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Love and Other Agenda Items

Early this year, in the psycho-gangster/vampire movie From Dusk till Dawn, George Clooney, of TV's ER, kept his head while all about him were losing theirs -- literally. As a slick thief saddled with a lunatic brother (Quentin Tarantino) and beset by demons, Clooney demonstrated poise under duress. His professionalism mirrored his character's as he barreled through bad lines and flimsy situations; he evinced uncomplicated pleasure in performing and a grown-up, humorous wariness that suggested an unspoiled experience of life.

Now, in One Fine Day -- a frazzled romantic comedy with Clooney as a New York Daily News columnist and Michelle Pfeiffer as an ambitious architect -- he proves he's a leading man. And I do mean leading man, not an overgrown brat or one more tremulous incarnation of vulnerable-boy James Dean. In this age of eternally teenage suburban superstars and endless gender confusion, he acts as if he enjoys being a guy of the world. What's disappointing about One Fine Day is that it restricts Clooney to playing a character less mature than the ambiance the actor himself carries into the movie, and it's too frantic to let his co-star enjoy being a gal or to let the two of them savor each other's company. The movie could have been called From Dawn till Dusk. It tries to be a screwball nightmare about two single parents who fall in love during one punchy workday when each has a career crisis and a kid in tow.

Clooney's character, Jack Taylor, is an arrested -- no, indicted -- adolescent, ogling and ogled by every pretty woman who wafts across the screen. He's actually a single parent in census category only. When Jack's ex-wife (Sheila Kelley) unexpectedly drops their five-year-old daughter, Maggie (Mae Whitman), off at his apartment for a week, this weekend dad can't boot up into parental-responsibility mode in time to get Maggie and her kindergartenmate Sammy (Alex D. Linz) on a ferry for a schoolday class trip. But Jack is about to take a giant growth leap. Sammy's also-divorced mother, Melanie Parker (Pfeiffer), who takes no guff from charming rogues, joins forces with him to keep their kids safe and sound while each of them jumps hurdles on the job.

The setup alone suggests how much weight this light comedy has to carry. Unless Jack gets an on-the-record source for a city hall expose, he'll be discredited and perhaps fired; unless Melanie pulls off a presentation to a couple of powerful clients, her future will be less than assured. Stir in their immediate friction, nascent magnetism, identical cellular phones and mutual awareness of the ever-shifting ground rules in the war between the sexes and you've got the ingredients for extravagant romantic confusion. Unfortunately, the romance doesn't emerge as strongly as the confusion.

The director, Michael Hoffman, made the underrated 1991 spoof Soapdish. Unlike Jack and Melanie, he can juggle lots of balls without fumbling them or showing his sweat, and he can root both farce and melodrama in spectacular, orchestrated chaos. One Fine Day wants to be an heir to the Tracy-Hepburn movies, not a mere "observational" comedy. But its update of battling-lover jabfests isn't that far removed from today's workplace and family TV sitcoms. You watch a pair of attractive pros attempt to emerge from one fraught situation after another with good humor intact. Call it a multi-situation comedy. Although Hoffman tweaks it with the visual zip and moment-to-moment urgency you expect from a real live movie and the stars give it some intensity, there's not enough of the magic you crave from a big-screen romance. Clooney and Pfeiffer have chemistry, but it never gets a chance to bubble; you leave the theater not in a glow but in a sort of agreeable fatigue.

The key to Clooney's performance is Jack's underlying serenity -- which in lesser hands might have surfaced as complacency. Jack manages to come off as life-enhancing even when he's irresponsible, feeding Maggie burgers and fries for breakfast and doing monkeyshines when he should be concentrating on his ex-wife's instructions. With his free-swinging physical ease, Clooney conveys Jack's undiminished capacity for happiness despite his painful divorce.

About Melanie, you're not so sure. Give Pfeiffer points for generosity as well as skill and savvy: She co-executive-produced this film and let Clooney run with the playful, amorous role of Jack without softening up Melanie, a woman who has become a control freak to survive.

Raising her son without help from her rock musician ex-husband, trying to please a child-hating boss, she's a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown -- except she'd never permit herself to go over the edge. But is it life or just a hyperactive screenplay that won't cut Melanie a break? Even her kid is a bigger headache than Jack's. Sammy can't sit still, enjoys jamming things up his nose and nearly wrecks his mom's big project, while the worst Maggie does is slip away after cats that catch her eye. (True to the gal-punishing bent of the script, that trait doesn't become calamitous until Melanie's in charge of her.) Pfeiffer plays Melanie's excruciating self-discipline, and the desperation under that self-discipline, with admirable honesty. Yet the writers haven't handed Melanie enough psychic "give" for Pfeiffer's healing soulfulness to saturate the material (the way it did in that stressed-out working-class romance Frankie and Johnny).

Melanie, who can't relax for a moment but learns that she can ask for help, achieves a small epiphany when she realizes she's growing to trust Jack; at that point, she lets herself smile. Pfeiffer does this warm, slow grin beautifully, but it arrives when Melanie's alone, in a cab. Of course, Melanie wouldn't expose her emotions to Jack so early on. But if Jack doesn't get to witness that kind of moment, it's as if he falls in love with only the physical beauty he keeps babbling about -- understandable, but not the stuff of scintillating courtship. The most flattering thing he says to Melanie is how awestruck he is over her looks. Despite the feminist themes strewn throughout the movie, it ends up with a pair of woefully conventional, glamorous opposites attracting: the buttoned-up broad and the hang-loose buck.

In producer Lynda Obst's recent book Hello, He Lied -- and Other Truths from the Hollywood Trenches, which could have been titled How to Succeed in the Movie Business by Really, Really Trying, one running topic is the imminent starburst of her male lead in One Fine Day: "The closer we looked, the more George Clooney looked like an old-fashioned movie star." Another is the need for Hollywood women to master the traditionally masculine game of hardball and to blend old-fashioned and chic feminine attributes. A young-woman friend of mine who read Hello, He Lied told me she found it as horrifying as it was enlightening; the mixture of Hollywood game rules, sisterhoodly sentiments and brutal pragmatism about manipulating the boys in town (from old saws such as "Thou Shalt Not Cry" to newer ones like "Thou Shalt Understand Thine Own Personal Style") left her depressed and exhausted.

Obst initiated One Fine Day and developed it with Pfeiffer's producing partner, Kate Guinzburg; they and the writers, Ellen Simon and Terrel Seltzer, have tried to make the real-life tensions of career women and mothers the stuff of escapist entertainment, and the result is fluffy yet gray. "Love in the '90s is a function of trying to meld agendas, work and baggage," which prevents "the lightness of romance," Obst has said. "This movie is meant to give license for romance to people whose lives appear to have no room for it." Well, from the evidence of this film, it's difficult to conjure the lightness of romance when you think in terms of "agendas" and "license." What's sad is that the movie's kernel of seriousness works against its heroine. When Melanie wishes she weren't acting the way she must act to keep her job and nurture her child, Pfeiffer has her most touching moment. But by that point, the movie itself has come down too hard on Melanie; it pushes her toward martyrdom when she comes down hard on herself.

Maybe the dramatic-comic equation would have balanced out on the sunnier side if the farcical bit players had more of a chance to register. Robert Klein brings his droll intelligence to Jack's befuddled shrink; Ellen Greene is uproariously brash as a scorned woman who figures in Jack's expose; and Jon Robin Baitz and Barry Kivel, as the big shots Melanie has to impress, have a screwy father-and-son rapport that gets funnier with each inscrutable pause. The film could have used more of them. To cover all the right "agendas," the moviemakers have lowered the unpredictable human factor in the supporting cast and the leads and thus undercut the comedy. One Fine Day is deft; it should have been more daft.

One Fine Day.
Directed by Michael Hoffman. With Michelle Pfeiffer and George Clooney. Rated PG.

109 minutes.

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