Food Infight: Class Warfare in My Best Friend’s Wedding

My Best Friend's Wedding | art by Brianna Ashby
illustration by Brianna Ashby

For those unacquainted with the basic rom-com recipe of My Best Friend’s Wedding, the ingredients are these: Julianne “Jules” Potter (Julia Roberts) has just found out that her college boyfriend turned best friend, Michael (Dermot Mulroney), is marrying the beautiful and well-connected 20-year-old architecture student, Kimberly “Kimmy” Wallace (Cameron Diaz). The news shocks Jules into a panicked state as she realizes maybe she’s still in love with Michael and wants him for herself. Her editor George (Rupert Everett), always the reasonable voice taking her straight to the point, explains, “It’s amazing the clarity that comes with psychotic jealousy.” And so, Jules flies from New York to Chicago with the makings of a haphazard plan in place: “I’m a busy girl. I’ve got exactly four days to break up a wedding, steal the bride’s fella, and I haven’t one clue how to do it.” One thing’s for certain, nothing works up an appetite like physically chasing down the man of your dreams only to spoil his impending nuptials.

The film’s opening scene finds Jules and George at a fancy New York restaurant. The chefs and wait staff are on high alert knowing Julianne Potter, a prominent restaurant critic, is in their midst. Each dish must be perfectly executed. Lives and livelihoods depend on it. The entrée is delivered, and Jules takes a considered bite as the kitchen staff waits with bated breath. “I’m writing it up as inventive and confident,” she says. The proud waiter smiles and gives the chefs peeking through the kitchen window a slight nod of approval. We don’t know how a 27-year-old got this fancy job, or for which publication she writes, or even what her casually-alluded-to book tour entailed, but we are led to believe that Jules is very competent at her job. While she may unsuccessfully navigate the terrain of her emotions and romantic entanglements, she is comfortable here in this fine dining space.

Rather than muddle through or risk showing vulnerability, Jules has decided to avoid complicated romantic feelings entirely. She is the consummate cool girl who prides herself on being “just one of the guys.” She’s a low-maintenance girl next door who is at ease critiquing avant-garde dishes at pretentious New York eateries, but can just as easily chow down on a Chicago-style dog in well-trodden El train entryways. She has evolved beyond romantic entanglements and is eager to prove that men and women really can be friends. If Jules is 27 in 1997, then she would have been 19 the year When Harry Met Sally was released. I like to imagine her—sophomore year at Brown, having just had one hot month with Michael—watching the movie for the first time (on a date maybe) and taking Billy Crystal’s famous theory as a challenge. Now, with the only man she’s apparently ever loved prepared to marry someone else, the table is set for competition.

The phrase “you are what you eat” is usually intended as shorthand to demonstrate that if you eat healthful foods, you’ll be healthy, and that the inverse is also inevitably true. In My Best Friend’s Wedding, Jules takes the notion one step further via a muddled jello versus crème brûlée explanation whereby the film asserts that food is not only indicative of one’s physical health, but also a metaphor for social standing and overall well-being. Food is a reflection of one’s tastes, a palate refined or otherwise, which is then a broader signifier of class and wealth and opportunity.

After a series of escalating schemes, Jules has seemingly succeeded in her mission: Michael confides that the wedding is off. But when the morning of the big day comes, neither he nor Kim have informed the guests. Instead, they unwittingly rely on Jules to mediate, begging her to put back together that which she has (unbeknownst to them) just destroyed. In this role reversal, Jules deploys her theoretical findings as the reason why her best friend—a man who, despite attending Brown University, admits to being uncomfortable around rich people—is not prepared to commit to his seemingly perfect fiancée: “Okay, you’re Michael, you’re in a fancy French restaurant, you order…crème brûlée for dessert. It’s beautiful, it’s sweet, it’s irritatingly perfect. Suddenly, Michael realizes he doesn’t want crème brûlée, he wants something else.” In this hypothetical metaphor, Jules plays—somewhat against type based on her distinguished introduction—the part of easy-going, approachable, non-threatening “jello,” and Kim is beautiful, fancy, impenetrable “crème brûlée.” In describing people as food, and food like people (i.e. inventive and confident), Jules reduces her “new best friend” to a dessert as a means of minimizing Kim’s basic humanity and justifying her own cutthroat sabotage of someone else’s happy ending. However, she doesn’t relish the role. She is the villain, and by this point in the film, she’s almost realized it. Her “jello” isn’t chill and soothing; it’s awful and irredeemable.

Amid the aforementioned food metaphor, sweet terms of endearment (“pumpkin,” “sweet pea,” “sweet, adorable, chocolate-covered Kimmy”), and tasty puns (“My machine eats all my messages,” “George, she’s toast”), it is a spirit of competition that underpins the film’s more traditional elements. Rather than surrendering to the standard love triangle and its three equal sides, Jules takes the hierarchical road in her approach. She stakes a prior claim to Michael. She’s known him longer and is, therefore, more entitled to his love and affection. By pitting herself against Kimmy, Jules is not only competing for Michael, but also waging war against the class system and cultural signifiers.

To a certain extent, My Best Friend’s Wedding was ahead of its time with respect to its relationship to food. It chronologically predates our current “foodie” culture while still managing to tap into its ethos as the new cultural signifier, with food having replaced art as high culture. In a 2012 New York Times Op-Ed, William Deresiewicz argued that, “Foodism has taken on the sociological characteristics of what used to be known…as culture. It is costly. It requires knowledge and connoisseurship, which are themselves costly to develop…It is a vehicle of status aspiration and competition, an ever-present occasion for snobbery, one-upmanship and social aggression.” Jules’ relationship and access to food and fine dining serve as her entrée into a world she greets with disdain and, all the while, fails to recognize her place within it. And so, the scenes of Jules—our snobbish, one-upping, socially aggressive heroine—deploying food as a weapon are dripping with irony.

Speaking of things that seem deliberately contrary to what one expects, we traditionally think of food as something that brings people together—a communal space where friends old and new can break bread and bond. However, for Jules, food and restaurants are means weaponized to achieve her nefarious ends. She cooks up various schemes, executed over first courses, to sow seeds of doubt and discord in her attempts to drive the lovers apart. To mix in a metaphor from sports journalist Michael’s playbook, Jules envisions these dining spaces as her home court advantage. By marrying Michael, Kim is encroaching on her turf, and Jules utilizes the space in which she feels most comfortable to sabotage their relationship. She approaches this task like an assignment, so of course, the competition is set over place settings. And there is no better occasion for food-based functions than one of those “big four-day weddings” with the welcome tea (where Jules is thrown off her game as passed appetizers scatter in her iconic auburn curls); drinks at the ballgame (where she dispenses with beers and misguided advice); karaoke followed by Kim’s grandmother’s dinner (which Jules ditches for hot dogs with Michael); the luncheon following the wedding rehearsal (where she lies about her relationship with George to make Michael jealous); and Sunday brunch before the ceremony (where the jello/crème brûlée analogy is complete). Each event, rather than signifying a safe celebratory space, becomes just another way for Jules to undermine the union.

Breaking up a wedding is complicated business, not for the faint of heart, and Jules is self-admittedly “better with food.” With that context, let’s take a closer look at the aforementioned jello scene between Julianne and Kimmy. In the role of benevolent mediator, Jules shuttles apologetic messages between Michael and Kim, who have yet to decide whether they are breaking up or getting back together. When it comes time to explain to Kim why this union will never work, Jules (always in saboteur mode even if she might be right) takes creative liberties and begins with some psychobabble about Michael’s self-sabotaging delusions and unconscious manifestations, before switching to a metaphor more within her comfort zone:

Kimmy: Jello?! Why does he want jello?

Jules: Because he’s comfortable with jello! Jello makes him…comfortable. I realize, compared to crème brûlée it’s…jello, but maybe that’s what he needs.

Kimmy: I could be jello.

Jules: No! Crème brûlée can never be jello. You could never be jello.

Kimmy: I have to be jello.

Jules: You’re never gonna be jello.

The scene is funny and over-the-top, but still resonates with emotional truth. We laugh as Kimmy registers shock and disgust upon hearing that Michael wants “jello.” And then, we see a flicker of Jules’ vulnerability as her hurt quickly turns into defensiveness. Even with this half-baked explanation, Kimmy understands, and counters with a confession of her own: “Whatever delusions I drove Michael to, there is truth at the heart of it. You see, I want him to work for my father. I want to stay in school. I want a life of my own!” This is the first time Jules—and Kim for that matter—is really honest about her feelings and intentions, and the fact that this conversation is taking place with her “competition” instead of the object of her affection is notable. The purpose of the jello/crème brûlée metaphor is not to explain Michael’s motivations to Kim, but rather, at long last, for Jules to come clean about her own, all under the pretense of being helpful—stepping in as the best friend and maid of honor called to put back together that which she spent the entire movie breaking. In a delicious twist, the metaphor has absolutely nothing to do with Michael (the bland side dish sandwiched between them), and is actually the unconscious manifestation of these women’s anxieties about wealth and success and happiness.

Kim has a tough assignment playing the romantic foil to America’s sweetheart. However, unlike most movie fiancés who are one-dimensional or uniquely awful (i.e. Parker Posey and Greg Kinnear in You’ve Got Mail or Bradley Cooper in Wedding Crashers), My Best Friend’s Wedding plays up Kim’s irresistibility. Jules wants to hate Kimit would make it easy to destroy herbut even she must admit, “If I didn’t have to hate her, I’d adore her.” As Jules becomes more and more despicable, the audience is freed up to fall for Kimmy and thus root for her. This is what makes the ending (spoiled by George halfway through: “He’ll choose Kim, you’ll stand beside her at the wedding, kiss him goodbye, and go home. That’s what you came here to do, so do it.”) so subversive and ultimately so satisfying. By not getting the guy, Jules gets what’s coming to her. But she also gets the perfect dessert: George surprising her once more (lest we forget his first scene-stealing visit, where he impersonates Jules’ fiancé and engages the families in an epic sing-along at Barry the Cuda’s seafood restaurant) in a time of need, showing up at the wedding reception to save her from drowning her sorrows with champagne and cake.

Just as Julianne and Kim do with Michael (“He sucks soup through his front teeth!”), I’ve catalogued the film’s faults for years: the absurdity of a marriage back-up plan taking effect at age 28, the unlikelihood of someone holding onto four or five emails written over lunch, the fact that Michael is marrying a college junior, and the supposition she’ll leave school before senior year to accompany him on the road! And just as they’ve done, I made a command decision that changed my life: I threw the list away.

Loving My Best Friend’s Wedding doesn’t necessarily mean loving all of it, and yet, here I am saying I do. For me, the film is comfort food, a viewing experience craved in sickness and health. Its unexpected take on the happy ending is a palate cleanser compared to the saccharine lies of so many others. It achieves the culinary dissonance that Jules considers impossible for the heartbroken Kim—it’s crème brûlée disguised as jello. With the exception of Michael, who is, quite frankly, blank, the characters (Roberts and Diaz in career-highlighting performances) show real pathos in dealing with issues of love and commitment, jealousy and economic anxiety. Jules is forced to learn that her sense of entitlement carries real consequence. She is a person capable of doing some pretty bad things. She learns that men and women really can be friends, and you’re not always the hero of the greater story. As an audience, we reckon with these themes, too, hardly noticing the unsavory aftertaste, for any such bitterness is presented in the most delightful package, one that goes down smooth, almost as easily as, well, you know…