Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne are a pair of marquee names in American letters, but as a screenwriting team their days are numbered — or ought to be. For producer/director Jon Avnet's new movie, Up Close and Personal, they have furnished an almost indescribably worthless screenplay, ridden with cliche, frantically dull, and often monstrously stupid.
But then, their subject is television news, and TV news is all those bad things and more. Idiocy is the very stuff of pop TV. It begs for satire, as James L. Brooks understood in Broadcast News and Gus Van Sant did in last year's deliciously nasty To Die For. Without satire, without sharp jabs dealt to TV's hot-air gasbags and blow-dried chatterboxes, a big Hollywood movie about TV news is simply embarrassing, as Up Close proves. Didion, Dunne, and company have apparently tried to replace the indispensable sardonic edge with romance and action (even a feeble attempt at a car chase). It's a calamitous trade: The result is not funny, exciting, moving, believable, or even campy — just two hours of big, busy crud.
But the picture does have heavyweight stars (Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer), which raises the question whether they or their agents examined the script beforehand, or whether they committed themselves to the project on the strength of Didion and Dunne's reputation alone. Although neither possibility is edifying, one prefers to believe that they could not have read such a screenplay without recognizing its horrific shallowness and finding some way to extricate themselves from the doomed effort of actually filming it. In the law, ignorance is no defense, but maybe in movieland it should be acceptable as an excuse.
Redford, under a Ted Koppel-ish helmet of hair that creeps down his forehead like shaggy ground cover, plays Warren Justice, a former network reporter of Dan Rather-like intensity who, having burned out (and alienated most of the D.C. press corps), is now news director for a station in Miami. He sits at a darkened desk, mouthing lines to his airhead anchorman, who reissues them perfectly, like a well-coiffed parrot.
It's a well-paid, prestigious, dreary job — a comfy retirement pasture that, the script suggests, doesn't suit Warren's restless kinesis. But Redford plays him as casually friendly, always ready with a grin and a gentle aphorism to smooth over the daily ruffles of TV news-gathering (and wool-gathering); in his khakis and plaid shirt, he looks like a guy who got rich in the Reagan '80s and retired at 40 to his yacht on Biscayne Bay.
Enter Sally Atwater (Pfeiffer), a sassy young thing from Reno who declares, in her mendacious demo tape, that she aims to be “a star.” Her blond ambition and naked self-absorption ought to be raising red flags like hurricane warnings for Warren to ponder, but he seems to like her moxie — or is that her body? Redford's Cheshire-cat smile is properly ambiguous about the mix of professional affinity and sexual passion that makes up his interest in Sally (she becomes “Tally” after an on-air gaffe); it's also dulling. It blots out whatever urgency he might feel.
Pfeiffer opens with blond. By the end of the movie, in a short black do, she's looking like Monica from Friends. In between, her hair is forever changing — longer, shorter, curled, straight, frizzed, black, blond, bleached. It's as if she's visited a fire sale at a wig shop, and it's also — hugely — sexist.
On this point, Up Front crosses the line that divides merely bad movies from reekingly offensive ones. Whether Pfeiffer's fatuous character is dyeing her hair or changing her name or sleeping with her boss, she is never anything but an object to be modified, beautified, or fucked by men. She has no identity beyond rejecting her ordinary past and panting after a star-studded future. She's not three-, or even two-, dimensional.
Neither is Redford, which gives their love affair a certain perverse symmetry. Avnet's camera lingers pruriently on their deep kissing and their thrashing bodies, but it's like watching mannequins do it — utter, utter plastic, set to cumbersomely suggestive violin swells.
Tally jumps to Philadelphia, and a job at an “O and O” (a local station owned and operated by one of the networks). There she does battle with a seasoned anchorwoman (Stockard Channing, in a dark, elegantly savage performance; in fact, the only praiseworthy acting in the movie), who holds her in open, cheerful contempt. Warren rides to the rescue: His arrival in the newsroom is supposed to bring the shock of joy, but their happy reunion noises are drowned out by the squeals and groans of the lumbering script, which makes its plot turns with all the subtlety of an ancient subway train negotiating a tight corner.
Up Close is a flood tide of phoniness. Without character or any other ruling rationale, anything can happen. The picture might at least have been cheaply funny if Didion and Dunne had introduced some Martians for Tally to report on. Instead they send her to a prison riot, where she interviews disgruntled inmates. Warren, meanwhile, commandeers the control panel in the trailer outside.
“We're going national!” he says in the tight, excited voice George Kennedy used in all those Airport movies, which at least had the drama of a disabled aircraft struggling toward safety. Here it's just mannequins — whether brawling or screwing, who cares? Having shown, in scene after scene, the moral and intellectual barrenness of TV news, the movie becomes breathlessly thrilled at the prospect of beaming images of angry criminals to a glassy-eyed nation.
Warren, having gotten Tally into the big time, kites off to Panama, on the trail of Defense Department skullduggery (he still has “sources” deep inside the Pentagon); Tally moves to the anchor desk at a CNN-like operation. They will end happily, as a power couple — the Bob and Libby Dole, or the Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne — of broadcast news; rich, famous, and immeasurably silly. Or will they?
Some bad movies find second lives in video shops, but it's hard to imagine this one will ever reappear — even on network TV.
Up Close and Personal opens Fri, March 1, at area theaters.