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Too much, too late

As Sabrina opens, a woman's voice purrs in breathless tones: "On the north shore of Long Island there was a big house--a castle almost," and it's clear you're being set up for a fairy tale. The only thing missing is an overstuffed, gilt-edged, leather-bound book with large gothic letters spelling out the film's title.

But what's wrong with this picture? Such contrivances don't fit in the movies anymore--do they? Aren't they the stuff of gentle romantic comedies from the '50s? Hasn't their heyday passed?

Apparently not. At least that's what the makers of Sabrina want you to believe. The valiant effort they make trying to revive Billy Wilder's minor classic isn't exactly wasted, but then again, with their sights set so low, it would be difficult to miss the target.

Sabrina (Julia Ormond) is an archetype character, a staple of the romantic genre; she often goes by more picturesque names like Cinderella, or Snow White, or even Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. But the general purpose she serves is the same: an ugly duckling (or poor, unappreciated classic beauty), she undergoes a transformation and eventually wins over Prince Charming. The twist selling Sabrina is that the man she thinks to be her white knight--dapper, carefree dandy David Larrabee (Greg Kinnear)--is a red herring. The real catch is David's curmudgeonly older brother, Linus (Harrison Ford).

The film's premise is both clever and cruel: Sabrina, the Larrabees' chauffeur's daughter, pines for the rich young David, but he never gives her the time of day. While she's away in Paris, David becomes engaged to an heiress (Lauren Holly), whose parents (Richard Crenna and Angie Dickinson) are involved in a lucrative business merger with Linus. Sabrina's return as a sophisticated goddess sets David's eye wandering, and in order to keep her from interfering with the marriage (and the merger), the cold, calculating Linus pretends to fall for Sabrina--at least until the papers are signed, when he can then dump her and get on with his lonely, sad life.

It's hard to imagine what bored little sprite put the idea in screenwriters Barbara Benedek's and David Rayfiel's heads that Sabrina needed to be remade. Granted, the original has some appeal, but it's hardly worth the reverential treatment the new version doles out. This updating isn't much of an updating, either. Aside from being filmed in color and containing references to things like the information super-highway, it sticks close to its predecessor in tone and plot.

It also suffers from the same bizarre casting weaknesses. Ford as the crabby Linus is almost as badly cast as Humphrey Bogart was in the original; neither realizes that a serious-minded part doesn't call for such dour grouchiness. There's no lightness to his performance, not even a pompous glee for coming up with such a wicked ploy. (Nicholson would have been a hoot.) Although Linus' hard demeanor fuels some of the best lines in the movie, that's no reason for Linus to come across as a caricature. (When he asks his secretary to obtain tickets for a Broadway musical, she hesitantly reminds him, "You know that means the actors will periodically dance about and break into song." She's not being sarcastic--just making sure she understood him correctly.) With his stoop-shouldered stance and completely idiotic bowler hat, Linus looks less like a real, formidable, modern Wall Street tycoon than a 1950s-era Norman Rockwell conception of one. Ford's a capable light comedian (Working Girl captured his puckishness in a business setting), and his flat, wry line readings sometimes work, but he's too good an actor to be stuck in such an un-heroic role, especially one that saddles him with yet another goofy haircut.

Ormond, on the other hand, brings a much-needed earthiness to the film; she grounds it the way Audrey Hepburn simply couldn't in the original. Sabrina is supposed to begin as a plain, guileless ingenue, then mature into a captivating siren. Since Hepburn never didn't have beauty and charm, it was always impossible to believe David (played by William Holden) couldn't instantly spot her bewitching qualities. By contrast, Ormond plays the graceless, gawky teenager convincingly, and makes her transformation equally believable. She's a very cinematic actress, and knows just how to get the camera on her side without pandering to the audience.

Probably the best performance, though, comes from the least likely source. Talk-show host Greg Kinnear, in his first major role, performs David as a vacuous, waggish rou with a winning smile. He may be a cad, but he's genial, mellow, and impossible to hate. That's probably the most important characteristic to David, since Sabrina is a film obsessed with not having any villains--they would just interfere with its feel-good sensibilities.

In fact, aside from having a harder edge than the original, Sabrina most often feels uncomfortable in its efforts to strike the right tone. Ford's casting as the ostensible antagonist is clear evidence of the movie's ambivalence about where it wants to go; you never believe that Sabrina's heart will really be broken because director Sydney Pollack undercuts all negative feelings. Even David's fiance is a wealthy, independent doctor, and you know the filmmakers would no sooner have David dump her than Linus would go through with his plan. (Ormond's full, lush features contrast nicely with Lauren Holly's Siamese cat-like bone structure, and you're meant to see that both of them are great. That's the point of Sabrina--no one is too old or too poor or too anything to find true love, and the only sacrifice you make is to set aside your foolish dreams and enter a blissful reality.)

When you think about it, only two alternatives could explain Sabrina's ultimate infatuation with Linus: She's either the most capricious, least effective judge of character in the Western hemisphere, or the unluckiest princess in all of folklore. I can't help but imagine Sabrina in 30 years, married to a workaholic 15 years her senior, always a little soused and frequently distracted by pool boys, tennis pros, and the occasional struggling actor. Sabrina makes a wonderful companion piece for another, better Billy Wilder film, Sunset Boulevard--she's who Norma Desmond became. It's kind of satisfying watching this movie and knowing that years from now you can say, "I knew her when she still believed in princes."

All in all, Sabrina is simply too sweet and elegant a film not to enjoy on some level. If you can't get into the convoluted romance, it serves as a pleasant travelogue of Paris. Otherwise, the posh Long Island settings seem like holdovers from The Great Gatsby. This is old-style, traditional light comedy, with less pretension and better writing that the puffy American President.

"Illusions are dangerous people," one character cautions Sabrina, "because they have no flaws." Sabrina conjures up its own illusions--of romance, of love, and business and reality. It's so good at it, you can almost overlook the flaws you know are there.

Sabrina. Paramount. Julia Ormond, Harrison Ford, Greg Kinnear. Written by Barbara Benedek and David Rayfiel. Directed by Sydney Pollack. Opens December 15.


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