"Prelude to a Kiss" is a wonderful play that has bee transformed into a dud of a movie. And the reason that it's a dud is that the transformation was incomplete. "Prelude" is almost exactly like Craig Lucas' play, which opened off-Broadway and short Lucas (whose only previous work on film was writing "Longtime Companion") wrote his own screenplay, scarcely changing a word, and Norman Rene, who directed "Longtime Companion" and who directed "Prelude" in its stage incarnation, resumed that role for the screen. It's a perfect example -- though one hardly needed a reminder -- that film and theater are entirely different genres.
"Prelude" is a postmodern fairy tale about love. Peter (Alec Baldwin) and Rita (Meg Ryan) meet at a party, fall instantaneously in love and get married. At their wedding, a strange old man (Sydney Walker), an uninvited guest, appears and asks to kiss the bride. Rita obliges, and in the second of that kiss their souls are transported into one another's bodies. Peter goes off on a honeymoon to Jamaica with a Rita, who, strangely hardened, no longer seems like the person he fell in love with. Rita is left behind, now trapped in the body of a man with lung cancer, cirrhosis of the liver and a life expectancy of less than a year.
The heart of the film is Peter's slow realization that Rita is a fraud, his search for and discovery of the old man and his renewed relationship with the real Rita, now locked in an unattractive body to which Peter, much as he loves what's inside cannot bring himself to make physical love. The kiss of the title is the one that Peter finally places on Rita's rheumy lips. It's a magical moment; it's like the princess letting the cold and clammy frog prince into her bed, and it's the psychologically necessary antecedent to the transformation that returns the old man and Rita to their proper bodies.
But this moment -- so tender and moving on the stage and on the printed page -- produced embarrassed laughter at a preview screening. What is the climax of the film and play -- its demonstration that love means something that transcends the accidents of youth, beauty and gender -- was lost on most of the audience.
While it expresses itself in front of us, the soul of theater is (usually) its verbal text, and much of what transpires on a stage requires our active participation. As a theater piece, "Prelude to a Kiss," with its bare-bones sets and costumes, moves at lightning speed. Encumbered by sets, costumes and a cast whose roles have been filled out from voices on a telephone to full-fledged supporting parts (the excellent cast includes Patty Duke and Ned Beatty as Rita's parents, Kathy Bates as the old man's daughter and Stanley Tucci as Peter's best friend), this filmed "Prelude" moves in time like a lead weight in a tepid, oxygen-deprived pond.
If plays ask us to use our imagination, movies put that faculty to sleep with brilliantly brought-to-life visual reality. On stage Peter's kiss has a primarily psychological and spiritual weight because we concentrate on what that kiss means. Film concentrates with such seeming verisimilitude upon the details of age and gender that it makes us think -- quite uncomfortably so for most viewers -- about what it would physically feel like to experience such a kiss instead of what it would mean to give it.
This film is beautifully acted. Baldwin, who created the role off-Broadway, reminds us that he's a fine actor who only happens to be a film star. The way in which he realizes the false Rita's true identity is gripping, and he's fearless in his scenes with the old man. Meg Ryan displays heretofore unsuspected depth as Rita; she captures the character's ditziness and the dark sadness that underlies her giddy eccentricity, and she's even better when she's inhabited by the old man -- she's believable as a human being desperate enough to hang on to life that she'd kill another person. Sydney Walker's old man and the rest of the cast as the couples' friends and relatives are equally persuasive.
That the film fails is simply because Lucas and Rene failed to transform the verbal into the visual. The evidence of the film -- its dependence upon the play and its postcard-pretty, obligatory settings -- suggests that director and writer didn't try hard enough. Or maybe they simply aren't cinematically talented enough. Even if one was moved by their previous collaboration, "Longtime Companion," one had to acknowledge that it was slow-moving, talky and a little obvious. Except for the last of those -- the meaning of "Prelude" may escape most viewers -- this film is all of those things, and less. It's just plain dull.
'Prelude to a Kiss.'
Starring Alec Baldwin, Meg Ryan, Sydney Walker, Ned Beatty and Patty Duke.
Directed by Norman Rene.
Released by Twentieth Century Fox.