My Best Friend’s Wedding is the spiritual sequel to Muriel’s Wedding, and one of the slyest and most irreverent of 90s romantic comedies – effectively a deconstructed version of what the genre entails, with easily the most original and provocative ending of any American romcom of the decade. It’s also an apotheosis of 90s style – Julia Roberts’ hair never looked frizzier (at one point she compares it to Jello), and the sheen of 90s romcom cinema never looked more airbrushed or seamless than it does in some of the big set pieces here. For that reason, My Best Friend’s Wedding touches on some of the key questions that obsessed 90s romcoms. It deals with the decreasing consensus around marriage, and the pleasures of marriage, addressing the ideal romcom viewer as someone whose best friend has got married, but who is unsure about marriage themselves, or hasn’t experienced a proposal of their own. It also deals with the question of whether men and women can truly be friends, and whether a man and woman can reference and relish their romantic times together without any danger of lapsing into romance once again. This question was cemented by When Harry Met Sally, and already felt tired then, so it’s perhaps not surprising that My Best Friend’s Wedding quickly discards it in favour of a much more timely question: whether a woman can be close to a straight man in the same way that she can be close to a gay man.
This question corresponds to a shift in the role of the gay best friend in 90s romcoms. In the early 90s, gay best friends were rarely openly gay, and always played the role of a side character, helping the female protagonist to find love while only hinting at a fully-formed love life of their own. In the mid-90s, however, that attitude started to shift. Not only were gay best friends openly gay, but screenwriters started to suggest that the friendship between a gay man and a straight woman was the most rewarding relationship possible – the exemplar of a queer kinship unavailable within the rigorous heternormativity of romcom cinema. Films like The Object of My Affection and Three to Tango reinvented the premise of Three’s Company for a new era, while Will and Grace presented this connection between a gay man and a straight woman as a new kind of domestic orientation. This is also the focus of My Best Friend’s Wedding, and contours the way it configures its four main characters. First, we have Julianne Potter, played by Julia Roberts, a food critic living and working in New York. Then, we have Michael O’Neal, played by Dermot Mulroney, Julianne’s ex-lover and best friend, a sports writer living in Chicago. We also have George Downes, played by Rupert Everett, Julianne’s gay best friend, an editor who lives in New York. Finally, we have Kimmy Wallace, played by Cameron Diaz, who is announced, early on, as Michael’s fiancée.
Michael’s announcement of his marriage to Julianne sets the story in motion. With only a week until the wedding, she flies to Chicago, and tries to get in the way of Michael’s relationship with Kimmy. Her motivations, however, are unclear, since while Michael’s wedding announcement clearly produces some sort of epiphany, she doesn’t really seem to love him, or want to marry him. It’s more that she doesn’t want him to marry Kimmy, or to marry anyone, since this would ruin the post-romantic quality of their own friendship. More specifically, it becomes clear that she wants Michael to be available in the same way as a gay best friend, even if the only way she can articulate this is to try and reclaim him as her lover. As a result, there’s a weird lack of focus and pleasure to these early scenes in Chicago – a kind of hetero-pessimism in which Hogan doubles down on the insane narrative premises that were used to calibrate changing gender roles in romcoms of the mid-late 90s. No relationship feels authentic – apart from Julianne’s friendship with George – meaning that the central love triangle is weirdly delibidinised, forcing Hogan to introduce one heightened mise-en-scene after another in lieu of genuine or compelling romantic feelings.
These heightened mise-en-scenes take three main forms, which together comprise most of the middle part of the film. First, Hogan injects a manic energy into Julianne’s interactions with George and Kimmy – she first meets Kimmy in a speeding car, gets claustrophobic soon after, when she’s trapped in a lift, and continually bangs into members of the bridal party when she meets them for the first time. At the very moment at which the love triangle first interacts, Hogan creates a kind of sub-screwball inanity that exceeds the energy of regular screwball even as it divests it of the authentic romantic feeling that suffused most of the great screwball pairings. This restless energy segues into the second kind of mise-en-scene that substitutes for convincing romantic feeling – musical spectacles. From the opening credit sequence, which features a stylised rendition of “Wishin’ and Hopin’,” the film perpetually breaks into Burt Bacharach numbers, most of which are associated with Dusty Springfield in some way, gesturing towards the spectrum between normcore and queer kinship along which so much of the film plays out. Finally, these sub-screwball energies and musical interludes are couched in an enormous sense of scale that starts with the aerial shots of Chicago from the window of Julianne’s plane as she descends into the city. All in all, this is probably the most expansive vision of Chicago since Ferris Bueller’s Day Out, culminating with a romantic reunion between Julianne and Michael that plays out with the entirety of Soldier Field in the background, including a packed crowd and a live Bears game.
This enormous sense of scale is obviously designed to give the love triangle gravitas, but it ends up removing us so far from the key players that it seems designed to distance us from how implausible their romantic narrative actually is, especially when set against Julianne’s friendship with George. All three of these spectacles – inanity, musicality, scale – converge upon the wedding, which is both inconceivably vast in scale, but also composed of granular processes that grow more manic and inane as the film proceeds. In fact, the wedding operates largely by draining pleasure, turning it into a delibidinal presence, a source of anhedonia, that decelerates the characters and events whenever they come close to it. The nearer this romcom comes to a wedding, the less romantic and humorous it actually is, and the more it presents heternormativity as a contrivance, along with the romcom genre that services it. Once again, the result is a kind of hetero-pessimism, in which the conventions of the romcom – and the affective world that they serve – is shown to be woefully inadequate.
Ironically, this hetero-pessimism means that George is in the film less than a gay best friend would be in a more conventional feature. In a more normcore film, the gay best friend was often quite an officious role – present at every beck and call of the main woman, like a handbag, until she’d secured a partner, at which point all this queer energy would vanish back into the ether. Here, however, George’s friendship with Julianne is too integral to the film for him to be sidelined into constant availability. Instead, we get a strong sense that he has a life of his own – the most satisfying and functional life of the film, especially in contrast to Julianne’s infantile intrusions into his personal space, along with the even more abject infantilism that greets him from the wedding party when he finally arrives in Chicago.
George’s trip to Chicago is one of the comic highlights of the film, since it riffs brilliantly on the reception of gay men in romcoms at this point in time. In the mid-90s, gay men were often seen as a space of deferred desire, encouraging lovestruck women to fantasise that someday, somehow, they might managed to “turn” them to heterosexuality. This fantasy plays out in My Best Friend’s Wedding when Julianne tells Michael that George is her lover, in a ploy to make him jealous, and to induce him to leave Kimmy to resume their relationship. In another kind of romcom, this conceit might last the whole film – it sustained several seasons of Three’s Company – but it ends abruptly and somewhat awkwardly here, since Julianne really wants Michael to be jealous of her friendship with George, rather than to her fictional relationship, meaning that there’s no need to keep up the conceit of a lover.
This shift away from the Three’s Company premise leads to the third act, which in some ways is the most original and provocative part of the film. During the second act, Julianne starts to treat Michael as a gay man – if not romantically, then structurally, making it clear that she wants him to occupy the same place in her libidinal economy as George. In effect, she wants to restore Michael to the position of gay best friend despite the fact that she already has a best friend, gesturing to one of the awful hierarchies that often structured 90s cinema – the fact that her best friend comes above her gay best friend, despite the fact that her gay best friend is her real best friend, and precisely because he is gay. Put more bluntly, Julianne wants to leverage George’s queer kinship so that Michael can personify it in a non-queer film – so Michael can pass for gay – in response to which George parodically passes for straight in the best comic set piece of the film. While still pretending to be Julianne’s lover, George bonds with Kimmy’s family by leading them in a singalong of “I Say a Little Prayer for You” at a Chicago restaurant, squaring the circle between normcore Bacharach and queer Bacharach. The inanity of the love triangle now becomes a source of camp, as George unleashes a queer energy amongst the bridal party that consists precisely in the heightened, performative heterosexuality of the classic romcom, as he calls Julianne one cutesy nickname after another, and piles detail upon detail on the story of their meet-cute.
By refusing to pass for straight, George makes it impossible for Julianne to believe that Michael can pass for gay, or that queer kinship can exist without queer culture. This ushers in the third part of the film, as Julianne goes from trying to remodel Michael as a gay best friend, to being the gay best friend herself, working tirelessly over the third act of the film to restore Michael and Kimmy’s relationship, while realising that she is “practically the best man.” From the beginning of the film, queer kinship is presented as a glimpse of new social media, just as queerness partly consists in knowing how to navigate the new closeness and collectivity of social media. With the exception of their opening dinner date, Julianne and George spend most of the film apart, and communicate largely via mobile phones, answering machines and email. Her first conversation with George is about how to navigate a mobile phone conversation with George, while her coming-of-age as a gay best friend involves an email scam that she only eventually resolves with George’s assistance. Her crisis, as a gay best friend, peaks during a mobile conversation in which she calls George at a book launch while she’s trying to compensate for this email crisis with a manic car chase, swerving around downtown Chicago while “What the World Needs Now” plays out placidly.
Normally, this most iconic of Bacharach songs is used to suggest romantic epiphany, but here it accompanies an anti-romantic epiphany, as Julianne realises that her vision of romance, and her plans for a wedding, are just a fantasy, and that the real part of her affective life is the queer kinship she shares with George. Hence her extraordinary speech at George and Kimmy’s reception, where she reflects that “I had the strangest dream – I dreamed that some psychopath was trying to break you up.” In these final minutes, Julianne seems to awaken from the psychopathic dream of the romcom genre, which has become parodically rote in the previous scenes – so unconvincing that Hogan has to actually incorporate a surrogate audience during the climactic showdown between Julianne and Kimmy, which feels desperately in need of a laugh track to keep the real audience engaged.
By contrast, these final moments of the film seem to gesture towards a new way of being that exists outside the scope of the romcom as it was understood in the mid-90s. Hogan captures this new way of being through the only mobile-to-mobile conversation in the film – very conspicuous in a screenplay that subsists on mobile-to-landline, or landline-to-mobile calls. As George and Kimmy get up to dance, Julianne receives a call from George on her mobile while she’s sitting at the bridal table. At first, she assumes he’s calling from New York, on a landline, but as he describes the scene she gradually realises that he is present in the same space, remaking the wedding in the image of their queer kinship. In a sustained tracking-shot, we follow Julianne as she tries to find where George is calling from – tries to find the other end of the line – exploring every nook and cranny of the reception, here reimagined as repository for all the nuances and valencies of their uniquely queer rapport. Only in these last moments does the film really occupy the queer kindship, and the frisson of social media, that is has yearned for every since the first scene, as the mobile call goes on and on, expanding out to a whole worldview that ends with Julianne’s breathless reflection that “Maybe there won’t be marriage, maybe there won’t be sex, but there will be dancing.”
This final sentiment feels more like a queer liberationist manifesto from the 80s than the conclusion of a romantic comedy in the 90s – proof that Julianne has gone from simply depending on a gay best friend to luxuriating in the ethics and ethos of queer kinship. Concomitantly, the gay best friend has now shed even the most residual elements of comic relief, and is instead associated with a new kind of tactility, proximity and attachment. In these last moments, Hogan not only suggests that the queer world is more functional and healthy than the straight world, but that queer people have already learned the lessons of closeness and collectivity that their straight peers are starting to glimpse through social mediator. Here, as in Muriel’s Wedding, queer people are literally social mediators, which perhaps explains why My Best Friend’s Wedding finally feels like the spiritual sequel to Muriel’s Wedding. Both films take an awry approach to the wedding as the epicentre of romantic comedy, while both Julianne and Muriel are so obsessed with romcom tropes that they never really feel natural as romcom characters. Rather, they both occupy an odd space between the diegesis of their respective stories and the non-diegetic world that romcoms address, producing weird bursts of affect, and puncturings of the fourth wall, that result in the Bacharach sequences in My Best Friend’s Wedding and the ABBA sequences for Muriel.
While critics might have regretted that Dermot Mulroney was impossibly bland as Michael, then, it’s hard to see how he could have been any other way, as Hogan is ultimately utterly disinterested in him, treating the romcom as a placeholder for the friendship between a gay man and a straight woman. After accelerating and exhausting all of the romcom tropes of the last decade, My Best Friend’s Wedding concludes that the most authentic relationships partake of queer kinship enough to refrain from those tropes. Of course, the spectre hanging over the last part of the film is the possibility of gay marriage, since it’s unthinkable, for My Best Friend’s Wedding, that George might be the one to get married, even if it’s also a logical way to read the title. Yet in another sense, George is already married, or has the security and stability that is affectively equated with marriage in the 90s romcom, since he’s married to the queer life that Julianne longs to be a part of. Recently, Emma Watson described herself as self-coupled, rather than single, and George is self-coupled here, coupled with his life as a gay man in ways that make him feel grounded and nurtured despite the fact that we never find out whether he is “single” or “in a relationship.” By the end of the film, those labels don’t even ramify any more, as Hogan jettisons us away from the romcom and into a new affective space that still feels modern, touching and urgent twenty-five years later – the perfect ending to a romcom that hasn’t dated in the slightest.