She--Julia Roberts--is a ravishing, uneducated Oakland girl in short skirts who gets a job tending to a dying young man. He--Campbell Scott--is a rich, intellectual, leukemia-stricken San Francisco patrician ravaged by chemotherapy. They--Roberts and Scott--fall in love. It--Dying Young--is an ultraglossy, Joel Schumacher-directed Hollywood tearjerker that, given the maudlin possibilities, is a lot less offensive than you might fear. (At a time when so many people one knows are dying young--unaccompanied by violins and lush, seaside settings--the genre itself flirts with a certain obscenity.) But is relative tastefulness what anybody wants in a weepie? A movie like this has only one not-so-noble reason to exist: to make us sob. And it just doesn't deliver the goods. Even the forbidding title turns out to be misleading. How can a movie called "Dying Young" deny its audience a death scene? That's not just chicken, it's dramatically dumb.
The plot-thin screenplay, by Richard Friedenberg, has carefully crafted Roberts's role to merge with her "Pretty Woman" persona. Once again, the dynamics are about class. A working-girl heroine brings a rich guy out of his isolation, and gets a new wardrobe in the bargain (plus a picturesque holiday in the beautiful seacoast town of Mendocino, where our lovers escape for an idyllic interlude). Roberts is, as usual, sexy, warm and quite irresistible, and she's touchingly good in her big teary blowouts. But who is she? The movie never allows her to create a character one can locate in the real world. She's lower-class when it's convenient, then suddenly well acquainted with macrobiotic diets and funky country-chic dresses. She's pretty and she's nice, and that's about as deep as the character gets.
Scott's art-historian Nob Hill aristocrat has a similar air of unreality. (The movie's idea of the rich seems out of a '30s movie.) Why doesn't this wealthy, attractive guy, a former Yale track runner, have any friends? There's the intriguing suggestion that Roberts is the embodiment of his obsession with the redheads of his favorite painters Klimt and Rossetti, but Schumacher would rather give us hackneyed montages of frolics on the bluff than explore the darker, more obsessional nature of their relationship. (Somewhere deep inside this homogenized fantasy there's a kinky little movie screaming to get out.) Scott gives a crisp, well-crafted performance - he captures his character's protective coat of irony - but the two stars never work up a romantic lather. Their fine romance is pretty joyless. Maybe this weepie should have gone for all-out vulgarity. "Dying Young" promises a wallow and gives us an ankle-deep wade in tepid waters.