"Now and Then" tells twin stories. One is a delight. One is a disastrous distraction.
As advertised, the movie is about four friends in two time periods: as girls, in the summer of 1970, and as women. Unfortunately, the friends-as-women story seems to exist only so that Demi Moore, Melanie Griffith, Rosie O'Donnell and Rita Wilson (also known as Tom Hanks' wife) can cavort in the previews. They are on-screen for barely a fourth of the film, and even when they are, they not only don't enhance the story of themselves as girls; they weaken it.
Demi Moore narrates. She plays Samantha, the writer of the clique, a famous novelist who just can't seem to stick with a guy. The other women are the pregnant Chrissy (Ms. Wilson), who's one-dimensionally domestic; doctor Roberta (Ms. O'Donnell), who has a boyfriend (that's all we learn of her adult personal life); and TV actress Teeny (Ms. Griffith), who's had several marriages (but we never find out to whom or why).
I'm sure most of us can say that half our childhood friends are nationally famous, right? That quibble aside, the adult story is a big tease. We're introduced to the women, and then we're dragged back by Ms. Moore's narration into a nostalgic revel in 1970. The movie, directed by TV vetera Lesli Linka Glatter from I. Marlene King's screenplay, suddenly gets to be quite wonderful.
Gaby Hoffmann ("Field of Dreams") is the young Samantha (i.e. the young Moore). She's going through a tough time with her argumentative parents. Christina Ricci ("Casper") plays tomboy Roberta, who's never gotten over her mother's death. Thora Birch plays the perky Teeny, a future actress for sure, who watches the neighboring drive-in from her roof and fills balloons with Jell-O to make faux breast implants. Ashleigh Aston Moore plays the plump Chrissy, whose sheltered life is a source of much humor among her friends.
(A notable but brief role: Cloris Leachman is a scream as Samantha's grandmother.)
The girls become obsessed with unraveling the story of a boy whose grave is in the cemetery. This dark subplot -- which, like the nostalgic music, pranks and dialogue, recalls "Stand By Me" -- is overwrought, but it works. There are touching, exciting and funny moments, and the young actresses are strong and likable.
Unfortunately, the spell is broken almost every time Demi Moore breaks in with another piece of trite narration. It's like: "Oh, it's Demi again. When are we getting back to that other movie?"
When we do get back to that other movie, we're cheated again. We learn no more about how these women became who they are, other than a few sketchy details.
It would have been fascinating to explore their adult lives, but instead, their stories seem contrived to reflect the characters' childhoods in the most obvious way possible.
What a waste. "Then" deserves three stars; "Now" would be lucky to get one.
'Now and Then'
Starring Gaby Hoffman, Christina Ricci and Demi Moore
Directed by Lesli Linka Glatter
Released by New Line Cinema
Sun score: ** 1/2