Times Arts Editor

It's hard to imagine that the year will provide a more disappointing film than "Heartburn." Some films promise nothing and live up to the promise. But you had to figure that with Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep starring and Mike Nichols directing, "Heartburn" had to be something special.

Wrong. As Sheila Benson pointed out decisively in her review last week, "Heartburn" is a pain. Seldom has a Class A, platinum-plated movie made so many elementary mistakes.

As always, they begin and end with the script. The trouble with taking your own life as a text, as Nora Ephron evidently did, is that you don't yet know how it comes out.

If you do--and a dead marriage qualifies as a fait accompli --there are so many private and legal reticences built in that the truth falls, gasping for life, somewhere between full disclosure and free invention.

It's like starting to read a paperback you've found in a rented cottage, only to discover that a third of the pages, the last third, are missing.

For almost the first time I can remember, and despite all their matchless gifts for impersonation, Nicholson and Streep both fail to deliver characters who are comprehensible, let alone sympathetic.

It seems a cardinal rule of the movies that you had better provide characters who are sympathetic or villains who are hypnotically fascinating (in which case there had best be some sympathetic characters put at risk).

But, watching this film, it is impossible to know what to make of either this screen husband or this screen wife, and only possible to care because you know--or assume--that there was real pain in the originating events of the author's life.

"Heartburn" doesn't even work as an act of revenge, a last score-settling by an outraged and betrayed wife, which gave the novel its titillation value as Ephron was interpreted as having the last word on her marriage to journalist Carl Bernstein.

It may be that Nichols and the legal department between them have toned things down in subtle ways.

The lingering impression from the film is, in all events, that the hearts of both parties have remained concealed, the burns that destroyed the marriage left unexplained. But it is not only journalists who are charged with trying to tell the why of things. Novelists and scenarists have the same sailing orders, and the why's of "Heartburn" would fill a considerable logbook.

I kept thinking back to "Carnal Knowledge," that much-superior film from 1971, which also involved Nichols, Nicholson and the subject of marriage, or relationships at least.

Nothing much has changed, presumably. The male Nicholson is playing in "Heartburn" at least tries to commit, as the "Carnal Knowledge" Nicholson would not. But this time it is just commit, commit, commit, serially, overlappingly.

And what, indeed, is not made clear is why: whether the earnest intentions he seemingly brought to the marriage with Streep were smothered by domesticity and children (nice for the children to contemplate); or whether his new lady (seen as fleetingly and inaudibly as a ghost) is that blindingly perfect liaison, unsought-for but irresistible, or whether, as I think the author would have us believe, the man is an obsessive romantic with a very short attention span.

The viewer, having been invited--like the readers of that national publication--to peep, wants to know.

It's the more exasperating, of course, because the surfaces are so splendid, like store windows or commercials, brilliant in bite-size pieces that ultimately compile to so little.

It is a minor but significant lapse that, as Sheila Benson pointed out, the Nicholson character, a Washington columnist, never seems to do any work. By a supreme irony, one of the great strengths of "All the President's Men" (a tale not unrelated to the present endeavor) was its credible and detailed depiction of the way Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward did their investigative work. That was the movie, in fact.

But this character is the least cogitative writer since Burt Reynolds in "Starting Over," who didn't even seem to own or need a typewriter.

Those brief, shining moments--two childbirth sequences, some brittle dinner-table conversation--are splendid, although they are uneasily ranged, like the film as a whole, between romantic drama and farce. The most romantic marriages can end as bitter farce; the thing is, you can usually say why.

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