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When it comes to portraying the TV news biz, Hollywood is naturally drawn more to the glitz than the grit. Why make a big deal out of a fatal prison riot when you can have Robert Redford massage Michelle Pfeiffer's foot? Who gives a damn about Latin American politics when there are petty feuds between employees of TV stations to be exploited?

In the relentlessly dreadful Up Close & Personal, a crude young striver fresh out of a Reno trailer park takes her knocks, learns her lessons and blossoms into the polished and respected anchorwoman of a major network. It's based loosely on the Jessica Savitch soap opera, and it's more or less the kind of success story movies have been telling since the 1930s--only a lot less compelling. The most interesting thing about this mess is its unintended message, which is that the talking hairdos who read the news and a lot of people in motion pictures are obsessed by the same things--fame, power and market share. Unlike last year's satirical To Die For, in which boob tube wannabe Nicole Kidman knocks off her hubby to get ahead, Up Close is humorless and makes virtually no comment on celebrity culture: It simply personifies it.

The dazzling Pfeiffer has developed, arguably, into Hollywood's best actress, so it's disconcerting to see her misused here. As bumbling Sally Atwater, Pfeiffer is a bundle of raw ambition done up in bad mascara; Sally doesn't know journalism from astigmatism, but she wants to be a "star," and when a Miami TV station responds to her bogus demo tape, a career is launched. Through a TelePrompTer screwup, "Sally" is transformed into "Tally," a name synthetic enough to ring true with her; through the ministrations of the Miami news director, Warren Justice, she's transformed into an American icon--as well as his bedmate.

Good ol' Warren. Here's craggy Robert Redford again, on his patented virtue trip. Warren was once the chief White House correspondent for industry leader IBS. Warren covered the war in Vietnam like a champ. Warren pinned down Nixon, cornered Carter and strode unflappably into every crisis the world could think up. Warren is the soul of integrity--the Bob Woodward of the electronic crowd--so instead of selling out to the network, he went down to WMIA, Miami. There, Warren runs the show and, gritty guy that he is, plays chess with Cubans, apparently biding his time until he can devote every waking moment to the education of Tally Atwater. The script, which, unbelievably, was written by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, would have us believe that Warren is the mentor of all time--shaping his charge with tough love, teaching her the difference between the city council and the city dump and, yes, massaging her feet, once they get around to that.

Looking for a little relief? Try Joe Mantegna as a self-serving agent, or Stockard Channing as Marcia McGrath, the TV vixen who lays little Tally low when she moves on up to big-league Philadelphia. Certainly, Channing has the movie's best line. Looking down at Pfeiffer's drink, she asks: "Is that actually a banana daiquiri? Spring break, Lauderdale."

Would that we had more Marcia McGrath and less Warren Justice. Because while he may be Henry Higgins with a suntan, he's also an insufferable know-it-all, the kind of jerk who quotes from books he knows Tally hasn't read (we get the feeling Redford hasn't read 'em either--not even The Great Gatsby) and picks away at her poor, dumb carcass until he's completely reinvented her. This is integrity? This is what she loves? Apparently. "She eats the lens," Warren exults. Translation: Despite all the high-falutin' journalism talk, only one thing really matters after all: Tally is a babe.

Thus are conjoined the Airhead and the Shithead, in a romance meant to thrill (and choke up) audiences all over America. Instead, you might start hoping for a double drowning off Key Biscayne. Meanwhile, Up Close & Personal invokes the old A Star Is Born reversal: Tally rises, Warren falls, and by the time he traipses off to darkest Panama (all alone, naturally) to get The Big Story Only He Can Get, you might start wondering why he couldn't have left earlier--say, five reels ago. In any event, the writers and workaday director Jon Avnet (whose last masterpiece was the Kevin Costner vehicle The War) lay the usual melodramatic fate on their paragon of journalistic virtue. You've already seen it fifty times before, so why not say it? Ersatz heroes like Warren Justice don't get writer's block; they get shot. On camera, of course.

That requires the unfortunate Pfeiffer to deliver her obligatory "I am Mrs. Norman Maine" speech just before the fadeout. By then, you may be so desperate for a jigger of irony or a slug of satire--both potions denied--that you feel like scratching Michelle's lovely eyes right out of her head. "If it bleeds, it leads," the wise mentor Warren Justice tells lamebrained Tally, by way of explaining the daily priorities of TV news. But mainstream Hollywood clearly has a rule, too: If it's fluff, it's enough.

Up Close & Personal. Screenplay by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne. Directed by Jon Avnet. With Robert Redford, Michelle Pfeiffer and Joe Mantegna.

 
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