If it does nothing else (and nothing else is pretty much what it does), "Dying Young" (citywide) makes clear to any peevish doubters why Julia Roberts gets the big bucks. The storyline for this "Love Story" knockoff may be as insubstantial as, well, "Love Story," but Roberts (with considerable help from co-star Campbell Scott) has the unstoppable watchability to involve us in it not only against our will but often against our better judgment as well.
Though Roberts may stretch her limits as her career progresses, at present, very much like Clint Eastwood in his prime, her range is not the broadest but she is peerless within it. Also like Eastwood, she tends to star in genre pictures, updated not-for-women-only fairy tales that trade heavily on the fact that audiences will invariably be pulling for her like nobody's business.
In this case, like the earlier "Pretty Woman," the fairy tale model is Cinderella. Hilary O'Neil may not be scrubbing kitchen floors when we meet her, but her prospects are as bleak as any scullery maid's. Surprising her beau in bed with another woman (the fool), she storms out of their South San Francisco apartment and moves back to Oakland with her nagging, Shopping Network-addicted mother (a brief appearance by Ellen Burstyn) who challenges her to "make something happen for once in your life."
Dutifully scanning the classifieds, Hilary spies an ad calling for "a young attractive female with some nursing skills." Putting on her highest heels and shortest red miniskirt (hey, this is Hollywood), she totters to the top of tony Nob Hill only to be told by a father of biblical sternness that, thank you very much, what his son needs is professional care of the highest caliber.
Fortunately for the plot, however, Dad has to jet off right that second on a high-level trip to Japan, and the son, having gotten a glimpse of those famous legs, decides he knows what's best for himself after all and hires Hilary for the job. His name is Victor Geddes and he is about to begin a wrenching series of chemotherapy treatments for the leukemia that has been crippling him for the last 10 years. Her job is to be a combination nurse-cook-companion. Romance, they both somberly assure each other, is nowhere in the equation.
We in the audience, of course, know better, not only because the ads have trumpeted it, but because these two are so magnificently unsuited to each other. He is working toward a Ph.D in art, she has barely heard of Van Gogh. His mother knew pianist Artur Rubinstein, hers collects tacky toy dolls. He is a devotee of nouvelle cuisine , she puts mayonnaise in her hair. How could they help but fall in love?
The producers have been extraordinarily fortunate in casting Campbell Scott as young Mr. Geddes, the prince in the castle on the hill. Having attracted notice with small parts in "Longtime Companion" and "The Sheltering Sky," Scott (whose mother, Colleen Dewhurst, has a supporting role) here manages a leading role with total aplomb. A more cerebral actor than Roberts, he takes a very effective low-key approach to Victor, managing to play both the weakness of disease and the awkwardness of a sheltered life while still maintaining enough virility to be a more than credible romantic lead.
As for Roberts, it is not so much her cascading hair or even her take-no-prisoners smile that makes her such a potent cinematic force. Rather, in the tradition of screen idols since the dawn of time, she manages to seem more alive than life itself on the screen, alternately projecting resilience and vulnerability as conflicting emotions play across her face like light on water. Moreover, though Roberts was nominally a prostitute in "Pretty Women" and is even more nominally a tough girl of the streets here, she has the advantage of being immediately recognizable (reminiscent of the way a previous generation recognized a much-put-upon Joan Crawford) as Our Girl.
Though Scott and Roberts have thrown themselves into these roles to the limits of their abilities, there is only so much life they can breathe into "Dying Young" (rated R for language). For one thing, the Richard Friedenberg script, besides being larded with implausibilities, can't figure out anything compelling for the leads to do between their introduction and the inevitable teary denouement, leaving the film to sag dangerously in the middle. And while director Joel Schumacher's unflinchingly tasteful gentility is welcome in some situations, it can also feel suffocating in others. Yes, it is good to see how much of a difference actors can make with flimsy material, but wouldn't it be nice if they had something with more than the emotional weight of a Twinkie to work on?
Julia Roberts: Hilary O'Neil
Campbell Scott: Victor Geddes
Vincent D'Onofrio: Gordon
Colleen Dewhurst: Estelle Whittier
David Selby: Richard Geddes
Ellen Burstyn: Mrs. O'Neil
A Fogwood Films production, released by 20th Century Fox. Director Joel Schumacher. Producers Sally Field, Kevin McCormick. Screenplay Richard Friedenberg, based upon the novel by Marti Leimbach. Cinematographer Juan Ruiz Anchia. Editor Robert Brown. Costumes Susan Becker. Music James Newton Howard. Art director Richard Johnson. Set decorator Cricket Rowland. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.
MPAA-rated R (language).