Prelude to a Kiss

“Ride at your own risk,” says Peter Hoskins (Alec Baldwyn) in a contemplative moment at the beginning of the new romantic movie Prelude to a Kiss. Speaking to himself, Peter immediately sets the tone of the film as a modern fairy tale about the mysterious and unpredictable nature of love.

The earlier part of this ambitious film is highly amusing, describing the natural evolution of the heated romance between Peter and Rita (Meg Ryan) from first encounter all the way to tying the knot. Meeting at a party, they immediately connect–their attraction is physical, emotional, and intellectual; Rita and Peter realize that they both like eating spaetzle.

All goes well until their wedding day, when a mysterious stranger (Sydney Walker), arriving out of nowhere, requests to kiss the bride. Rita acquiesces. After that kiss, the story takes an unexpectedly dramatic turn, when Rita and the Old Man exchange their souls. Peter soon realizes that Rita is not the woman he knew–or thought he knew.

Craig Lucas' screenplay, based on his l988 play, which originated off Broadway and enjoyed a successful run on Broadway, was directed by Norman Rene, who also staged the play. The filmmakers have tried to make as light and entertaining a film as possible, which may be the reason for the uneven quality of their work, for no matter how you look at it, Prelude to a Kiss is a pensive treatise about love.

In the transfer from stage to screen, the resonance of the work seems to have been slighted and its integrity compromised. Aiming for a broader appeal and larger public, the play has been opened up; there is a lengthy honeymoon sequence in Jamaica, for example. I have a feeling that the ideological subtext–love in the age of AIDS–was more explicit in the play; people who saw the stage production say the play was much tougher. In the screen version, however, the relationship of Peter and the Old Man is somewhat fuzzy and ambiguous. In one particularly unsettling scene, when the two men embrace and kiss, I sensed an uncomfortable feeling in the audience; some viewers laughed, probably out of embarrassment.

Even so, the two central characters are interesting. Working at a publishing firm that puts scientific information on microfiche, Peter is the more sober and intellectual type. He is an optimistic young man who miraculously overcame his childhood's traumas–a product of a broken home, he was moved from one family to another. Rita appears to be his opposite: a fun-loving bartender, who has not had a good night sleep since she was fourteen. But we later learn that Rita was a member of the Socialist Party, and in a touchy monologue she talks about her fears of bringing children into this world.

On the surface, “Prelude to a Kiss” uses a similar device to Ghost, but the resemblance between these movies is superficial. As strange as it may sound, a more poignant comparison would be with Love Story, the schmaltzy smash hit that starred Ali MacGraw and Ryan O'Neal. Like the l970 film, Prelude to a Kiss starts as a love story that follows the traditional paths of infatuation, courtship, and marriage. And in moments–but only in moments–the new film is also sentimental. Deep down, however, the new comedy-drama is anything but the cute and hollow movie that “Love Story” was. Prelude of a Kiss is a reflexive meditation on the true essence of love–the primacy of spirituality over physicality. Grounded in the zeitgeist, it's a modern fairy tale, a love story for the age of AIDS.

A chamber piece for three accomplished actors, Prelude to a Kiss features some excellent performances. There is strong chemistry between the stunning Baldwin, who had the advantage of playing the role on stage, and Meg Ryan. Ryan is more appealing in the first part, when she has to be cute and spontaneous, but she is less convincing in the second. As the old man, Sydney Walker renders a creditable performance, conveying the aimlessness of old age as well as fear of death. Patty Duke and Ned Beatty bring some necessary comic relief to their supporting roles as Rita's parents.

Despite the efforts to open up the play, the film's sensibility is still theatrical. And Rene's direction lacks the smooth and fluid style of his previous collaboration with Lucas, the great independent film Longtime Companion. Nonetheless, Prelude to a Kiss is always clever and often provocative and touching–and for these qualities, in a summer season of broad comedies and action fare, we have to be grateful.