Too Close for Comfort Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer look good, but after an hour or so, this film starts to drag.

March 01, 1996|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

Somewhere in "Sunset Boulevard," silent-screen queen Norma Desmond bitterly dismisses these new-fangled talkie movie stars, saying, "We had faces then."

Memo to Norma: See "Up Close & Personal." There are some faces left.

And if you love faces, you'll probably love "Up Close & Personal," which gets into such dramatic magnification of the iconographic, mythological beauty objects Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer it should be called "Up Close & Nasal."

In other departments it's sadly lacking, both undernourished dramatically, over-nourished politically, fatuous, meretricious and not even very entertaining after the first hour or so. It drags.

Indeed, the film that "Up Close & Personal" most resembles is the lugubrious Barbra Streisand re-make of "A Star is Born," another exploration of a mentor-mentee relationship with heated sexual overtones and just a whiff of doom. And that one was written all those years back by the same team of married scribes, Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne. Of course, they're not just hacks: Novelists and essayists, they've etched two fairly precious reputations as explorers of modern despair.

But this thing speaks nothing of modernism or despair: It's cornball, '50s middle-brow "entertainment" without a bold bone in its body except for an annoying tone of whiny moral superiority.

Redford plays every woman's dream: craggy, passionate Warren Justice, news director at a Miami station, former radical network TV reporter (he nailed George Bush, what an accomplishment!) and stud-boy perfecto. What's so attractive about Warren, besides the face of Apollo after a good day at the races and hair of a color that not even van Gogh's famous golden wheat fields replicated, is that he knows.

Knows what? Knows everything. I mean, everything. He is a font of shrewd professional knowledge, as well as a bastion of press rectitude, always battlin' with management to tell the darn truth, even while seeing the utter potential in Sally Atwater (Pfeiffer), whom he immediately redubs "Tally Atwater."

What's so special about this gawky westerner in bad clothes with knobby knees? "She eats the lens," Warren snaps.

Indeed, she does. Pfeiffer's Tally is every man's dream, with those broad Danish cheekbones on which a blind pilot could land a 747, that buttery skin, those trapezoidal cheeks, that perfect mouth all under a creamy froth of blond hair and eyes so diamond shrewd they could get you to confess to crimes you'd never imagined. She's the fifth face on Mount Rushmore waiting to happen.

Alas, she is not so young anymore, and when she plays an ignorant 20-something ingenue for the first half hour, the quality of a critic's mercy is strained. This is a sophisticated, extremely gifted and intelligent woman, and it beams through her embarrassed attempts to play a rube.

Furthermore, early press reports linking the movie to Jessica Savitch's story prove totally unfounded: It has nothing to do with pressures of stardom and the crush of success; it never touches drug use or death wishes; as a critique of star-driven TV journalism, it's pretty fatuous stuff.

Instead, it's about a Henry Higgins molding a fair lady, teaching her both the art of journalism and the craft of television, with a subtext of usurpation, so that as she gets bigger, he gets smaller.

In the snappier early parts of the film, we watch the shrewd Warren whip her into a professional broadcaster, and the movie has some pizazz to it, particularly as Redford and Pfeiffer have good Pat-and-Mike chemistry and keep taking little bite-sized chunks out of each other and the Dunnes display a rudimentary skill for snippy banter; moreover, because they're not sleeping together -- that is Tally and Warren, not Joan and John Gregory, but who knows? -- there's an aspect of sexual tension that's quite interesting.

But then Tally becomes a star, they hit the sack, and the movie turns dreary and over-inflated. One of its conceits is particularly annoying: Whenever the two of them spend any private time together, the setting is always absolutely FABULOUS -- an empty ballpark, the roof of any skyscraper, a gorgeous beach where the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie. It feels like -- it is! -- the synthetic language of '50s Hollywood movies, where no banality of background was ever permitted to exist. The banality was all in the script, as here.

There's a lot of stuff that seems just like hooey. Could an agent really demand that a station manager hire one of his clients and then, when she bombed, arrange for her old boss to come up as a "consultant" and produce her personally? Would a guy go from national correspondent to local news executive? Is that a reasonable career track? Would he be as arrogant and unprofessional as Redford's Justice, who refuses to talk to people who don't recognize his name? Hard to believe, and "Up Close & Personal" doesn't make me believe it.

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