Times Staff Writer

Two-thirds through “Violets Are Blue” (selected theaters), Sissy Spacek exclaims enthusiastically to Kevin Kline, “God, it would be a week in the Mideast and Central America!” You’d think she were talking about a Club Med vacation.

Ensuing unintended laughter makes the film, heretofore engaging, burst like a soap bubble. And like Humpty Dumpty after his fall, there’s no putting it together again. For all its heart-tugging, “Violets Are Blue” isn’t strong or original enough to sustain such a stumble.

Spacek plays a renowned news photographer, a contemporary Margaret Bourke-White, who has returned to her hometown, Ocean City, that lovely old Maryland resort, for her first real vacation in 13 years. Kline was once her sweetheart, and while both had dreamed of getting out and accomplishing big things, only Spacek made it. Early on, Kline unexpectedly became ensnared by responsibilities, inheriting the local paper from his father and marrying an already pregnant Bonnie Bedelia.


Yet, after so long a separation, the Paris-based Spacek and Kline discover that time has not lessened their attraction to each other. He represents the love and security she’s never found in her single-minded drive to get to the top; Spacek, in turn, triggers Kline’s frustrations, for she’s done all that he had wanted to do himself.

Cinematographer Ralf Bode captures the invitingly sunny, lazy resort atmosphere of Ocean City in summer--the charming old houses, the beauty and excitement of the boat races, the nostalgic fun of the amusement zone where Spacek’s father (John Kellogg) has run the bumper cars for 30 years. You have no trouble identifying with Spacek, burned out and eager to draw close to her loving family. And you have no trouble understanding the enduring spark between her and Kline, for they are both still young, attractive (and quite selfish).

But when “Violets Are Blue,” written by Naomi Foner from an idea conceived by debuting producer Marykay Powell, falls apart, we realize it’s been heading for trouble from the start. Since there’s little time to establish Spacek’s credentials as a celebrated photographer, we must take such claims on the basis of a rapid collage; but a glimpse of her photographing some little girls in Northern Ireland establishes her maternal yearnings, not her talent.

Unfortunately, the extravagance of these claims only makes her seem all the more unfeeling toward Bedelia and her son (Jim Standiford, as likable and believable an adolescent as you could wish). If Spacek had simply gone off to New York to pursue a more ordinary career she might have come across as more sympathetic. Since this isn’t the case, Spacek inadvertently sets up Bedelia to steal the picture.

Bedelia also benefits from some of Foner’s best writing, playing a gracious, pretty woman who knows herself and what she wants, a woman who loves quiet, small-town family life. In her understated way, she is thoroughly appealing. Also impressive is Kellogg, who has a well-written scene with Spacek that’s filled with fatherly plain talk.

A subplot involving Kline’s crusade to protect a natural habitat from condo builders might well have been developed to give the film greater dramatic impact. But it’s Kline’s problem, not Spacek’s, and “Violets Are Blue” is above all a star vehicle, albeit one that doesn’t allow Spacek to be as persuasive as usual. Currently garnering raves for his Off-Broadway Hamlet, Kline is as convincing as his generally unsympathetic leading-man role--not truly co-starring--permits.

As in “Raggedy Man,” Spacek’s director-husband Jack Fisk is capable with actors and is affectionately attuned to small-town America. He’s still better at getting full emotional value in intimate scenes rather than in controlling a film’s overall structure and pacing. Since “Violets Are Blue” (PG-13 for adult situations), despite some fine moments, doesn’t seem special or personal enough, it plays like a TV movie--an impression enhanced, unfortunately, by the triteness of Patrick Williams’ romantic score.

‘VIOLETS ARE BLUE’ A Columbia release of a Rastar production. Executive producer Roger M. Rothstein. Producer Marykay Powell. Director Jack Fisk. Screenplay Naomi Foner. Camera Ralf Bode. Music Patrick Williams. Production designer Peter Jamison. Costumes Joe I. Tompkins. Second-unit camera Don Sweeney. Film editor Edward Warschilka. With Sissy Spacek, Kevin Kline, Bonnie Bedelia, John Kellogg, Jim Standiford, Augusta Dabney, Kate McGregor-Stewart, Adrian Sparks.

Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes.

MPAA rating: PG-13 (parents are strongly cautioned; some material may be inappropriate for children under 13).