Running on Empty Julia Roberts now chooses material that seems designed to play off her public image, and that's not a bad thing. It shows she's done some serious thinking about her image and wants to play around with it; she's turning into the movie star equivalent of Madonna, in that every new project is both a stand-alone piece of entertainment and a commentary on her own life and how it's perceived by the media and the public. If only the material was better than half-baked, or even a quarter-baked. Notting Hill had a fine premise?visiting Yankee movie star falls for anonymous British man, public relations frenzy ensues?but it didn't fully exploit the "What's It Like to Be Famous?" angle, preferring instead to reflect back quaint public notions of what it's like to be famous (a famous person will tell you the two are quite different). Nor did the film give Roberts much to do besides lean on her own name and face. Like Andie MacDowell in Four Weddings and a Funeral, which Notting Hill was built to resemble, she had an essentially reactive role; when her character wasn't being worshipped like a visiting royal, she was stuck gazing at the hero and acting pleasantly surprised that the guy was charming. Runaway Bride, the second Roberts movie in two months, is just as lightweight and a lot less odd and beguiling. Is this because Hugh Grant isn't in it? Or maybe it's that the director is Garry Marshall, a sitcom whiz who never quite left sitcoms behind and still stages scenes as if anticipating yuks from a live studio audience. (Often his actors deliver amusing lines, then wait a beat for a laugh, nodding in a faintly self-satisfied way, as if to say, "So there! I sold the hell outta that joke, didn't I, folks?") Marshall is the kind of director who conveys the idea of "burgeoning affection" by showing us yet another boring dating montage?one that includes a brief shot of the lovers playing cards, bursting into laughter and falling all over the couch, hugging and tickling and laughing. Eleven years ago, The Naked Gun parodied this kind of lazy filmmaking so viciously that I excitedly told friends that perhaps we'd seen the last of it. What was I thinking? The tale itself, about a small-town Maryland woman (Roberts) who routinely flees weddings just before they happen and the journalist (Gere) who falls for her, isn't much to write home about, either. I won't complain that the plot is predictable, because that's a stupid thing to complain about; in most genre films, especially romantic comedies, the whole point is to satisfy the boy-meets-girl-etc. conventions. But it would have been nice if screenwriters Josann McGibbon and Sara Parriott had come at the material from a fresh angle, as Four Weddings and even Notting Hill did?or if they had provided a single character who wasn't pulled right from the romantic comedy starter kit, from the blustering, supportive best gal pal (Joan Cusack, natch) to the saucy, gimlet-eyed grandma who waxes rhapsodic about the hero's "tight buns" and warns the heroine not to be scared of the "one-eyed wonder snake." Roberts' character, Maggie Carpenter, at first seems an original creation?a self-sufficient modern woman who is both irresistibly drawn to matrimony and terrified of it. But the few embellishments are unconvincing, like Maggie's kickboxing and her supposed handiness with tools. (Roberts, who sells herself as an accessible glamourpuss but never was accessible and never will be, holds hammers and wrenches the way a blueblood sorority girl might hold a large trout. Sandra Bullock I could see in this part; she's a bluejeans-and-tank-top movie star. Roberts always seems to be wearing an invisible tiara.) Gere's columnist, Ike Graham?who visits Maggie's hometown hoping to write an article that will redeem the career he lost when he fabricated a column about her?is appropriately wry, bemused and self-satisfied, as quite a few columnists are. But I didn't buy his Bugs Bunny-like ability to be everywhere at once. Nor could I swallow the idea of Richard Gere as a guy so effortlessly charming that he could go to the hometown of a woman he vilified as a "man-eater" in print and win nearly everyone over with little more than a wink and a handshake. Gere's never convincing when he's supposed to be outgoing and likable. An intense, self-enclosed performer, he seems a persuasive leader-type only when he's playing rich men, violent men or men with animalistic sex drives?in other words, men whose power resides in their ability to coerce or manipulate rather than persuade. Together, Gere and Roberts don't strike Pretty Woman-style sparks, and that's because the film is weaker all the way around. Pretty Woman was dumb and retro-misogynist and completely unrealistic. But it also worked from start to finish; it worked because the rich guy-poor girl gimmick is so appealing you have to work overtime to screw it up (Marshall nearly managed it), and because Gere's soft-spoken yuppie shark routine was hilarious when juxtaposed against Roberts' grinning unflappability; an irresistible force met an immovable object and had to bend. You understood why they would be drawn to each other and even why they might end up together. In the cheerful but anemic and inept Runaway Bride, the hero and heroine are drawn to each other and end up together because they're Richard Gere and Julia Roberts, and they got together in their last movie. Beyond that, there ain't nothin' goin' on but the rent. Optimist that I am, I was looking forward to a featherweight but smart movie that both played off Roberts' image as a woman who goes through men like tissues (she seems to have dated every handsome guy in the entertainment industry at some point) and also said interesting things about the lure of marriage in the postfeminist age. That's not as tall an order as it sounds; Runaway Bride could have done all those things and more if it was connected to the world, however tentatively, and if it had precision and wit and an exuberant love of showmanship and surprise, as My Best Friend's Wedding often did. Instead, it's set in a brain-dead fantasyland where people walk about reading newspaper stories out loud to themselves, the small town contains no chain stores of any kind and the hero's acerbic, first-person column runs on the extreme left hand side of the editorial page, in the spot where unsigned staff editorials about the day's most important subjects typically go. In the credit department, Hector Elizondo shows up in a small role, as he always does in Garry Marshall movies, this time as a jovial colleague of Ike's and the new husband of Ike's ex-wife and ex-boss (Rita Wilson). I imagine Elizondo adores Marshall and is grateful that he provides steady employment in top-of-the-line blockbuster movies. But I can't help thinking his presence only underlines the material's weaknesses?and Marshall's general inability to compensate for them. Elizondo looks crisp and handsome in his playboy Manhattan journalist clothes, and he's so game and charming even when delivering bum dialogue that I wondered what the film would have been like if he'd played Gere's part. The guy is funny and dashing and looks great in suits, and unlike Gere, he's a giving actor?a must for romantic comedies. Won't some filmmaker give this great screen comic the romantic leading role he deserves? The Haunting directed by Jan De Bont [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="236" caption="(photo courtesy of Wiki)"][/caption] It's not tough to make an audience jump. All you have to do is show a character moving through the frame, looking for the source of a mysterious and troubling noise, then either 1) make a mysterious creature or apparition materialize unexpectedly in the murky background or 2) have a eager friend, stray cat or other false alarm leap into the frame from somewhere behind the character. If the arrangement of people and objects in the frame doesn't creep out the audience, a good, loud music cue usually will?a flurry of shrieking violins, for example, or a single boom of a bass drum. A sudden and unmotivated shift in camera angles will do the trick as well?for example, a medium shot following the character down a dark hallway that cuts to a reverse angle of the clueless person being snuck up on by an ax-wielding maniac. It's Pavlovian, this bag of tricks. A drooling idiot could combine a couple of them and produce a fair-to-middling horror movie jolt. But a drooling idiot?or for that matter, a merely competent filmmaker?can't create a sense of dread, or understand the difference between terror, which is visceral and technical (don't open that door!) and horror, which is psychological, mythological, spooky, and derives its power more from withheld information than from spectacle. (The Blair Witch Project, which I'll talk about in more detail next week, is a horror movie in the classic sense; it's all about suggestion and the threat of violence, a record of atrocities that are mostly anticipated and feared rather than witnessed.) Drooling idiot: see also, "Jan De Bont." The fiery Dutchman's latest summer blockbuster, The Haunting, contains a couple of good jolts, but they're nothing a monkey couldn't have managed if you showed him a Friday the 13th film and outfitted him with a very small Steadicam. The film is jolting in the way that a bumper-car ride is jolting. Its occasionally startling moments come from the film's brute force and vulgarity, not from anything resembling cleverness or grace. It's enough to make you wonder if the first Speed wasn't a fluke?or if screenwriter Graham Yost or uncredited rewriter Joss Whedon weren't responsible for the lean, compact storyline, the clever gags and the swooningly adolescent, "The world's-coming-to-an-end-so-hold-on-tight-baby" vibe. If De Bont were a stereo, he would only go to 11; just as the Speed films were basically nonstop, feature-length chase sequences and Twister was a feature-length tornado video game, The Haunting is a feature-length amusement park ride, with digitized gargoyles and baby ghosts and spectral hands lunging at the audience every 10 minutes. If Jan De Bont himself visited individual theaters showing other people's movies and periodically jumped up from behind empty seats and yelled, "Boo!" he'd produce the same effect. It works, I guess, but I wouldn't call it good. (Neither would the audience I saw it with at the Sony Lincoln Square theater late last Thursday night. They laughed all the way through. One young mother brought her child along and set him in the aisle in a stroller. That kind of thing offends me as a moviegoer and as a father, but my urge to say something subsided when I realized the kid wasn't the least bit disturbed by all the clomping and roaring and spooking up there onscreen and rarely raised his voice, much less cried. He might as well have been watching tropical fish in a tank. When you can't scare a toddler, it's time to hang it up, wouldn't you say?) Liam Neeson plays Dr. Marrow (ooooh?scary!), a specialist in fear research (a degree offered at What'samatta U.) who is running a highly questionable experiment in a gigantic gothic mansion that's rumored to be haunted. His subjects include Lili Taylor, a sensitive soul; Catherine Zeta-Jones, a lithe, randy bisexual with a different fabulous outfit for every scene (my favorite is a lavender sweater vest with furry, padded shoulders); and Owen Wilson, the talented cowriter of Bottle Rocket and Rushmore who appears to be subsidizing his career as an original and literate storyteller by playing cannon fodder in Hollywood blockbusters. He was savagely beaten by Jim Carrey in The Cable Guy, strangled by the snake in Anaconda and perished on an asteroid in Armageddon. He tops himself here, meeting a fate at the hands of a huge stone lion's head so preposterous and grisly that it is likely to be mimicked on the front steps of the New York Public Library for years to come. The dialogue is screamingly bad even by the standards of Jan De Bont films. The script's idea of amusing and agreeable chitchat is an only-in-Hollywood conversation about which woman is on which prescription medication. Wilson pegs Zeta-Jones as a Xanax addict, and Neeson defuses the impending fight by intoning, "All right, you two, enough about pharmaceuticals. We've got work to do." Later, after Taylor witnesses a spectral apparition and seizes up, Neeson declares, "She's gone into a fugue state. Let's get her to the couch." Neeson was doubtless very well paid for this assignment, but you still feel for the guy?especially when he's trying to open a fireplace grate that hides the remains of a murdered person, then pauses, looks right into the camera and asks, "What am I doing?"