Love Affair, Warren Beatty's celluloid valentine to his wife Annette Bening, is precisely what one would expect from an egocentric remake of a remake: a soundly familiar, faintly effective mimicry, like a third-generation videocassette recording.
Only when the film embraces the grand essence of what made its predecessors popular _ embodied by none other than Katharine Hepburn in a too-brief appearance _ is Love Affair reminiscent of them.
Beatty had planned to update the 1939 tearjerker Love Affair (starring Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne) long before that film's 1957 retooling, An Affair to Remember (with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr), was immortalized in Sleepless in Seattle. Beatty and Bening aren't a sharp tumble from those famous romantic pairings when it comes to chemistry, but the 1994 version isn't as old-fashioned as it seems out-of-fashion today.
Love Affair borrows the title of the first incarnation and the script (sometimes verbatim) of the second. Beatty stars as Mike Gambril, a playboy ex-jock sportscaster whose engagement to another celebrity (Kate Capshaw) hasn't dampened his flirtatious ways. He meets Terry McKay (Bening) during the most glaring departure from the originals _ an airline flight that crashes and forces the soon-to-be lovers onto the cruise ship they should have been on all the time, albeit now in a different ocean.
Terry is also betrothed, but she and Mike arrange a date, six months hence, on the observation deck of the Empire State Building. That is, if both want to, and can, break their engagements. He makes it and she's on her way, when a twist of fate shatters her life. Terry breaks all contact, leaving Mike broken-hearted until the sort of four-hanky finale that probably wouldn't sell in Hollywood these days unless it was a remake.
Beatty as co-author (with Robert Towne) peppers the story with obvious references to his past days as a Casanova, before Bening settled him down. These knowing winks at the audience are cute, but they distract from the drama.
The unavoidable sparks between the stars are particularly jarring in the early scenes when Mike and Terry aren't supposed to click. Bening's expressive face has the camera-friendly glow of a Dunne or Kerr, but Beatty's dumb-shy act pales next to the sleek sensuality of Boyer and Grant. He's also a bit long in the tooth for such roles; more than one audience member was overheard questioning why Terry/Bening passed up hunky Pierce Brosnan for Beatty in the first place.
Supporting performances are solid _ comedian Garry Shandling shows wonderful sidekick promise as Mike's sarcastic agent _ but mostly get shoved aside while Mr. and Mrs. Beatty soak up the atmosphere and share soft-focus close-ups in the film's exciting locales, especially the lush paradise of Tahiti. Love Affair is a second honeymoon disguised as a movie project.
They can elbow everybody out-of-frame except Hepburn, whose performance as Mike's doting Aunt Ginny immediately invests a magical movie momentum that carries Love Affair long past her farewell.
Her 86-year-old body is frail, her voice even more halting and croaky than her last time on screen, in On Golden Pond 13 years ago. But that Hepburn backbone, which shines through her glistening eyes, is still erect and proud. And fiesty, judging from her contribution to the movie's PG-13 rating; a monologue capped by the classiest "f" word one could imagine. All Beatty and Bening can do during her scenes is sit back and look agog at this legend seated before them. What else could anybody do?
Love Affair Grade: B-
Director: Glenn Gordon Caron
Cast: Warren Beatty, Annette Bening, Katharine Hepburn, Garry Shandling, Pierce Brosnan
Screenplay: Robert Towne and Warren Beatty
Rating: PG-13; profanity
Running time: 115 min.