Ben Hecht used to eat here,” high-profile columnist Peter Brackett (Nick Nolte) informs cub reporter Sabrina Peterson (Julia Roberts) at one point in I Love Trouble. He’s invoking the name of the legendary Chicago newspaperman and coauthor of that corking ink-stained comedy The Front Page when the two newspaperpersons turn up at the same Chicago lunch counter while competing on a hot story. ”I’m not your Girl Friday,” Peterson informs Brackett later as the couple squabble in their race to scoop each other, invoking the name of that snappy Front Page romantic remake starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell.
Nope. She’s not. Too bad. Because although I don’t expect Hechtian zingers from Trouble writers Nancy Meyers (who also produced) and Charles Shyer (who also directed) — the couple best known for such moist smilies as Baby Boom and the remake of Father of the Bride — I would like once, just once, for Roberts to really click magnetically with her costar and really get a chance to enjoy a grown-up wit. And the headline is, Roberts doesn’t get that chance in this slow-moving romantic feature story.
Now, I know that most newspaper columnists look more like Jon Lovitz than Nick Nolte. I know most beat reporters do not wear high heels when investigating the ruins of a fatally derailed train. I know we’re talking Roberts and Nolte here — high-gloss casting — and really, what an audience is looking for in the thick of the plot involving murder, hush money, environmental hanky-panky, a Las Vegas wedding, and a dangerous elevator ride (apparently this summer’s urban terror of choice) are those fabulous close-ups when Roberts’ eyes shine and she shudders prettily and then she smiles and her whole head sort of glows with mesmerizing welcome. We’re looking for the familiar sight of Nolte’s craggy, tanned face, his shaggy blond hair, his appealing projection of gruffness and self-regard, sexuality and decay. And we get that in Trouble, yes. Nolte salts his Tough Journalist interpretation with enough small smiles to convey that he’s got a heart, not just a blood pump. Roberts shudders and grins and beams her coffee-colored eyes, especially while tapping out stories and reading her computer screen.
But this unsnappy vehicle lets its two stars down, individually and as a team. I Love Trouble is not trouble-loving enough, and as a result, Roberts doesn’t have enough to do to stay sharp, Nolte doesn’t have enough to do to stay soft. The chemistry experiment doesn’t take; the two could be acting on separate soundstages. The jokes are thin, the comedy is spotty, and the elements of suspense are scattered chaotically. (Even Saul Rubinek, in a small, pivotal role, is uncharacteristically subdued.) The pacing is set at such a lollygagging speed — the speed of an out-of-shape, middle-aged newspaper columnist — that even a girl cub reporter in high heels could get to the punchline without mussing her pumps. When it could have made news, Trouble rehashes an old story. C