The American-Jewish husband-and-wife team, Charles Shyer and Nancy Meyers (he directs, she produces, they write together) have specialized in making warm, lighthearted films that try to capture the charm and allure of classic Hollywood movies. But they also attempt to inject into their movies a healthy dosage of timely and relevant ideas, be they feminist, political, etc.
Their most successful film to date is Private Benjamin (l980), with Goldie Hawn as a spoiled Jewish princess who gains consciousness and independence after a bad marriage and a turn in the army. Two years ago, they remade MGM's Father of the Bride for Disney, with Steve Martin in the Spencer Tracy role, which was quite popular but not very good.
And now comes I Love Trouble, a pleasant enough, if totally undistinguished, confection of classic newspaper films of the l930s and l940s (specifically, His Girl Friday, l940), with a touch of George Cukor's Adam's Rib (l949) and Pat and Mike (l952), both starring the ever-sparring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. Recycling seems to be the filmmakers' strategy as there is also some influence from Hitchcock's North By Northwest (l959) and Charade (l962), the romantic thriller that starred the great Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn.
The age difference between the stars of the new film, Nick Nolte and Julia Roberts (practically a generation) is probably the only similar thing with the onscreen interaction of Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. Indeed, neither Nolte nor Roberts, two talented and likable performers, prove to be a match for their far more glamorous counterparts of yesteryear.
Nolte plays Peter Brackett, a seemingly smug, celebrity columnist at the Chicago Chronicle, who has just written a popular novel, White Lies. Roberts is a beginning reporter at the rival Chicago Globe, whose youthful idealism and dedicated pursuit of the truth forces Nolte to try to beat her to the story. Most of the first hour consists of montage and cross-cutting of how the two go separately about their jobs.
The story they cover initially concerns the derailment of a passengers train in which several people lose their lives, but it soon evolves into a case of corporate intrigue and conspiracy, in which top researchers and even Washington might be involved. At the center of the dark secret they trying to uncover is a genetically produced hormone that increases cows' milk productivity.
At first, Nolte and Roberts try to outdo each other, but when the case gets too complicated they decide to team up–sort of. All along, they continue to insist that their collaboration is strictly professional and that they are not sexually attracted to each other.
I Love Trouble tries to combine two different genres–romantic comedy and paranoid thriller–but only the former is somewhat engaging and neither is very convincing. The chief problem with the Disney movie is that its mixture of conventions of the comedy, romance, and thriller formats is incoherent and, more importantly, lacks real wit and sophistication.
Shyer and Meyers' writing is only a tad better than what we get on TV's sitcoms, except that their screenplay lacks vitality or many funny and brilliant one-liners. The filmmakers must have realized it, for their movie shows total reliance on the screen presence of its two stars.
I Love Trouble shamelessly exploits Roberts' long, beautiful legs. Whenever the convoluted story begins to sag, the camera caresses her legs–or gives her a flattering close-up. But I Love Trouble also shows Roberts' limitations as an actress. In some ways, this picture is a variation of her specialized role: a beautiful woman whose exterior toughness shields a more vulnerable and sensitive interior. But in this movie her role calls for greater energy, harder edge, and faster delivery of lines–all the qualities that Rosalind Russell (His Girl Friday), Barbara Stanwyck (in her Preston Sturges movies), and particularly Katharine Hepburn were so good at.
Timing also works against the movie, as it is released shortly after Ron Howard's The Paper, a film that I didn't like, but conveyed far better the rambunctious chaos and eccentric personalities of a city tabloid; the very first scenes of I Love Trouble, which are set in a newsroom, are especially weak.
The film's second part reveals the creaky–and phony–nature of its structure. Chase scenes, which are contrived and overproduced, are inserted almost mechanically, to pump some energy into the movie. And bickering scenes between Nolte and Roberts are almost too symmetrically alternated with flirtatious ones–all evidence that Shyer and Meyers don't really trust their material.
The stars' charisma help make their encounters intermittently entertaining, though the attempts at sparkling repartee are feeble. And the bottom line is that the movie has a soft, old-fashioned morality. At a weak moment, Nolte confesses to Roberts, “Because of you, I remembered how much I loved newspapering,” rehashing what Hollywood newspaper comedies have been saying for decades.
There is not enough trouble in I Love Trouble. Everything about the movie is too mild–and too familiar–beginning with the name of Julia Roberts' heroine, Sabrina, which, of course, is the title of one of Audrey Hepburn's best-known pictures.