But by God, There’ll Be Dancing: My Best Friend’s Wedding

Los Angeles, 1997.

It was a scream that woke the whole house—maybe the entire palm tree-lined neighborhood. “My god, what is it, Catherine?,” my dad cried as he and my mother entered my grandma’s TV den. My five-year-old body was convulsing with sobs, my face blotched red, salty tears dripping onto my striped pajamas. I could barely get my words out, opting instead to point to the boxy television set, its antennae trembling slightly. “How. Could. You?,” I wailed. My father looked over at the VCR; the plastic case of My Best Friend’s Wedding was perched on top, its cover seemingly innocent. Julia Roberts’s face was on display, her red mane adorning her perfect features like a halo. “How could you let me watch this HORRIBLE!!!! Movie!!!!” 

Even as a child, I had absorbed—as if in my very DNA—the traditional narrative codes of the romantic comedy. Girl meets Prince Charming. Girl loses the Prince. Girl finds the Prince again, marries him, and they live happily ever after. That P.J. Hogan’s My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997) would deviate so fantastically from the “Marriage Plot,” à la Shakespeare and Jane Austen, was deeply, fundamentally upsetting. And that our hero (or our anti-hero, but more on that later) would end up single—no ring on her finger, no wedding, no guy—was simply unthinkable. At age five, I hadn’t yet heard of a single Victorian novel or caught my first glimpse of feminist theory. And yet—and yet! —I knew how the story was supposed to go.

I can see why my younger self was in crisis. My Best Friend’s Wedding takes an archetype and strays, all while revving up audience expectations; it ruptures our iron-clad assumptions about marriage and happy endings. It’s enough to make us wonder what film universe we’ve stepped into: is this even a romantic comedy, or have we accidentally wandered into a Greek tragedy?

Or is there yet a third option? Because at its core, My Best Friend’s Wedding might most closely resemble the unspooling of a bildungsroman. But if we normally characterize a bildungsroman as a coming-of-age story, in this case, it’s more about our protagonist’s emotional maturation. She will eventually have to abandon her narcissism, but before then, we will have witnessed our heroine scrape the barrel of her ugliest and darkest urges. And yet, she will come out stronger, more resilient, and more deserving of love.

We open with a Greek chorus and a hyperfeminized splash of magenta. Extradiegetic characters, a bride and her pretty bridesmaids, croon to the camera Dionne Warwick’s “Wishin’ and Hopin.’” The warm, melting tone of the scene recalls Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. In this soft prologue, the audience basks in the familiar tropes of romance and female friendship, and catches whiffs of a promised wedding.

We then open onto our brash heroine, a successful food critic, sampling a platter at a Michelin-style restaurant and judging it “inventive and confident.” This is Jules Potter, and, as played by Julia Roberts, you’d be forgiven if your jaw dropped. However, just shy of her 28th birthday, Jules has already been labeled a spinster; we hear numerous times that she hasn’t held a relationship for over two weeks, that she shies away from the dreaded “I love you,” and that she’s generally not up for meeting any “female [priorities], including marriage or romance.” Donning boyish blazers and trousers in shades of gray and beige, Jules is a far cry from the Marilyn impersonators we first met; spiritually, she’s more aligned with a fast-talking, quippy Katharine Hepburn, desperate to remain in control of an unraveling situation. Jules, who perpetually puffs on cigarettes with pulsating energy, is a force majeure.

She explains to her book editor and confidante, George (played by an abundantly winning Rupert Everett), that there’s only ever been one man in her life: Michael O’Neal. Nearly a month after Jules receives an apparently urgent voice message from Michael (Dermot Mulroney), Jules begins to wonder if her college sweetheart-turned-best friend has a marriage proposal for her in the works. Apparently, at the tender age of 21, the two promised each other that if neither had walked down the aisle by 28, they’d marry each other. Now, as the clock ticks, Jules begins to wrap her head around the solemnity of Michael’s imminent proposal. She calls him back in the middle of the night and literally falls off the bed when he announces his true intentions: he’s met the love of his life—and it’s not Jules. It’s rather Kimberly Wallace, a 20-year-old junior at the University of Chicago. And guess what? He’s getting married in four days and desperately needs his best friend by his side. Jules decides to race to Chicago and put the wedding to a screeching halt, and, stepping off the plane, is greeted by the blandly handsome Michael. (While re-watching this film as an adult, I nearly choked on a can of seltzer as Michael walked onscreen; witnessing the angelically beautiful Jules pine after a character with all the charm and charisma of car freshener seems so cruel.)

And then there’s Kim, played by Cameron Diaz—Hollywood’s other It Girl of the late ‘90s, in one of the film’s great surprises. As “dear, sweet, chocolate-covered Kimmy,” Diaz lends anguished vulnerability to the young ingénue; she gallops onscreen, screeching and skipping, all while trying to stifle that inner voice that (correctly) warns her of Jules’s evil plan to disrupt the upcoming nuptials. In another movie, the two would end up becoming begrudging pals, an ode to sisterhood and better angels. But My Best Friend’s Wedding is not that movie.

Instead, the character of Jules embodies the demons of Ovid’s oft-cited Medea: “I can see—and I approve / the better course, and yet I choose the worse.” On the phone to George—Jules’s true best friend—she yells out, “I have to be ruthless!” At every chance she gets, she decides to undermine and sabotage Michael and Kim’s relationship. I won’t lie; to most viewers, Jules’s machinations will be nauseating. They are transparent and false, adding up to an absolutely hollow fantasy of claiming a victory by any and all means necessary. At age five, though, I accepted Jules’s premise that all is fair in love and war.

Jules’s covetous urges culminate in one of the film’s most delightful scenes, set in a neon-lit karaoke bar. Jules has already clocked Kim’s naïve admission that she “can’t carry a tune.” As Jules saunters into the bar (“I didn’t realize this was a karaoke bar,” she relishes announcing), Kim looks like Bambi caught in the headlights. Wearing a buttoned-up cardigan and a strand of pearls, her pulled-back bun in direct contrast with Jules’s flowing, pre-Raphaelite curls, Kim appears utterly petrified. Jules and Michael order for each other—margaritas—while Kim meekly takes an Amstel Light. When Jules tricks Kim into getting up to sing, we register our protagonist’s expectant, devilish glee; before our eyes, Jules morphs into a cocky villain.

Kim opens her mouth and starts to sing a woefully screeching and cracking rendition of “I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself.” Her out-of-tune vocal fry is indeed awful, and at first, when someone from the crowd yells “You suck,” it looks like it’s in the bag for Jules. But then, the viewer and the bar’s audience are reminded together, all at once, that this is Cameron freaking Diaz. She starts to loosen up, sway her hips, and bob to the beat; we eat it up. The room breaks into cheers and clapping, and we see Michael’s initial shocked expression instantly warm, softening into the glowing adoration of a man in love. This isn’t lost on Jules—Kim has definitely won this round. And yet, she cannot stop herself: she will continue to choose and sprint down the worse course.

At one point, George, in all his eminent wisdom, asks Jules point-blank: “Do you really love him? Or is this just about winning?” Inhabiting philosopher René Girard’s theory of mimetic desire (“We desire what others desire because we imitate their desire”), Jules responds that in the beginning, “He belonged to me. But now, when I’m with him, he’s just so wonderful. How come I never knew that when I could’ve had him?” This idea of ownership, of possession of an impossible object of desire, might haunt one or two of us in the audience. I think back to several adolescent occasions when I thought, against all guidance, that I could simply convince an older ex to take me back. Watching Jules now, I can understand and see what Jules cannot—at least not yet: her desire to “win back” Michael isn’t really about love. It will take several more scenes of utter debasement before our Jules will finally grow up. 

Before redemption is made possible, Jules’s evil plotting only worsens. When George flies to Chicago to help her, he advises her to be brutally and vulnerably honest with Michael: tell the truth, tell him you love him. Instead, barely able to vomit out her words, she chooses to lie to Michael and announces that she’s engaged to her (clearly gay) editor and long-term friend, George. Forgetting for a second the problematic trope of a gay man playing the “wise jester” who must now pretend to be Jules’s straight fiancé, we’ll turn to the film’s most elaborate, show-stopping scene.

Kim can barely hide her enthusiasm to learn that Jules is engaged (she can perhaps put to rest her anxieties about her fiancé’s stunning and threatening female best friend), and invites the “happy couple” to her family’s lobster banquet. When asked how they met, George glides through a cockamamy story about meeting in the psych ward. Recounting their supposed first conversation, he pauses dramatically before gently singing, “The moment I wake up / Before I put on my makeup / I say a little prayer for you.” As the surrounding family members, including a delightful Greek chorus of two identically coiffed sisters (played by Carrie Preston and Rachel Griffiths), start to also break into song, certain viewers might feel hard-pressed not to join in. The scene is remarkably campy and great fun (the choreographed musical number even includes background waiters swaying with giant lobster mitts), and reinforces our growing suspicion that our pouting Jules is very much in the wrong.

But it only gets worse by the minute. When Jules decides to send an email from Kim’s father’s work computer to Michael’s boss in the hopes of getting him fired, and thus create irreparable friction between future father- and son-in-law, Jules chooses, once again, the wrong course. And yet, when it looks as if she’s actually succeeded in her evil plan, she feels a pang of cognizant remorse: “I’m a dangerous, criminal person. I do bad things to honest people.” Twirling a cigarette, tears streaming down her face, Jules has taken a long, hard look within; she doesn’t like what she sees. 

Wedding day arrives, and Jules finally bares her soul to Michael. The crazed energy of the previous scene gives way to raw, tender vulnerability: “Michael…I’ve loved you for nine years, but I’ve been too arrogant and scared.” Standing there crying, she begs to be loved: “Choose me, marry me, let me make you happy.” When Kim catches Jules kissing a (stunningly) clueless Michael, she flees the scene. Michael begins chasing her, Jules chases Michael, and, as George screams into the phone to his erring friend, “Who’s chasing you? Nobody!”

Perhaps it’s this—this terror of chasing someone only to realize you’re the only one running—that is the film’s cruelest form of punishment. But, in our strongest signal that Jules is indeed “growing up,” she will eventually make amends with a gamely forgiving Kim, and she’ll even give the maid of honor speech at the wedding. Vibrant as ever in a lavender dress, her eyes glistening, Jules stands up, takes the microphone, and practically whispers her toast through tears: “I had the strangest dream. I dreamt that some psychopath was trying to break the two of you up. Luckily, I woke up and I see that the world is just as it should be, for my best friend has won the best woman.” In this call for forgiveness, Jules has become worthy of the love she so desires. And this time, it’s more than merely realizing her tricks and artifice for what they were, more than the knowledge that a relationship between her and Michael would have been impossible after all of her charades. In declaring her defeat, Jules has started the path to a better way of being alive.

Later, sitting alone at her table, Jules’s phone rings; it’s George. She tells him that the wedding has gone on, unimpeded by her connivance. “The misery, the exquisite tragedy. The Susan Hayward of it all,” he tells her. “I can just picture you there, sitting alone at your table in your lavender gown.” She starts to glance around—“Did I tell you my gown was lavender?”

He continues, just as the wedding band starts to sing, “The moment I wake up…”

“Suddenly, a familiar song. And you’re off your chair in one, exquisite movement…wondering, searching, sniffing the wind like a dapple deer. Has God heard your little prayer? Will Cinderella dance again?” When George finally appears in the crowd, a communal recognition dawns on both us as viewers and on the newly redeemed Jules: this is what true love looks like, even if romance be damned. “What the hell,” George continues. “Life goes on. Maybe there won’t be marriage…maybe there won’t be sex…but by God, there’ll be dancing.” Jules’s growth, her surrender to her own flaws (dark urges and all), leaves her open to the possibility of finding someone worthy. It isn’t just about winning a prize or about possessing another person. Will she find “true love”? She is perhaps on her way, and even if she isn’t, there will at least be dancing. 

At the end, the film has become a moral tale. We fade to black as Jules and George hug each other, laughing ecstatically as the camera swirls dizzyingly around them. I can now see fully what my five-year-old self couldn’t. Jules isn’t just choosing a “better” course—she’s finally found the right one.