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No individual could make a film as execrable as Up Close & Personal. Regiments of apathetic bunglers had to pool their ineptitude and cynicism to come up with a movie that, despite the participation of two appealing, highly regarded stars, yielded not a single note of applause at the packed public preview screening I attended.

According to the credits, Up Close was “suggested” by Alanna Nash’s Golden Girl, a biography of the late Jessica Savitch, the ambitious but unstable network newscaster. (Last year, the Lifetime cable channel aired Almost Golden, a hard-hitting Savitch biopic featuring Sela Ward.) All that remains of Up Close’s initial source is Michelle Pfeiffer’s role as an ascendant TV reporter. Screenwriters Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne fill the narrative void by recycling their own slapdash screenplay for the third (and worst) version of A Star Is Born, the 1976 Streisand-Kristofferson debacle. Altering the milieu, they re-roast that venerable Hollywood chestnut about an aspiring performer championed by the fading mentor whom she loves, marries, and ultimately loses. Even the film’s ending reprocesses A Star Is Born’s testimonial ceremony fadeout. I’m no fan of Didion’s writing—she flaunts her neuroses like a topless dancer brandishing new implants—or Dunne’s hack novels (True Confessions, Playland), but I never imagined they’d descend to this level of brazen self-plagiarism.

The screenplay’s character names expose the soapy underpinnings of this potboiler. Tally Atwater (Pfeiffer), a venturesome young Reno croupier, snags a menial job at a Miami television station on the basis of a faked demo tape. Veteran newsman Warren Justice (Robert Redford) immediately spots her potential (“She eats the lens”), and under his tutelage she develops into a polished broadcast journalist. After an eternity of foreplay, they become lovers, but as she rises to anchordom, his career stagnates. (We’re told he was once a big-time network newsman but got busted for being too uncompromising in his coverage of Vietnam, Nixon, Lebanon, and Carter.) If you’ve seen any of the previous versions of A Star Is Born, you know how it all ends.

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Like the goofy, round-robin kindergarten game in which one child begins a story and then, at a key point, turns it over to a classmate to continue, Up Close’s screenplay is cluttered with underdeveloped secondary characters and subplots. Kate Nelligan, as Warren’s ABC News commentator ex-wife, Stockard Channing, as a tough Philadelphia television reporter, and Joe Mantegna, as an agent for TV anchors, are painstakingly introduced and subsequently abandoned. There’s a Colombian refugee incident, a bewildering return to Reno prompted by Tally’s sister’s obscure romantic problems, a prison riot, and some Panama Canal intrigue—none of which turns out to be of much consequence. These episodes are merely backdrops for a marathon of wheezy romantic gambits: a rattled Tally spilling her purse and exposing a tampon; her tone-deaf bellowing of “The Impossible Dream” to amuse Warren; an interminable music video featuring the lovers cavorting on the beach and smooching in bed while Celine Dion tortures a soppy Diane Warren ballad. The Didion-Dunne dialogue alternates banalities (“Like it or not, this is a business!”) with conversations cobbled together from chunks of mediaspeak—“scorched earth,” “tough love,” “at the end of the day,” “jump off the high board,” “the moral high ground,” “window of opportunity,” and of course, the gratingly tautological title phrase.

Up Close doltishly assumes that moviegoers are enthralled by the nobility and glamour of television newscasting despite the fact that for two decades this ego-and-ratings-driven profession has been satirically deflated on-screen ( Network, Broadcast News, To Die For) and on television (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, SCTV, Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update”). Apart from a few stale jabs at a pumped-up anchorman and a lame allusion to a network news-hen called Wendy Chen (nudge, nudge), the film takes what Didion and Dunne would no doubt term the moral high ground, with numerous scenes devoted to Warren’s Jiminy Cricketlike efforts to prod his Galatea’s journalistic integrity. (“Where’s Tally Atwater? Whatever happened to you?”) In a culture where the money-grubbing, careerist machinations of Dan Rather, Diane Sawyer, and Barbara Walters are common knowledge, even the dimmest moviegoer is more media-savvy than the filmmakers comprehend.

Although off-screen Redford is ostentatiously high-minded, championing nature conservation, Native Americans, and independent filmmaking, he’s slumming here, as he recently was in the unspeakable Indecent Proposal. All he contributes is a winning smile, some stylish shirts, and a shock of what, by now, has to be tinted hair. Can this be the same idealistic actor who, early in his career, chose projects of substance like Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, Downhill Racer, and The Candidate? It’s depressing to observe this wealthy, 58-year-old actor walking through vacuous pretty-boy roles when he has the clout to do more challenging work and, to be brutally frank, is no longer very pretty. As in Dangerous Minds, Pfeiffer, an actress of uncommon depth and sensitivity, finds herself trapped in a shallow, generic role that forces her to resort to fluttery, endearing Sally Field mannerisms. Anyone who has seen her exquisitely nuanced performances in Love Field and The Fabulous Baker Boys will lament the waste of a rare artistic resource. In teaming these high-power stars, Touchstone/Disney clearly hoped to duplicate the erotic chemistry of Redford and Streisand in The Way We Were, but the only emotions this pair communicates are paternal pride and daughterly devotion. Given their respective ages, anything more passionate might appear rather unseemly.

I can’t begin detailing all of the film’s shortcomings—the assortment of unflattering hairstyles and colors that obscure Pfeiffer’s beauty, the garish cinematography and patchy editing, Jon Avnet’s impersonal, hired-gun direction, Thomas Newman’s overbearing musical score, which buries the love scenes under the aural equivalent of hot caramel sauce. But the prison sequence demands some closing-paragraph disapprobation. While interviewing an inmate about conditions in a Philadelphia penitentiary, Tally and a cameraman are swept up in a jail-house uprising. Given the speciousness of the previous scenes, it’s not surprising that Tally emerges from this crisis unscathed, apart from a smudge on her face and a splotch on her clingy white outfit. The real stunner is that, during a live transmission at the height of the riot, Avnet crosscuts between Tally and the prisoner she’s questioning. Where did the second video camera come from? Who is operating it? Does Avnet really believe that viewers won’t spot this glaring gaffe, or is he just too contemptuous of his audience to care?CP