Roberts and Scott are antidote to phony elements in 'Dying Young'

June 21, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Awise man once pointed out that the key to success was sincerity, and once you learned how to fake it, you'd do just fine. And that's why "Dying Young" will do well: It fakes sincerity wonderfully.

Julia Roberts plays yet another mild variation on the persona she invented in "Pretty Woman" and refined in "Sleeping With The Enemy": A working class woman initially overmatched by someone from the higher precincts of the culture who ultimately, by virtue not merely of her beauty but also of her spunk and character, makes him need or love her.

In this case, however, the romance plays as a triangle. The members are the woman, the man and the disease.

The man is Victor Geddes, a wealthy young art historian, and the disease is leukemia, which is gobbling his corpuscles as hungrily as it can. Geddes, who faces the brutalizing rigors of chemotherapy, is in search of a nurse to get him through the ordeal. Thus, his eyes sunken, his hair vanished, hiding behind a scarf over his bare skull, he sets out to hire one.

Roberts is Hilary O'Neil, an earthy but undervalued Oakland woman who, having dumped her cheating boyfriend, crosses the Bay in search of a new job and life. Here's our first shot of what's fast becoming a classic Julia lick: a hair-do on legs. Tarted up in a tight red skirt shorter than Bull Connors' crew cut, chomping on a wad of gum, awkwardly navigating on the highest of heels and, that final trashy touch, wearing an ankle bracelet, she advances on the Geddes mansion which, of course, is on Nob Hill.

One look at those yards of legs and that damned ankle bracelet and noble, dying, rich and virginal Victor hires her. Victor is played by George C. Scott's son Campbell, but with his aristocratic profile, questing eyes and aching sensitivity, he's much more reminiscent of Keir Dullea, the cinema icon who starred in "David and Lisa" and "2001: A Space Odyssey." So the movie is like a big-screen, multimillion dollar "David and Pretty Woman."

What transpires between them is predictable and pathetic and crummy. And I enjoyed the hell out of it.

She nurses him through one post-chemotherapy session, which is depicted in its vomitous agony; what's really going on, however, is a double journey, similar to the double-helix diagrammed in "Pretty Woman" between Roberts and Richard Gere. Hilary is reclaiming him from the land of the dead and the hopeless, and he is reclaiming her from the land of the poor. She gives him sex; he gives her class.

Yet the sex isn't the thrust of the movie, which, directed by Joel Schumacher, is far too concerned with style, slickness, milieu and atmosphere to traffic in anything coarse. (The sex scenes are tasteful and discreet).

In fact, Schumacher has much better control over the lush and neurotically dense look of his film than over the plot materials themselves, which keep coming up with ideas that the director runs away from. The screenwriters keep introducing extra characters who don't interest Schumacher a bit. Vincent D'Onofrio, who, much fatted up, played a murderous Marine in "Full Metal Jacket," plays a working-class guy who falls for Hilary once she and Victor have moved up the coast to Mendecino. But almost nothing comes of this.

Even more ridiculous is a brief appearance by the over-rated Colleen Dewhurst as the Mendecino earth mother who takes one look at Victor and knows he's doomed. And Schumacher comes up with some truly delicious absurdities. At one point, Victor takes Hilary to a restaurant that's so refined it hardly bothers with food, but only serves candlelight. She, in turn, takes him to a working-class bar that's like the ninth circle of Dante's hell.

But what works works well enough to shuffle you past the absurdities? That's Roberts and Scott and their scratchy sense of need and reality. Somehow, when everything around them reeks of phoniness, you still believe in their fake sincerity.

'Dying Young'

Starring Julia Roberts and Campbell Scott.

Directed by Joel Schumacher.

Released by 20th-Century Fox.

Rated R.

** 1/2

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