'Dying To Love You': all-too-familiar plot, cardboard characters

March 16, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

&TC There's a hole where the soul of "Dying to Love You" ought to be.

The CBS movie about a Maryland man who looks for love in the personal ads of a magazine and finds more than he bargained for is cookie-cutter, true-crime TV. It's superficial sex, gloss and one-dimensional characters moving from the mechanical kiss-kiss of their bedroom scenes to the predictable bang-bang of their fatal attraction.

The most interesting thing about the film, which airs at 9 tonight on WBAL (Channel 11), is how neatly it fits into the moralistic, cautionary chorus of messages that prime-time TV pumps out night after night warning viewers (especially men) about what happens if they have sex outside of marriage: "You might enjoy this Amy person at first, Joey Buttafuoco, but you have no idea of the agony ahead for you and everyone around you."

"Dying to Love You," which stars Tim Matheson and Tracy Pollan, is based on a real murder case. (It seems everything on TV, except "Barney & Friends," is based on a real murder case these days.)

The real case involved a Beltsville man, Roger Paulson, and Lisa Ann Rohn. They met when the divorced Paulson placed a personal ad in the Washingtonian magazine, and Rohn answered. She seemed like the woman of his dreams until he found out she wasn't who she said she was.

The failure of this film starts with the way Paulson (Matheson) and Rohn (Pollan) are scripted and carries straight through the two hours in the way Matheson and Pollan play the characters.

Paulson, a carpet salesman, is depicted as The Innocent. He's lonely, shy, sensitive and naive about his emotions, according to the CBS version of events.

And, Rohn is The Devourer. She's a lying, conniving, amoral predator who uses her sexuality to make Paulson her emotional slave. In case anyone misses the power dynamic, there's a bedroom scene of bondage done with the usual clumsiness of network TV, which is uncertain how far it can go but knows it has to go somewhere to keep within shouting distance of cable with its Madonna videos.

Great actors can sometimes bring some nuance to such cardboard, black-and-white characters. Matheson and Pollan are not great actors.

Matheson, in fact, is downright awful in this role. Emotional nebbish is not a color on his acting palette, you might say. He's just a little too good looking and his body language is much too casual and comfortable in scenes with women for us to believe his palms are really sweating. Pollan, perhaps best known as Alex Keaton's girlfriend in "Family Ties," is better. But she is still all one note: scheming.

The end result is that it's hard to feel much of anything when Rohn, with great predictability, kills Paulson and wounds herself to try to cover her crime.

He's dead, she's convicted of murder and sent to prison. A story like this done with some sense of the gray area where so much of life is lived should leave you wondering about large questions. What's the difference between passion that ends in love and passion that ends in murder? Or, don't all sexual partners "use" each other in some ways?

Instead, "Dying to Love You," leaves you wondering only about ** the mechanics of such "real-life" made-for-TV movies: If he's dead and she's not talking, how did the filmmakers know what Paulson and Rohn did together in bed?

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