Film review: Up Close & Personal

Redford and Pfeiffer are fun to watch, but even they can't seem to overcome by-the-numbers script.

Published: Tuesday, March 5 1996 12:00 a.m. MST

If nothing else, "Up Close & Personal" is a strong testament to what star power can do with mediocre material. Michelle Pfeiffer and especially Robert Redford are quite commanding in this romantic yarn about star-crossed television reporters.

But there is never any real heat generated, and the plot is, at best, a tepid, uninvolving, by-the-numbers soap opera. Why these two stars chose to make this particular movie is a mystery.

In fact, "Up Close & Personal" might have worked better as a comedy — and the comic-relief moments here suggest the stars could have done much more with it under those circumstances. (Redford and Pfeiffer were once attached to "The American President"; imagine what they might have done with that.)

The credits tell us that "Up Close & Personal was "suggested by the book `Golden Girl,' " which is the story of Jessica Savitch, a network news anchor who rose quickly and fell even faster under tragic circumstances.

But instead of telling that story, which might have given both actors some real meat to chew, it has been converted into a conventional May-September romance set against the backdrop of local and network TV news by screenwriters Joan Didion & John Gregory Dunne ("The Panic in Needle Park," the Barbra Streisand version of "A Star Is Born"). And it's packed with anachronistic and illogical silliness.

As directed by Jon Avnet ("The War," "Fried Green Tomatoes") it has become "Broadcast News" without teeth . . . or perhaps "The Way We Weren't."

Pfeiffer is Sally Atwater, who wants to become "a star." And the audition tape she sends to a Miami TV station suggests we're headed toward something like the recent Nicole Kidman vehicle "To Die For." But no such luck.

Redford is Warren Justice, a former network political reporter who has been reduced to the position of news director at the aforementioned Miami station. He sank due to his clashes with network bosses over ethics — he was determined to report news rather than be entertaining.

This is familiar Redford territory, and with "The Candidate," "The Electric Horseman" and "All the President's Men" behind him, the film's initial setup holds promise.

But it soon becomes apparent that he is merely Henry Higgins to Pfeiffer's Eliza Doolittle, as Justice takes untrained Atwater under his wing to turn her into a real news reporter — and she becomes emotionally dependent on him. ("She eats the lens," he says at one point.)

And, of course, love follows.

The film is loaded with ridiculous elements, as when Justice changes Atwater's name (from Sally to "Tally") for her first broadcast — and he does so for her on-air introduction without telling her! Justice also goes out on stories with his reporters, though he is supposed to be the deskbound manager of the news department. (Of course, in this film, everyone shows up at story sites — even an agent, played by Joe Mantegna!)

The supporting characters, played by such high-power talent as Mantegna and Kate Nelligan, aren't particularly well-developed, though Stockard Channing has some interesting moments as an aging anchor who has hit the inevitable "glass ceiling." (Pfeiffer's real-life sister Dedee Pfeiffer, who plays her sister here, has little to do.)

But for all these complaints, Redford and Pfeiffer are certainly fun to watch. Redford may still shy away from playing his real age (he's nearing 60, after all), but he hasn't lost any of that powerhouse screen charisma.

Now if he could just find a script worthy of his abilities.

"Up Close & Personal" is rated PG-13 for sex, profanity and violence.