When a play that has won acclaim and popular success in New York City is made into a film, and when that film — as often happens — turns out to be a pretentious, lightweight failure, the sort of thing that barely registers on the consciousness of most moviegoers (I’m thinking of artistic flops like Fool for Love, Da, and ‘night, Mother), the press tends to respond in predictable ways. ”Why, it worked so much better on stage!” everyone grouses. ”They should never have recast it!”

Occasionally, of course, this is all true. Yet the big screen also has a way of exposing thin material. Under the close-up gaze of the movie camera, last year’s hit play stands revealed as this year’s coy mediocrity.

So it is with Prelude to a Kiss. Certainly, it would be hard to complain that the original work has been trashed: Craig Lucas, who wrote the play, adapted it for the screen, and the director is Norman René, who staged the 1990 Broadway production. The movie stars Alec Baldwin (who played the role on stage) and the spunky and able Meg Ryan, who replaces Mary-Louise Parker. What’s more, Lucas and René — who have worked as a team since 1980 — have had experience behind the camera: They made the sketchy yet gripping AIDS drama Longtime Companion. So why is Prelude to a Kiss such a washout? I’m afraid it’s because the play itself is a whimsically inept piece of high kitsch — a Twilight Zone for yuppie soft-heads.

It starts out innocently enough, as a rapid-fire neurotic romance — Annie Hall Lite. Peter (Baldwin) and Rita (Ryan) meet at a party, flirt like mad, grow obsessed with each other, and, within six weeks, agree to marry. Then it happens. Just after the wedding ceremony, a kindly old stranger (Sydney Walker) with a sad, weathered face wanders up to Rita, gives her a long kiss, and — voila! — the two instantly exchange identities. Each one now lives in the other’s body.

If this sounds like typical Hollywood-fantasy material, it is. The filmmakers, though, don’t even attempt to stage an intricate chain of mistaken — identity gags, the way Penny Marshall did in Big. Instead, they focus on the romantic-metaphysical side of things: Does Peter love Rita’s soul or just her body? What is love in the first place?

Living within the old man’s withered, diseased flesh, Rita learns to stop feeling ”scared.” As the movie presents her, though, it’s not as if she was scared. Her alleged fears — insomnia and a reluctance to have children — are dismissed in a few lines as cutesy idiosyncrasies. The characters in Prelude to a Kiss aren’t fleshed out as human beings; they seem like urban types concocted in screenwriting class. And so the ethereality of the premise never takes hold. The switching-body gimmick comes off instead as a gently submerged homosexual fantasy: A man marries a woman, only to see her turn into an aging father figure.

As the old man, the veteran stage actor Sydney Walker has a serene, angelic presence that is very pleasing. Yet what, exactly, is this old man doing here? Baldwin gazes at Ryan with such rapt, puppyish ardor that it would never have occurred to us he didn’t love her for her soul. Prelude to a Kiss is squishy yet blah. It teaches the characters a lesson they don’t need to learn. C-

Prelude to a Kiss
  • Movie
  • 105 minutes