Watch 'Mystic Pizza': Julia Roberts' Real Breakout Movie


20th Century Fox

Julia Roberts is having yet another one of her moments with the success of Eat Pray Love, and it's the beginning of fall, and I found myself with a hankering to revisit Mystic Pizza. It makes sense that Pretty Woman is the movie that marks Roberts' arrival—she had to carry half of it, and it made $463 million million in theaters to Mystic Pizza's $12.8 million. But Mystic Pizza is a much better movie, and Roberts' role in it is much more interesting than her Hooker With a Heart—and Credit Card—of Gold.

Part of it is that Roberts has to share the movie, and she benefits from it—she's still playing angry the exact same way 22 years later, and her rages are balanced out when there are other talented young women wanting other things around her. There's Lili Taylor screaming at Vincent D'Onofrio from a Connecticut dock, "I don't have to marry an asshole! It's the '80s!" There's Annabeth Gish as Kat, clumsily seducing the father of the little girl she's babysitting. It all makes Roberts dumping two barrels of fish into a Porsche convertible seem just as crazy as it is, rather than charmingly eccentric.

Roberts' character Daisy is just as sexually knowing in Mystic Pizza as she is in Pretty Woman, but the stakes actually feel higher, because they're plausible. She hopes that sex will get her out of Mystic, and the guy she hopes will whisk her off in that Porsche once it's aired out is using her to act out. When one of his female friends refers to her as a hustler in a bar, she stares her down, and sinks a pool shot. She is a hustler, and she knows it, unlike her hooker character, who is meant to be unblemished, a college girl on a diversion, an innocent.

The class dynamics of Mystic Pizza are also a lot more honest, and a lot more interesting, than the ones in Pretty Woman. In that latter movie, an uneducated hooker can be pals with an elderly shipping magnate as long as she's purehearted enough and sweet about that incident with the escargot. Her ignorance is supposed to be adorable and remedied with a lot of money that will completely erase the years she spent on the streets. 

In Mystic Pizza, another character doesn't have to show up to introduce class tension into the story: it's present in the family itself. Daisy and her sister Kat may have been born into the same family, but Kat's grown up into an escape trajectory. She's going to Yale, even if that fate doesn't keep her from sleeping with a married guy who regrets his own failure to find an authentic and exciting life at that same institution. Daisy hates her for that capacity, at least a little. Whether by choice or natural apportionment of that ability, she hasn't found a way out of her own, and she's so anxious about it that she self-sabotages, seeing class prejudice even when it's not there. The girls work at a restaurant that's struggling with its own internal class dynamic: it wants to stay a working-class, tradition-based institution even as the owner hopes that a review from a famous television critic will put it in vogue and draw in tourist traffic in anticipation of the New Haven pizza hysteria.

It's got all the '80s hallmarks: ridiculous dresses, slightly metallic swelling string music around the love scenes, awful preppies. But the movie's got a lot of great little details: fine performances by William Moses and Adam Storke; D'Onofrio in his brief moment as a lusciously promising sex symbol, and a principled one, to boot; a very, very young Matt Damon. It's corny, sure, the restaurant gets an ace review, and there's a lot of personal growth that happens along the way. But the compromises feel real, as do the failures. And it all happens in Connecticut—no trips to Bali, or even Hollywood, required.
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Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture writer with The Washington Post.

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