It’s hard to overstate how much of a Hollywood icon Julia Roberts is. A movie star in every sense of the word, she has a graceful, warm, and magnetic presence that permeates all of her roles, from Steel Magnolias to the Oceans trilogy to Mona Lisa Smile and Erin Brockovich, which earned her an Academy Award in 2001. Above all, however, Roberts made a name for herself through her decades-spanning work in the beloved, albeit sometimes disparaged, romantic comedy genre.
Ever since her star-making turns in Mystic Pizza (1988) and Pretty Woman (1990), she has proven an essential ingredient in turning seemingly basic and cheesy stories into fully engrossing, highly successful films. Roberts has been commanding the screen for well over 30 years, and while she excels in dramas like Brockovich and thrillers like Conspiracy Theory, no type of film has given the spotlight to her charisma and star power better than the rom-com. It has long been declared that the romantic comedy—at one point the most powerful vehicle for Hollywood actors—has been dead since the 2000s, but Roberts, like Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum with The Lost City earlier this year, has thankfully returned to breathe new life into the form with director Ol Parker’s Ticket to Paradise, opposite another icon of the genre, George Clooney.
Ticket to Paradise, which hits theaters on Oct. 21, marks Roberts’ first rom-com leading role in nearly 20 years (her words, not mine), so there’s no better time to reflect on her monumental contributions to the genre. To celebrate the occasion, TIME watched and ranked every entry in the expansive Julia Roberts Romantic Comedy Cinematic Universe.
16. Mother’s Day (2016)
The late Garry Marshall’s foray into romantic comedies undoubtedly peaked early, with Pretty Woman. Every single collaboration with Roberts that followed was worse than the last. Mother’s Day is certainly the most unbearably awful entry in their rom-com saga; it feels so much like a fever dream it almost enters horror territory. An ensemble comedy co-starring Kate Hudson, Jennifer Aniston, and Jason Sudeikis, Mother’s Day—about how this group of interconnected characters prepares to celebrate the holiday—is chock-full of jokes that don’t land. Worst of all, Roberts, who plays a Home Shopping Network star selling jewelry and is adjacent, rather than central, to the film’s romantic storylines, wears a distractingly haunting bobbed wig, which she apparently brought upon herself for some reason.
15. Valentine’s Day (2010)
With the likes of Anne Hathaway, Taylor Swift, Jennifer Garner, Ashton Kutcher, and Patrick Demspey included in its stacked ensemble, Marshall’s holiday rom-com—the first of three with Mother’s Day coming last and New Year’s Eve sandwiched in between—seems like a movie crafted in a lab for the sole purpose of seeing how many A-list actors circa 2010 you could squeeze into one cast. Weaving in and out of the lives of a dozen or so characters, some in relationships and others in more complicated romance-adjacent situations, it tells the stories of the various ways they navigate and celebrate the eponymous day of love. Valentine’s Day manages to feature some sweet moments, but they never come together to form anything even remotely memorable. Thankfully, Roberts gets the right end of the stick by being paired up with Bradley Cooper, despite both being disappointingly underutilized. But not even their banter is enough to save Valentine’s Day.
14. Larry Crowne (2011)
Directed and co-written by Tom Hanks, this comedy tells the story of Hanks’ titular middle-aged man who decides to enroll in community college after being fired from his job at a Walmart-like store. Among the many unrealistic things that occur throughout its 98-minute runtime—like all of his classmates coming together to help him move out of his house—a true highlight is when Larry gets asked to join a scooter gang spearheaded by Wilmer Valderama. Roberts plays Larry’s speech class teacher, Mercedes Tainot (a stellar name, I’ll give it that), an incessantly unhappy and borderline alcoholic woman in a loveless marriage who—shocker!—begins to develop feelings for Larry. While a heartwarming and sentimental film on the surface, its humor feels painfully forced and the romance between Mercedes and Larry is lackluster and devoid of chemistry. Roberts, entertaining as always though, puts the “Crown” in Larry Crowne.
13. I Love Trouble (1994)
Penned by the rom-com mastermind Nancy Meyers and helmed by Charles Shyer, I Love Trouble is a blend of screwball comedy and conspiracy thriller that follows rival Chicago reporters who are forced to work together to uncover a bovine hormone conspiracy. Full of goofy, half-baked humor and cliches, it’s a run-of-the-mill ‘90s comedy that could have perhaps benefited from leaning more heavily into its romantic layers. Roberts and co-star Nick Nolte famously didn’t get along on set, to the extent that many of their scenes together were filmed with stand-ins. The pair, unsurprisingly, feels incompatible, although their off-screen tension sometimes works in their favor.
12. Eat Pray Love (2010)
Ryan Murphy’s 2010 adaptation of Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling memoir of the same name had a hefty worldwide box office haul of $204 million, but that number does not reflect its quality. The story follows Gilbert who, in the wake of a messy divorce, decides to go on a year-long journey around the world in an attempt to find herself. It barely skirts the line of being a rom-com in the traditional sense—there are a few laugh-out-loud moments but it is focused more on Elizabeth’s self-discovery rather than finding love (although she does fall for Javier Bardem—because who wouldn’t—hence its inclusion on this list). Eat Pray Love would not have had a chance of working without Roberts, who imbues the onscreen Gilbert with a natural charm. And while it may not satisfy your cravings for a gripping rom-com, it will definitely make you crave some pasta.
11. Runaway Bride (1999)
Reuniting Roberts with her Pretty Woman troupe, Richard Gere and director Garry Marshall, 1999’s Runaway Bride was a massive box-office hit that was largely unable to repeat the magic of their first collaboration. Here, Gere plays Ike Graham, a journalist from the city who is writing an article on Roberts’ small-town Maggie Carpenter, who is notorious for leaving grooms at the altar and is expected to ditch another. Roberts is delightfully chaotic in the film, charming every man who crosses her path, including Ike. Had it not been powered by America’s then-favorite duo and character actors like Joan Cusack and Rita Wilson, Runaway Bride would likely have struggled to stay afloat.
10. Something to Talk About (1995)
Marketed as a light-hearted comedy about remarriage, Something to Talk About only borders on being a rom-com. It is equally, if not more, interested in exploring the dramatic sides of various relationships, from a cheating husband to a complicated father-daughter dynamic to a strong sisterly bond. Veering between comedy and melodrama, the movie centers on Roberts’ Grace King Bichon, a wife and mother who is left heartbroken after the discovery of her husband Eddie’s (Dennis Quaid) affair forces her to face the issues in her marriage. Underneath its superficial exterior, Something to Talk About is a thoughtful study of female empowerment and the process of rebuilding trust in a relationship. Despite Roberts’ charm, Kyra Sedgwick, who plays Grace’s more independent sister Emma Rae and who received a Golden Globe nomination for her performance, walks away as the movie’s MVP, easily stealing every scene she’s in.
9. America’s Sweethearts (2001)
America’s Sweethearts, which stars John Cusack, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Billy Crystal (who also serves as a co-writer), bears all the hallmarks of a typical mid-budget flick from the early aughts—entangled romances, Hollywood drama, and jokes that certainly haven’t aged well. Roberts plays Kathleen “Kiki” Harrison, the assistant and sister to Zeta-Jones’ movie star Gwen Harrison, who is going through a highly-publicized breakup with fellow megastar Eddie Thomas (Cusack) as they attempt to promote a disastrous upcoming movie. Surprise surprise, Kathleen harbors feelings for Eddie, and much of the film is spent watching the sisters compete for his love and attention. It’s unfortunate that at the height of her career, Roberts is given a supporting role that lacks substance in a movie that isn’t as good as it could have been. The whole affair is a case of the right ensemble with the wrong material.
8. Duplicity (2009)
Tony Gilroy’s follow-up to his debut masterpiece Michael Clayton comes five years after Mike Nichols first paired Roberts with the intensely handsome Clive Owen in the superior Closer. Duplicity is the type of movie that makes you feel like you have no clue what’s going on 95 percent of the time, but choose to stick with thanks to its wildly charismatic leading stars. The pair play former lovers and ex-government operatives-turned-corporate rivals who decide to team up and con their employers. The dazzling chemistry between Roberts and Owen is Duplicity’s saving grace. As they attempt to outsmart and backstab each other, it almost makes you forget how convoluted the plot around them is.
7. Everyone Says I Love You (1996)
There are many who have sworn off Woody Allen’s movies as allegations of sexual assault have long swirled around the filmmaker. And there are others who continue to appreciate his body of work and the performances his films have brought forth on the screen. In this case—his first and only musical rom-com—there are many (see, in addition to Roberts: Alan Alda, Edward Norton, Drew Barrymore, Goldie Hawn, Natalie Portman, Natasha Lyonne). The movie follows the complicated lives of a massive upper-class family playing out across New York, Paris, and Venice. It’s an homage to classic Hollywood musicals, full of borderline (but not quite) insufferable characters. Roberts plays an unhappy American living in Venice who gets wooed by Allen’s depressed divorcee. He wins her affection through various, admittedly somewhat creepy tactics. Roberts brings her usual charm, even if the viewing experience, for some, is compromised.
6. The Mexican (2001)
It may be easy to write off Gore Verbinski’s action rom-com as a misleading mess (it was sold to audiences as a road comedy). But it’s actually an unusual film that doesn’t fit within the confines of the typical rom-coms Roberts was known for at the time. Although stars Brad Pitt and Roberts are kept apart for most of the movie, their passion and chemistry shines through in the moments they share onscreen. While The Mexican spends far too much time focused on Pitt’s search for a treasured antique pistol for the mob, it ultimately belongs entirely to Roberts, as his estranged girlfriend, and James Gandolfini’s gay hitman, who bond after he kidnaps her on her way to Las Vegas.
5. Ticket to Paradise (2022)
Perhaps it’s the paucity of good contemporary rom-coms talking, but Ticket to Paradise is a wonderful romp that satisfies our cravings and just might restore our faith in the genre. Starring Roberts and frequent collaborator George Clooney, the premise goes as follows: a couple that has been bitterly divorced for 20 years are forced to patch things up when their daughter Lily (Kaitlyn Dever) graduates from law school and gets hastily engaged while on vacation in Bali. As these things go, they gradually begin to enjoy (or at least tolerate) each other’s company. Ticket to Paradise doesn’t attempt to reinvent the genre but still manages to be refreshing and fun as hell from start to finish. The pair’s natural chemistry is best put on display in a beer pong scene set to House of Pain’s “Jump Around” as they perfectly bounce off each other while hilariously showing off their drunken dance moves. Rom-coms are no longer in their flop era thanks to the power duo that is Julia Roberts and George Clooney (and MVP Billie Lourd, who plays Lily’s best friend).
4. Mystic Pizza (1988)
The movie that started it all, Mystic Pizza centers on three young best friends working at a pizza parlor in the titular small seaside town in Connecticut as they navigate the obstacles of life. Starring alongside fellow-up-and-comers Annabeth Gish and Lili Taylor, Roberts plays Daisy Arujo, an outspoken and carefree woman who falls for a wealthy man. Focusing on the sweet friendship at its heart just as much as the various romantic threads, Mystic Pizza is a delightfully comforting entry in the rom-com canon. The 1988 breakthrough served as a major turning point in Roberts’ career and serves as lasting proof that she was always destined to become a major Hollywood darling.
3. Pretty Woman (1990)
A sweet, free-spirited sex worker named Vivian Ward (a fiery, curly-haired Roberts) runs into Edward Lewis (Richard Gere, in his peak as a leading man), a lonely and obscenely rich businessman who hires her to be his escort for a week. Naturally, they fall in love in that short time despite their apparent differences. Garry Marshall’s 1990 film, inspired by Pygmalion, is a whirlwind romance for the books, and the chemistry between Roberts and Gere is electric. In its earlier stages, Pretty Woman was intended to be a grittier, darker version of the more comedic tale it turned out to be, and while that’s likely for the better, it has faced criticism in the ensuing years for its position on sex work and treatment of sexual assault. But for all its faults, it remains lauded as one of the greatest modern rom-coms, and it catapulted Roberts into superstardom and cemented her as household name. The film scored her a second Academy Award nomination, one year after receiving her first for Steel Magnolias.
2. Notting Hill (1999)
A moodboard staple and mainstay on Tumblr and Pinterest, Notting Hill is what dreams are made of. Literally, who hasn’t dreamt of falling in love with someone they met in a cute little bookstore? In the 1999 film written by rom-com master Richard Curtis, an American movie star named Anna Scott walks into a quaint London travel bookshop owned by mesmerizing hopeless romantic William Thacker (played by Hugh Grant, eternal heartthrob and king of ‘90s rom-coms). Like any traditional rom-com goes, the two polar opposites attract and try to make things work despite their vastly different lifestyles. Roberts was fresh off the success of My Best Friend’s Wedding and perhaps the only Hollywood actress of that era who could perfectly fill the shoes of such a meta role. She and Grant are a match made in heaven, and Notting Hill’s meet-cute remains one for the books over two decades on. It’s impossible to think of a line in cinematic history as amazing as “I’m just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her.”
1. My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997)
After a string of subpar rom-coms in the mid-’90s, Roberts made her triumphant comeback as the undisputed queen of the much-adored genre with My Best Friend’s Wedding. She plays a food critic who, after coming to the realization of her feelings for her best friend (played by a dashing Dermot Mulroney), sets out to sabotage his wedding to a young college student played by Cameron Diaz. Diaz’s bubbly, terrible-at-karaoke Kimmy makes the situation trickier when she asks Roberts’ Julianne to be her maid of honor. Roberts plays a heroine we love to hate; her actions are truly despicable but she’s so convincingly charming that it’s hard not to root for her. A deliciously chaotic film from start to finish, there’s no better showcase for Roberts’ comedic chops and pitch-perfect line delivery than My Best Friend’s Wedding, which rightfully earns its place in the pantheon of classic rom-coms and at the top of this ranking.
Jihane Bousfiha is a culture writer based in Florida. Her work has appeared in W Magazine, Vulture, The Daily Beast, Paste Magazine, and The Cut.
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