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Star Power Can't Outshine Dull 'Up Close & Personal'

'Up Close & Personal," the noisily touted new movie with Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer, is the latest in a long line of dramas about journalists, stretching back to the 1930s and beyond.

Redford plays a veteran TV newsman with a handsome face, an impressive resume, and a dubious record of broken marriages. Pfeiffer plays an eager new journalist with a pretty face, a mostly faked resume, and more interest in reporting than in romance - until she meets our hero, and becomes his teammate both in and out of the newsroom.

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Together they navigate the shifting currents of the TV news business, jockeying for high ratings and plum assignments while coping with bouts of jealousy and insecurity at home.

Sounds like dramatic material? Not the way this picture handles it. As entertainment, "Up Close & Personal" is so slow you'll wish you'd waited for the video version, so you could fast-forward past the boring parts.

As commentary, it's even worse. What prompted Hollywood to skewer TV for slickness, superficiality, and self-importance in a movie that oozes the same unfortunate qualities?

Which brings us to the one burning issue the picture does raise: Who's responsible for such a schmaltzy item getting off the drawing board and onto our neighborhood screens?

Hollywood-watchers used to debate questions like this all the time. Traditionalists said producers and writers deserved credit for good pictures and blame for bad ones. Believers in the "auteur theory" focused their attention on directors. Today's postmodernists look to broader sources, saying societies as a whole shape such pop-culture products.

"Up Close & Personal" is so dull that I suggest we point the finger at everyone in sight.

Let's begin with the stars, since they're the most prominent targets. Surely big-screen icons like Redford and Pfeiffer were aware this project had little going for it. Ditto for Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, experienced writers who must have been consciously slumming when they cooked up this hackneyed screenplay. And director Jon Avnet, whose credits include hits like "Fried Green Tomatoes" and flops like "The War," shares in the blame. This film partakes of his familiar style, showing too much tolerance for trite emotionalism.

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For good measure, I'll add a poke at critics like me, who bestow more attention on undistinguished star vehicles than they deserve. This gives them publicity while smarter, less marketed films struggle for audiences.

Is there an up side to "Up Close & Personal" to balance its bad points? Spectators looking for silver linings will have to content themselves with several fine performers in roles smaller than their talents: Stockard Channing as a hard-nosed newswoman, Joe Mantegna as a likable executive, and Kate Nelligan as one of the hero's former wives. Pop fans may enjoy the music-drenched montage sequences that punctuate the film's midsection, as if someone had accidentally spliced in a couple of MTV videos.

This aside, the picture is a mostly misfired exercise in predictable plot-spinning, and lazy reliance on superstars whose powers are less mighty than Hollywood would like to believe.

*"Up Close & Personal" has a PG-13 rating. It contains brief sex scenes, some violence, and more foul language than the PG-13 tag usually allows.

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