In his latest film, Warren Beatty has loved wisely but not all that well. His infatuation with the 1939 "Love Affair," one of the great romantic weepies of its time, is well-placed, and his decision to faithfully remake such an openly sentimental and old-fashioned film is almost a brave one.
But though it is effective in fits and starts, this third version of that sturdy tale (the fourth, if you count "Sleepless in Seattle," which it in part inspired) never manages to be more than a reasonable facsimile of its progenitor.
For like all things light and airy, romantic fantasies turn out to be more difficult to construct than they seem. The memorable ones are as delicate and ephemeral as champagne bubbles, defying logic and gravity as they infiltrate our sensibilities.
The first "Love Affair," directed by Leo McCarey and starring Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer, managed this feat, and Beatty (who also produced and co-wrote with Robert Towne while Glenn Gordon Caron did the directing) has attempted to recapture the magic by closely following the original script.
But not even the kick husband and wife Beatty and Annette Bening must have gotten from re-enacting one of the screen's memorable liaisons has been enough to bring this "Love Affair" totally to life.
One of the intriguing aspects of this "Love Affair" is watching Beatty and Bening in what can be read as a version of their own relationship, acting out a kind of valentine to their own personal success as a married couple.
Beatty plays Mike Gambril, a former NFL star and now a sportscaster best known, if the TV tabloid shows are to be believed, as either an "aging playboy" or "an aging sports stud."
At the film's opening, Mike's engagement to powerful and glamorous talk-show host Lynn Weaver (Kate Capshaw) has just been announced, and the man himself is off to Australia for what is supposed to be a quick few days of work.
On the plane over, however, he encounters Terry McKay (Bening) when he drops his little black book and she archly comments, "I thought those things were extinct."
Herself engaged to lord of Wall Street Ken Allen (Pierce Brosnan), a financier whose yacht she is flying off to decorate, Terry is both attractive and seemingly immune to Mike's heavily practiced line of chat, a combination he finds intriguing.
Since most of the original "Love Affair" took place on an ocean liner, some fancy plot footwork is employed to get Mike and Terry onto a goofy Russian cruise ship, but the feat is managed and in the few days they have together, a kind of bond is forged.
Helping in the bonding is a quick visit to Mike's Aunt Ginny (Katharine Hepburn in her first feature appearance in nine years) who conveniently lives on a nearby island. A font of ancient wisdom, as was the delightful and elfin Maria Ouspenskaya in the 1939 version, Ginny opines that her nephew may not be the philanderer he appears to be. He may just have not met the right woman.
Terry and Mike can see the conflict between their increasing attachment to each other and their commitments to other people, but what neither they nor the audience can imagine are the other kinds of roadblocks the film's shameless plot will put in their path.
"Love Affair" wisely does not try to update things too much. A simple kiss is as explicit as things get romantically, and venerable devices like pages flying off a wall calendar to indicate the passage of time are lovingly employed.
But all this care is not enough to bring "Love Affair" to life. Beatty and Bening, though they do have their moments, mostly seem to be acting as opposed to inhabiting their parts, and Hepburn, gamely battling against the encroachments of age and disease, has a particularly tough time of it. Magic cannot be willed into existence, and despite everyone's best intentions, this film remains earthbound.
\o7 * MPAA rating: PG-13, for "one use of strong language." Times guidelines: The word is used by Hepburn, of all people, but otherwise this is the most chaste of romances.\f7
Warren Beatty: Mike Gambril Annette Bening: Terry McKay Katharine Hepburn: Ginny Garry Shandling: Kip DeMay Chloe Webb: Tina Wilson Pierce Brosnan: Ken Allen Released by Warner Bros. Director Glenn Gordon Caron. Producer Warren Beatty. Executive producer Andrew Z. Davis. Screenplay by Robert Towne & Warren Beatty. Cinematographer Conrad L. Hall. Editor Robert C. Jones. Costumes Milena Canonero. Music Ennio Morricone. Production design Ferdinando Scarfiotti. Art director Edward Richardson. Set designers Al Manzer, James Murakami. Set decorator Dan L. May. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes.
\o7 * In general release in Southern California.