fugging it up

The Fug Girls Rate Julia Roberts’s Movies on their Grinning, Brassy … Julia-ness

Photo: Universal Studios/?2000
Photo: Universal Studios/?2000

Ever since her bouncy reemergence from a live-action sabbatical in 2009’s Duplicity, Julia Roberts has made an annual event of coming out of her hidey-hole to remind America that She’s Still Got It — and this year, the Roberts Pageant is for Larry Crowne, which premieres Friday. Tom Hanks (who also co-wrote and directed) may be the central figure, but in the trailer, your eyes are always drawn to Julia: As with Eat Pray Love before it, this film’s ads care less about the plot than about openly begging you to fall in love all over again with Julia Roberts’s iconic smiles and braying laugh. It’s the very Julianess of her, which, in its purest form, can be defined as an onslaught of brassy charm so dominating, powerful, and confident that it always threatens to tip over into smugness. (Real-life example: her quote when presenting pal Denzel Washington an Oscar, “I love my life.”) This inspired us to look back at the past twenty-plus years of her movies, to gauge the very Julia-osity of her roles through the years, on a scale of 1 to 10. A 10 is pure, unfiltered Julia, which tips over into too much Julia, as if she were starring in a movie called Julia Roberts Reads Her E-mail and You’re Lucky to Hear It; a 5 is the perfect balance of Julia, as if she were in Julia Roberts: A Love Story in Five Coy Smiles and an Open-Mouthed Guffaw. And a 1 is a complete absence of the Julia magic … as if in a movie called The Adventures of a Completely Ordinary Person Who Doesn’t Make You Feel Inadequate in the Slightest. Let the Juliafest begin!

The year: 1988The movie: Mystic PizzaThe role: Daisy, a supposedly promiscuous, poor pizza-slinger who falls for a preppy dude whose little brother is Matt Damon (do you feel old now? You’re welcome).Julia Rating: 4. Yes, she’d been in Satisfaction and an episode of Miami Vice, but this is the “I Remember Julia When … ” role in most people’s minds. It’s Rustic Roberts. The twinkle in the eye is there, but the hair is less tame, ditto the eyebrows, and the upturned I’ve-got-a-secret smirk is more sultry than smug. Essentially, this is before Julia even realized there could be an all-caps JULIA.
The year: 1989The movie: Steel MagnoliasThe role: Shelby, the blushing bride, doomed diabetic, and fan of calling the color pink things like “blush” and “bashful.”Julia Rating: 3. The edges have been softened (and then teased sky-high and hair-sprayed), the aura is mostly angelic, and the eyes radiate earnest warmth. Here, Julia doesn’t simply want you to like her; she wants you to love her, like you would love a mug of hot cocoa in winter. And it works, capturing enough of her burgeoning charisma so that you don’t roll your eyes when — 22-YEAR-OLD SPOILER ALERT — Saintly Shelby kicks the bucket, because she never made the movie all about her. Which makes sense, given that it wasn’t.
The year: 1990The movie: Pretty WomanThe role: Vivian Ward, hooker with the heart of gold (and famous thigh-high boots of pleather).Julia Rating: 5. This is the Julia everyone has wanted Roberts to be again and again, forevermore: pretty, glamorous, a little amiably horsy. In other words, this movie is the perfect Roberts balance: Enough Julia to be good, raucous fun, but not so much that she’s practically throwing up jazz hands to remind you who she is and why you love her. In other words, it’s probably one of the only Julias with whom you really, really wanted to go grab a beer.
The year: 1991The movie: Sleeping With the EnemyThe role: Laura Burney, an abused wife who fakes her own death and then gets stalked by her ex. We’ve all been there.Julia Rating: 2. This particular Julia is unusually watered-down and low-key. When the most interesting thing about your performance is your character’s apparent obsession with dating men who have creepy grooming habits, then clearly you aren’t bringing the best version of yourself.
The year: 1991The movie: Dying YoungThe role: Hilary O’Neil, free-spirited and big-haired girl hired to be the “companion” for a cancer-stricken Campbell Scott.Julia Rating: 8. We assume Julia realized that people had limited tolerance for seeing the adorable fairy-tale prostitute from Pretty Woman getting the curls scared out of her, so she followed Sleeping With the Enemy with a sapfest in which she is deliciously Julia-esque, with her giant curly mane in full force and her giant toothy grin actually serving as a dying man’s only reason to live, dammit, live. If she’d played this role later in her career, her smug Major Movie Star aura may have scored a 10 here; as it is, Julia falls short simply because the screenwriters didn’t think of having her tears definitively cure Campbell Scott’s cancer.
The year: 1991The movie: HookThe role: Tinkerbell, Peter Pan’s feisty fairy companion who is — in this iteration, at least — madly in love with the man-child, despite the fact that he is played by Mork from Ork.Julia Rating: 6. Rumor has it, Roberts hated filming this movie and was tremendously difficult throughout. We suspect she was just peevish about having to wear that hideous pixie wig, and so she overcompensated by cranking up the Julia meter and giving us so much tooth we could’ve spotted gingivitis from the next theater. But, like Sampson, much of Julia’s powers reside in her hair, and without it, ultimately she is impotent and lost (see also: Steel Magnolias, where Shelby dies post-haircut).
The year: 1995The movie: Something to Talk AboutThe role: Grace, whose husband Dennis Quaid cheats on her yet her entire family basically tells her to suck it up and forgive him, because they are all total asshats. (Some editorializing here.)Julia Rating: 3. In the movie itself, Grace sports a dowdy braid and uninspired bangs while her husband runs off into the vagina of another woman. But then! Julia learns the truth, cracks the whip, and lets down her hair — and poof, you finally get the girl on the poster, which wholly misrepresented the first half of the movie by implying the entire film would be good old sunny, dentally conscious Julia having a happy romance with a scorching dude. This isn’t Julia’s fault, per se, but it must be factored into her score nevertheless.
The year: 1996The movie:  Mary ReillyThe role: Julia got a Razzie nomination for playing the titular troubled Irish maid in the employ of one Dr. Jekyll, who seems … a bit off sometimes. Julia Rating: 1. No one goes to a Julia Roberts movie to see her play a downtrodden servant from the Olden Times. Especially not when it’s all severe hair, bleached-out eyebrows, and a foreign accent that makes Kevin Costner sound like a master linguist. The only explanation is that even Julia needed a break from her own Julia-osity by this point.
The year: 1997The movie: My Best Friend’s WeddingThe role: Julianne Potter, neurotic singleton who doesn’t appreciate (nor listen to) her Gay Best Friend nearly as much as she ought to.Julia Rating: 7. This was the movie that heralded, loudly, the return to the Julia you love, with neither accents nor wigs in sight. She’s got the unruly-yet-fabulous hair, the giant grin, and “Julianne Potter” even sounds like “Julia Roberts” … all that’s missing is a blinking graphic at the bottom of the screen screaming, “You’re welcome, America!” And fortunately, this particular script helps Julia out by requiring her to own the fact that her character is kind of bratty, and thus keeping her just barely on the charming side of cocky.
The year: 1999The movie: Notting HillThe role: Globally beloved film star Anna Scott, who, in a crazy turn of events, falls in love with commoner Hugh Grant. Because movie stars never fall in love with normal people! Ahem, Julia.Julia Rating: 10. Girlfriend’s basically playing Julia Roberts, but with brown hair and a dumber filmography. The entire film is a love letter to her and her face, her charm, her random bursts of laughter, her damp, dewy eyes, and her ability to blather about just being a girl standing in front of a boy, yada yada yada, you know the rest. The occasional, guilty charms of the film notwithstanding, it might as well have been called Don’t You Just Love Julia Roberts?!?
The year: 1999The movie: Runaway BrideThe role: Maggie, a commitment-phobe whom everyone manages to find charming despite her kind of nasty habit of ritually jilting people.Julia Rating: 10. It seems our collective embrace of My Best Friend’s Wedding had Roberts Inc. a little overconfident. The entire thesis of this movie is that Julia is both a selfish jerk and also totally irresistible to men — all men, even her friends’ husbands. But it’s okay! Because she’s Julia, and Julia can get away with anything! Right? Right?
The year: 2000The movie: Erin BrockovichThe role: Erin “Oscar Bait” Brockovich — crusader for justice, romancer of Aaron Eckhart, and embracer of skimpy wardrobe.Julia Rating: 5. Julia must have been concerned about overexposure in the rom-com arena, because Brockovich dials down the soft-focus, all-purpose adoration and dials up the sass (and the cleavage; we hope they made a tiny replica Oscar and awarded it to her bra). Brockovich uses Roberts’s brash side at its appealing best, and in service of the plot — something that hasn’t really happened since. Her Julia-osity is impossible to ignore in this movie (she’s all sass and hair and teeth), but it also totally works for the character she’s playing. By the end, you’re rooting for that ballsy dame in the tank tops.
The year: 2001The movie: Ocean’s ElevenThe role: Tess Ocean, ex-wife of George Clooney and fiancée of Clooney’s archenemy, Andy GarciaJulia Rating: 9. This whole movie (which we affectionately refer to as Hotties on Parade) is basically a highly entertaining excuse for a bunch of good-looking actors to get paid to hang out. Roberts’s role involves primarily sporting glossy hair and pretty clothes, receiving a lot of moony-eyed gazes from a dreamy Clooney, and a long first scene in which she is clearly meant to be gliding gracefully toward the camera but in which, instead, she awkwardly clomps, seemingly barely remaining upright. This decidedly human gait saves her from being awarded yet another superhuman Perfect 10 of Insufferable Julianess, because it’s sort of hilarious, which makes it charming instead of annoying.
The year: 2003The movie: Mona Lisa SmileThe role: Katherine Ann Watson, a liberal-minded art history teacher at all-girls’ college Wellesley, who tries to change lives like she changes beretsJulia Rating: 2. Even bright red lipstick on that iconic mouth can’t change the fact that this is a very odd incarnation of Julia, one that we recently pegged as one of our most amusing miscasts. She somehow manages to make a character that’s supposed to be a free spirit seem boring and frowzy. Did Julia learn nothing from the disaster that was Mary Reilly? Her charms are not meant for a period piece — not even one where they’ve done their best to liven her up with makeup.
The year: 2004The movie: CloserThe role: Anna Cameron, a photographer in a twisty web of sexual intrigue with Jude Law, Clive Owen, and Natalie Portman.Julia Rating: 3. As the shine on Julia’s Brockovich Oscar started to dull, we suspect this adaptation of a popular, brutal play was conceived as awards bait; after all, Julia brought her blonde Erin Brockovich hair with her. Too bad she left the Oscar-winning boobs at home, because it was awfully hard to swallow the traditionally sassy and brassy La Roberts as part of a megaserious, super-depressing love quadrangle, and the cleavage, at least, might have helped make the whole thing palatable.
The year: 2004The movie: Ocean’s TwelveThe role: Tess Ocean, now the wet-blanket wife of George Clooney’s character.Julia Rating: Both 0 and 10. We have never seen an actress look more sickly and unlovingly lit as she is at the beginning of this sequel — Julia spends most of this movie pregnant (as Roberts was in real life) and looking like she’s about to vomit (possibly ditto) — to the point that we wondered which crew members she had wronged in a past life. And yet by the end of the movie, Roberts’s character Tess has been forced, by a particularly ridiculous turn of the plot, into impersonating Actual Julia Roberts, with so much squawking and braying that viewers feel like they fell into the petting zoo at the county fair. Turns out zero to meta in two hours is way, way too fast.
The year: 2006The movie: Charlotte’s WebThe role: Charlotte, a wise lady-arachnid whose gossamer commentary on the pig Wilbur saves him from being slaughteredJulia Rating: 7. They’re both leggy, they’re both follicularly blessed, and they’re both mothers of multiples. But this film gets its high Julia rating mostly for the fact that this is a movie of a children’s book we absolutely adore, yet the whole time Charlotte is yapping, we’re thinking, We liked that spider more when she was a hooker. Photo: TM & Copyright ?2005 by Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.
The year: 2007The movie: Charlie Wilson’s WarThe role: Texas socialite and real person Joanne Herring, who talks Tom Hanks’s title character into helping the CIA do something with arms deals in Afghanistan. (We weren’t really paying attention.)Julia Rating: 3. This movie marked Julia’s live-action return to the big screen following her three-year childbirth break, but we wish she’d eased us in with, like, My Other Best Friend’s Wedding instead of hootin’ and hollerin’ at us in a bad Southern accent and a wig that belongs in a backwater diner called Fancy’s. Even she looks like she can’t believe it. We’re not sure who on Team Julia decided that her comeback ought to involve what is essentially an elaborate disguise, but we hope they’ve been fired. When you’re reminding America of your innate awesomeness (and massive box-office clout), you don’t want to do it undercover. Photo: HO
The year: 2009The movie: DuplicityThe role: Claire Stenwick, who is/was in the CIA, and is involved in a corporate espionage sting with Clive Owen, maybe … ?Julia Rating: 8. Did anyone actually pay attention to the plot, including the filmmakers? Really, this was just an excuse to get Julia and Clive together in a movie that they could market as a sexy, fun caper — when in reality the only thing we could keep track of was the quality of curl formation in Julia’s hair and how nicely she grooms her eyebrows these days. Which is precisely how those marketing gurus got us in the door in the first place. Okay, that, and the fact that Clive’s not so tough on the eyes. Photo: Copyright: ? 2008 Universal Studios. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
The year: 2010The movie: Valentine’s DayThe role: Army Captain Kate Hazeltine, who banters with Bradley Cooper on a plane wearing both fatigues and a sensible cardiganJulia Rating: 3. We are clearly expected, upon first sight, to be like, “Check it! Julia looks so regular! I hope they have sex.” But despite the fact that Julia’s attempts at reserve come off a tad frosty, she’s actually fairly restrained and forgettable in the role itself, as if she’s laudably trying to fight the innate me-me-me nature of making any cameo appearance in anything. Photo: Ron Batzdorff/? MMIX New Line Productions, Inc.
The year: 2010The movie: Eat Pray LoveThe role: Liz Gilbert, memoirist and proponent of eating, praying, and loving.Julia Rating: 11. Every single preview, and in fact this entire film, felt like one long Iconic Julia Moment Montage. She laughs! She smiles! She tosses her hair! She eats pizza! She is Julia! If we’ve learned anything here, it’s that Julia Roberts shines in movies that use her innate brassy exuberance to move the plot forward, like Pretty Woman, Erin Brockovich, and My Best Friend’s Wedding. But when her personality is front and center simply for the reason that, well, she’s Julia Roberts and it’s criminal not to like that … that’s when everything falls apart. Despite what we’ve been asked to believe, a toothy smile actually can’t fix everything. No matter how hard you try.
The Fug Girls Rate Julia Roberts’s Movies on their Grinning, Brassy … Julia-ness