By Ty Burr
Updated June 14, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

Why can’t Hollywood make silly, swoony, smart romantic comedies anymore? Three reasons, I think. First, well-written screenplays have been driven into extinction by an industry hung up on concepts and cusswords. Second, the wishful idealism behind Happily Ever After never really recovered from the let’s-go-to-bed ’70s, the I-hope-that’s-just-a-cold-sore ’80s, and the can-I-see-your-medical-history ’90s. Third, and most crucial: Hollywood doesn’t make romantic couples the way it used to.

Think about it. Tracy and Hepburn, Powell and Loy, Cary Grant and anybody. Modern stars, by contrast, are treated as independent duchies by agents, studios, and the media — it’s a world in which Demi Moore’s salary carries more weight than her chemistry with a costar. Say what you will about the indentured servitude of the old studio system, but there was more pure connection between actors back then than in any of the bumper-car pairings of today. Three movies just out on video — Sabrina, Mighty Aphrodite, and Two If By Sea — try to recapture that lost grace, but in each case they get only half the equation right. And unlike loaves, half a romantic couple is worse than none.

Sabrina‘s better half is not whom you might think; despite the great hype surrounding Julia Ormond, the movie shows her in a holding pattern. The 1954 Billy Wilder original is considered a jewel in Audrey Hepburn’s crown, but truth to tell, she’s the best thing in it, playing a chauffeur’s daughter who catches the eye of two moneyed brothers. Ormond has the thankless task of stepping into Hepburn’s pumps in Sydney Pollack’s remake — and the shoes don’t quite fit. Elegantly pretty, with moony eyes and a beckoning smile, Ormond still doesn’t feel quite natural here — you can sense her holding back. And in her absence, Sabrina focuses on Harrison Ford, whose remarkably subtle performance is one of the most interesting he’s given in years.

Like Humphrey Bogart in the original, Ford initially plays Linus Larrabee as a dour workhorse who woos Sabrina away from his younger brother (a likable but insubstantial Greg Kinnear) solely to save a business merger. Unlike Bogie, though, Ford shows us the passion slowly breaking through the ossified surface; love is clearly the worst thing that has ever happened to this guy, and the actor makes his discomfiture quietly hilarious and ultimately moving. The new Sabrina was a dud in theaters, but, in keeping with Ford’s canny miniature work, it comes into its own on the small screen.

Woody Allen’s Mighty Aphrodite, by contrast, looks pettier than it did in the movie house. It’s a one-gag comedy with an admittedly good gag: A priggish New York sportswriter (Allen) discovers that the mother of his adopted son is a bimbo call girl (Mira Sorvino). Just as Sorvino’s Linda gradually gains in stature and humanity in spite of the sportswriter’s meddling, the role boosted the actress’ career, earning her an Oscar. But Allen’s nattering neurotic shtick is beyond tired by now, and such tedious conceits as an actual Greek chorus further prove that Allen is making movies for an ever-decreasing circle of literate snobs. Aphrodite might have worked if he had cast an actor opposite Sorvino. As it stands, it’s a one-woman show.

So is Two if by Sea — barely. The most ominous of Sandra Bullock’s recent career moves, it pairs the actress with comedian Denis Leary as loutish lower-class lovers hiding a stolen Matisse on a New England island. Leary (who co-wrote the script) has all the savoir faire of a dyspeptic rat terrier, and Bill Bennett’s direction is shockingly poor for a major motion picture; he lets the camera just sit there as the two leads futz around with their lines. But Bullock rises above her frumpy hairdo and Noo Yawk accent to connect — with us, if not with Leary. She has a goosey grace the lens just likes, even when she’s not doing anything particularly graceful. So here’s an idea: Why not cast her in a movie with Harrison Ford and Mira Sorvino, and let ’em duke it out in a menage a trois?
Sabrina: B
Mighty Aphrodite: C+
Two if by Sea: D-