A Lesson In Star Chemistry

A LOVE STORY SET IN THE WORLD of TV journalism, Up Close and Personal is as pure an example of Hollywood star power as the movies provide these days. In the minds of Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, who wrote it, and Jon Avnet, who directed it, this may also be a story about what it takes for a small-town Nevada girl with lots of ambition and little know-how to make it in the high-pressure world of network news. It may touch on issues of journalistic integrity in a medium dominated by focus groups and ratings, and on the difficulty of maintaining standards in a sound-bite culture. But that's all window dressing. What "Up Close and Personal" is really about is the chemical reaction set off between Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert Redford. In a love story, if your two stars don't click, all is lost. When they do--as they do here--nothing else really matters. As a wowed Redford says about Pfeiffer's Tally Atwater, after her tryout as a Miami weatherperson, "She eats the lens." Add his charisma to hers, and together they gobble up the lens, the tripod and the audience's heart in one big gulp.

Redford plays Warren Justice, a brilliant former network star who's now the news director at a Miami station. He says he's dropped out of the big time because "it wasn't fun anymore." What that really means is that he had too many principles: according to the movie's mythology, he's too pure a soul to thrive in the craven new world of TV journalism. But he senses in Tally--this hungry girl who grew up in a Reno trailer park--the makings of a natural star. He teaches her how to find the soul of a story, how to find her own voice. It's a mentor-pupil relationship, and that's the problem initially: she doesn't want to be thought of as his "protege," but she's not sure enough of herself to know if she can make it on her own.

Their romance takes a long time to develop--almost as long as it takes to realize that "Up Close and Personal" is really the third remake of "A Star Is Born." Didion and Dunne, who wrote the 1976 Streisand version, have craftily recycled that sentimental favorite of two careers shooting in opposite trajectories. The big difference is that Justice is no self-destructive alcoholic; his Achilles' heel is his outspoken integrity. The part is tailor-made for Redford's brusque romanticism. He could, and has, played this role in his sleep, but Pfeiffer's edgy, quicksilver sexuality wakes him up: there's a playful flirtatiousness between them, a tactile sense of two people enjoying each other's company, that lifts this movie into the pleasure zone and keeps it there, even when Avnet resorts to a hackneyed "love montage" of our stars frolicking on the beach over barbecued fish.

That lapse is typical of the way "Up Close and Personal" bounces between sophistication and banality. Tally's initial klutziness is broadly overplayed. The plot lurches this way and that, detouring suddenly into a prison-riot melodrama when Tally is caught inside the Big House with a horde of angry cons. Curiously, the notion that Tally's success might have something to do with her drop-dead gorgeousness is never raised. Do we care? Not when the tears start flowing.

It's a satisfying, old-fashioned, somewhat misshapen Hollywood romance, with one refreshing contemporary twist. The ambitious women in this film--who include Kate Nelligan as Justice's high-powered ex-wife and Stockard Channing as Tally's competitor at the Philadelphia station where she lands after her success in Miami--aren't demonized in the old Hollywood fashion. It's no longer necessary to punish a woman for her success. Didion, Dunne and Avnet like their characters, and they share their slightly gaga excitement about the glamorous, fast-paced media carnival. It may only be a skin-deep portrait of that world, but what skin it is.