When Hilary (Julia Roberts), a sweet, sexy, rather undirected young woman from the wrong side of the tracks — in this case, Oakland, Calif. — answers a want ad and begins taking care of Vincent (Campbell Scott), a rich, lonely, leukemia-stricken resident of San Francisco’s Nob Hill, he treats her, at first, with a tone of highbrow disdain. Sullen and persnickety, obsessed with parading his intelligence, Vincent doesn’t seem like a very nice guy in Dying Young. Early on, there are some hard-hitting scenes in which Hilary ushers him through the devastating side effects of chemotherapy. We assume, naturally, that the disease, which he has been battling on and off for 10 years, is what’s making him bitter, and that as a relationship develops between the two characters, his warm and humane side will emerge — the side someone could fall in love with.

Before long, the action shifts to the picturesque seacoast village of Mendocino, where the two go for a kind of healing holiday. Away from the chemotherapy, Vincent takes on a ruddier glow. His hair begins to grow back, and he and Hilary begin sleeping together. Yet he remains, in essence, an effete snob — the kind of guy who thinks he’ll improve his uneducated girlfriend by giving her lessons in art history. Pretty Woman, of course, was about how the warm, free-spirited Roberts charmed just this sort of armored spoilsport out of his egotistical shell. Here, the filmmakers take the darker, more ambiguous characters of Marti Leimbach’s 1990 novel and try to plug them into an uplifting Pretty Woman package. It’s no surprise that the result refuses to gel into anything emotionally coherent. We never quite get beyond the feeling that Hilary is caring for Vincent simply out of compassion and pity. And so even though Dying Young is shaped as a romantic tearjerker, the movie — almost by subconscious design — seems intent on keeping Roberts a step removed from the messiness of involvement with a cancer victim. Hilary has another suitor, a woodsy, affable type (Vincent D’Onofrio) who seems far more in line with her down-home tastes. The film puts us in the uncomfortable position of wishing she’d ditch the sickly Vincent and go off with this healthier fellow.

As Vincent, Campbell Scott gives an intense, almost implosive performance. He offers us a direct line to the character’s self-pity and rage, and he has the most moving moment in this otherwise cold film: a tearful speech in which he explains that, despite the intermittent success of his treatment, he can no longer let himself hope — the agony of seeing his hopes dashed would be too great. Yet Scott, despite his delicate handsomeness, is a strangely asexual actor. He’s virtually devoid of romantic charisma. And so he and Roberts — who’s pretty much all romantic charisma — never connect. Dying Young isn’t a shameless weeper, but that’s not necessarily to its credit. In a genre like this, sometimes ”tasteful” just means confused. C-

Dying Young
  • Movie
  • 111 minutes