Making Mr. Right

Sabrina doesn't mimic the old Hollywood feel, it revives it

For quite some time now, it has been obvious that, in the right role and under the right circumstances, Ford has all the smooth moves and slow-simmering charisma of a classic leading man. He has an impressive knack for light comedy and self-deprecating silliness -- look at the way he realizes what a goof he's making of himself when he tries to "dress down" for Sabrina by wearing an uncomfortable cap. (The image recalls the sage advice of humorist P.J. O'Rourke: "A hat should be taken off when you greet a lady, and left off for the rest of your life. Nothing looks more stupid than a hat.") And better still, Ford has mastered the art of somehow maintaining his dignity even as he acknowledges his own goofiness -- which, when you think about it, is just the sort of thing that Linus would also be able to do.

None of this is terribly surprising, considering what Ford has done in the past. What is surprising, even startling, is the way Ford makes Linus visibly thaw in the light of Sabrina's radiance, and how he conveys Linus' conflicting impulses of guilt, gratitude and quiet desperation. Ford has never before been so charmingly vulnerable on-screen, not even when he gazed dumbstruck at Greta Scacchi's come-hither carnality in Presumed Innocent. And he has never been so deeply moving as he is here in the scene where Linus is so overcome with love and self-loathing that he tries to convince Sabrina, and himself, that it was all a charade, all a nasty trick, and he couldn't, wouldn't ever love her. It's probably unfair to Ford -- and to Ormond and the movie as a whole -- to make too much of this scene. But everything here -- the direction, the writing, the acting, even the lighting -- conspires to create a wrenchingly vivid picture of a man who isn't merely pretending he's not in love, but absolutely certain that he isn't worthy of being loved. And Ford, who's three years younger than Humphrey Bogart was when Bogart played Linus, suddenly appears much older than his predecessor, as though the life force were draining from him as he kisses off his last, best shot at spiritual redemption.

Here and elsewhere in this handsome and heartfelt film, Sydney Pollack confirms that, after three decades in the director's chair, he remains Hollywood's most accomplished master of the grand romantic gesture. Just as important, he proves that he can make the very kind of movie that everyone says that nobody is making anymore. Sabrina is Hollywood classicism at its most luxuriantly enjoyable, complete with a slew of wonderfully talented and meticulously well-cast supporting players: John Wood as Sabrina's dry-witted father, Nancy Marchand as Linus and David's grande dame mother, Lauren Holly as David's fiancee, Dana Ivey as Linus' attentive secretary, Fanny Ardant as the Paris editor who takes a special interest in Sabrina. (Angie Dickinson is a bit much as the fiancee's mother, and Crenna is much too much as the abrasively crude father, but there's not enough of either of them to cause much damage.) The production values are suitably lush, and often as expressive as the performances. For example, Bernie Pollack, the director's brother, has designed costumes for Ford that speak volumes about Linus' temperament. And Sting, rapidly establishing himself as the premier soundtrack balladeer of our generation, offers a lovely rendition of the movie's theme song, "Moonlight," which has lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman, music by John Williams, and Oscar nomination written all over it.

But what really makes this Sabrina so special -- special enough, I think, to stand on its own merits as a true original, not a remake -- is the sense of melancholy darkness beneath all the bright gaiety, the intimations that a very lively game is being played for very high stakes. Prince Charming may not make it in time this time. Fortunately, he may have a Princess Charming who will meet him halfway.

Directed by Sydney Pollack. With Harrison Ford, Julia Ormond and Greg Kinnear.

Rated PG.
124 minutes.

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