This week at Monkey See, we’re looking at friendship in pop culture.
In the 1997 film My Best Friend’s Wedding, Julianne (Julia Roberts) rushes to stop the wedding of her best friend Michael (Dermot Mulroney) to the adorable Kimmy (Cameron Diaz). (Spoilers follow, so if you haven’t been paying attention to cable for the last 15 years, take heed.)
An oddly subversive little story, it ends with Julianne not getting the man, who she probably doesn’t actually want anyway, but instead fixing what she almost broke by getting him back together with Kimmy in time for their wedding. Along the way, she gets help from George (Rupert Everett), who’s … her best friend.
I’ve always thought this movie was a particularly interesting examination of all kinds of things — Julia Roberts didn’t seem to really want the path that seemed most obvious for her after Pretty Woman, and she’d done Robert Altman’s Pret-a-Porter and the domestic comedy-drama Something To Talk About and the thriller Sleeping With The Enemy, but she wasn’t really doing the romantic comedy thing very much. Her best romantic comedy, the charming and undervalued Notting Hill, came later. Here, she was still trying out twists on likable heroines — in this case, a selfish person who mistook possessiveness for romantic love.
But it’s also an interesting look at what the term “best friend” actually means. Michael is Julianne’s official best friend; he is the person she christened her best friend in college, and at no time did they decide they were not best friends, so they still are. George, however, is her actual closest friend. She doesn’t want to give up her closeness with Michael, but when something bad happens, when she’s upset, it’s George she calls.
It gets at something curious about adult friendships, which is that the whole idea of “best,” of ranking people right up to the very top, is not only sort of childish, but substantively false, particularly if it’s intended to be permanent. People drift nearer and farther all the time, and there are a million definitions of closeness — who knows you best? Who’s there for you? Who do you trust completely? With whom are you completely honest? With whom can you pass the most time? These may not all be the same person.
The role the term plays in this movie is very much the role it plays for a lot of people: it’s a way of overcoming the tricky elasticity of the word “friend.” People love to gripe in the age of Facebook that it’s social media that has made “friend” a meaningless term, but in fact, it’s always been unsatisfactory that the term you used for the person you would run to at the worst moment in your life was referred to by the same term as someone from work who gave you a ride home occasionally but had never met your spouse. It’s always been tempting to distinguish those people who are soulmates, who are the primary enrichers of your life. And so, even though it sounds dopey, we say “best friend,” just like we did when we were six years old and creating the first one-on-one bonds with people outside our families that we’d ever know.
People say “best friend” because it recognizes what you might call, for lack of a less academic-sounding garble, “platonic intimacy.” It says, “This is a person who is not like normal, ordinary friends, but who is the ‘I would drive anywhere at two in the morning for you without complaining’ kind of friend.” Or, in the case of Pam Ribon’s book You Take It From Here, which is a wonderful look at a relationship like this, the “I would manage your life in the event of your death” kind of friend. One of the reasons Bridesmaids was so affecting was that it really honored how important those relationships are and how painful it is when they’re jeopardized. It was great to see Kristen Wiig play the fact that you can feel just as devastated, just as undone and disoriented, by losing friends as by losing boyfriends. Breakups are common dramatic fare, but as I recently talked about on our podcast, the saddest breakup on My So-Called Life, after all, was Angela and Rayanne.
If you know how My Best Friend’s Weddingends, you know that George proves to be just the best friend Julianne needs after her best friend gets married. It’s one of my favorite endings a movie like that has ever pulled out, because it’s so sad and happy and true.