stop his wedding.
My thoughts: I had to end this post with the very movie that got me started on this train of thought. It features all the genre conventions: best friends who secretly love each other but won’t admit it, a marriage cynic, comical sabotage, sudden confessions, and passionate kisses. Unlike the other movies, however, the protagonist doesn’t end up with the person whose wedding they are trying to sabotage. There is no runaway bride, and instead, the protagonist realizes the selfishness and destructive nature of their actions. In sum, My Best Friend’s Wedding is to the “runaway bride” genre what the “runaway bride” genre is to the wedding movie genre: it upholds the genre for a bit before ultimately critiquing and upending it.
What is the difference between Jules and the myriad other protagonists in the typical “runaway bride” film? Her characterization. Unlike other protagonists in this genre, Jules is portrayed as manipulative, jealous, and selfish. Her desire to be with Michael stems more out of possessiveness than love, and instead of simply trying to win Michael through her love, she tries to alienate him from Kimmy by humiliating her and tricking Michael into thinking that Kimmy is not who she appears to be. She is the essence of every protagonist in the “runaway bride” genre, but she’s the only whose true self is allowed to be seen. If Michael had ended up with Jules, audiences would have walked away discontent, because even in a genre that supports the idea that true love trumps all, there are rules in play: the true love must be won, if not honestly, then earnestly. My Best Friend’s Wedding brings that unspoken rule into the spotlight.
Final consensus: My Best Friend’s Wedding is a necessary addition to every genre: the type of film that critiques the worst aspects of a genre, while also attempting to understand them. Without its presence, the genre would seem vapid at best, narcissistic at worst. This film gives the genre new dimensions.
So how can we characterize the unending appeal of “runaway bride” rom-coms? The plots of all great love stories are “will-they-won’t-theys,” and adding the obstacle of a misguided wedding raises the stakes. Perhaps we like to see the gamification of love, and want to root for the protagonist to “win” back their soulmate. Perhaps we enjoy the cynicism of a movie that pops the idyllic bubble around wedding culture. Perhaps there’s a part of all of us, deep down, who want someone to jump up at our wedding and shout “I object” and whisk us away out the doors. Either way, the popularity of this genre shows that our culture’s obsession with weddings is not as clear-cut as it seems.